In Memoriam

Stephen R. Parks, acclaimed curator and bibliophile

Stephen R. Parks
Stephen R. Parks (Photo by Miko McGinty)

Stephen R. Parks, curator of the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 2004, died on July 22 at Yale New Haven Hospital after battling Parkinson’s Disease for several years. He was 81.

Parks was the last of the legendary rare book curators at Yale active in the 1960s who, after the opening of the Beinecke Library in 1963, helped to develop its existing rare book collections into one of the world’s great repositories of books and manuscripts.

He was the inaugural curator of the Osborn Collection, a vast assemblage of early modern British literary and historical manuscripts, including commonplace books, poetry, grand tour diaries, household and estate accounts, political and diplomatic correspondence, and annotated books that were gradually transferred to the Beinecke by the collector James Osborn and his family. Once Parks became the inaugural curator in 1967 he used his learning, judgment, taste, gifts from generous donors, and the Beinecke resources to augment the core collection further, until today it stands as one of the great early modern British collections in the world.

Parks was a Yale figure, known in all corners of the university where books are cherished, and one also prominent in book circles throughout the English-speaking world. At Yale he co-served for several decades as editor of the Yale University Library Gazette, edited “The Beinecke Library of Yale University” (2003), and was active with the Yale Library Associates, a group of alumni and friends whose interest is in helping to build and support Yale University Library’s special collections. Two anonymous donors have made major Yale Library gifts to Yale in his honor: one named the Stephen Parks Exhibits and Housing Workshop in 2015, and another endowed a fund for library conservation and preservation in his name just last year. 

Beyond the Yale Library, Parks was a guiding force behind both the Elizabethan Club and Manuscript, one of Yale’s senior societies, for half a century. He was librarian of the Elizabethan Club for 44 years, energetically developing its collection of rare books and manuscripts and editing the most recent catalog of its holdings in 2011. He served for 35 years on the club's board of incorporators, as its chair from 2009 to 2016, and was elected president of the club (1994-1996). He was made an honorary trustee of the Yale Library Associates for his contributions to Yale's libraries and was awarded the inaugural Elizabethan Club Medal for Distinguished Service.

Beyond Yale, Parks was an active member of clubs and bibliophile societies including the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston, the Grolier Club and the Century Association in New York, the Johnsonians, and the Athenaeum in London. An oenophile and a man of many parts, he was also a wine critic whose column on the subject ran in the New Haven Register for a decade.  

Born in Columbus Ohio in 1940, Parks majored in art history at Yale in 1961 and earned a Ph.D. from King’s College, Cambridge, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. He was a born collector, beginning as a child with stamps, and later turning to books, ceramics, and medals. With a modest graduate student budget while a student in Cambridge, he began a lifelong bibliophilic and decorative arts love affair with the English Gothic Revival. 

Many objects from his decorative arts and furniture collection now reside in collections, including the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery, and in the Stephen R. Parks Collection of Augustus Welby Pugin and the Gothic Revival, the largest such collection of rare books and manuscripts in this field, now held by the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University

Parks held sharp views, but to those who understood and shared his passions he was a generous, loyal, amusing, and kind colleague and friend. Elisabeth Fairman, retired chief curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, notes that she shared Parks’ “love of history and the evocative narratives that could be wrung from even the most ephemeral of objects” and relished “hearing his stories about the hunt for just the right piece to add to his beloved personal collection of British nineteenth-century ceramics — the majority of which he donated recently to the Yale Center for British Art.”

Perhaps Parks’ greatest contribution, even greater than his stewardship of one of the great collections of one of the great rare book libraries, or his donations from his own collections, was the galvanizing effect he had on generations of Yale students, who received their love of libraries and of collecting through him. 

I would not be at the Library today if I hadn’t gotten to know Steve when I was an undergraduate, first through the Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize and then through the Elizabethan Club,” said Basie Gitlin ’10, now the director of development for Yale University Library and Yale Collections. “Steve introduced me to a tradition of convivial bibliophily that continues to enrich my life and to inform my work, and I will always be grateful for his friendship,” he added.

James Prosek ’97, the award-winning artist, naturalist, and writer, remembers Parks as the one of the key influences in his life and career. “Steve’s gift to me and many other students,” notes Prosek, “was his ability to encourage us to make our own intellectual journeys, and to experience that beautiful feeling of discovery when you find a book or manuscript that can change the course of your life. He enabled and encouraged me to see the incredibly vast resources available at Yale.”

Thomas Olsen ’84, a professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz, echoes Prosek: “I am among a legion of scholars, curators, book people, and others whose direction early in life was guided in large part by Steve's knowledge and encouragement. Some learned about wine at the beloved Silliman wine seminars, some learned about the rare book trade or English decorative arts, and others — like me — got our launch in literary studies and scholarly editing under his tutelage. We are an informal club of sorts, and we all know how much we owe whatever we have accomplished to Steve’s generous mentorship when we were young.”

A requiem mass will be held for Parks at 11 a.m. on Friday, July 30 at Christ Church, New Haven, 84 Broadway. The service also will be livestreamed and information about how to access it will be found at  http://www.christchurchnh.org/

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