The Low Library in Shanghai

Did you know that there was another Low Library in Shanghai? That this library was similarly made possible by a gift from Seth Low (and his brother)? And that it was also closely connected to Columbia?

From the St. John’s University campus map, Low Library in the center, left. United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia Records, Yale University Divinity School Library.

In 1886, Francis Lister Hawks Pott joined St. John’s College, Shanghai, as a teacher in what was then a small school offering instruction in Chinese. Just a couple of years later, in 1888, Pott became president and began to make changes: St. John’s College grew into St. John’s University; instruction became bilingual and eventually switched to English as the primary language; the school registered its program in Washington, DC and thus became the first Chinese university to grant bachelor’s degrees. In support of all this growth, Pott had to engage in aggressive fundraising. In 1904, Pott announced a gift from the Honorable Mayor of New York City Seth Low and his brother William G. Low. With these seed funds, there would now be a Low Library in a new campus building, Yen Hall. The Low Library in Shanghai would eventually move to its own building, one built with funds collected during a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Dr. Pott’s presidency in 1915, and Low Library became “one of the best college libraries in China.” Pott served as president of St. John’s University, Shanghai from 1888 to 1941 (an even longer tenure than Butler’s 43 years at Columbia).

How did Pott get Seth Low to support his school in Shanghai? Seth Low’s father, Abiel Abbot Low, made his fortune as an importer of silks and teas from Canton, China. In 1894, the sons donated a hospital in Wu-Chan in their father’s memory. An investment in a Chinese university, and in a library in particular, would seem to match Low’s interests. Pott was also a fellow Columbian, a member of the Columbia College Class of 1883. He often visited his alma mater and served as a speaker at Chapel in the Morningside campus. In securing Low’s contribution, Pott could presumably encourage others to follow the philanthropist Mayor’s example to support his school. As he once confessed, “I find it difficult to find people whose altruism reaches out to the Far East.”[1]

Francis Lister Hawks Pott, CC 1883. Scan 5149. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Pott (CC 1883) was also a personal friend of Nicholas Murray Butler (CC 1882). In the Nicholas Murray papers, there are a number of letters from and to Pott, including one in which he tells Butler: “It is pleasant to be remembered by my old preceptor who guided me through the intricacies of Kant’s Critique.”[2] While at St. John’s, Pott sent many students and graduates to Columbia, including diplomat and international judge V. K. Wellington Koo (CC 1908, PhD 1912, LLD 1917). Pott was a founding member, and later served as president, of the Columbia Alumni Club in China. In 1929, during Columbia’s 175th anniversary, he received an honorary degree in Sacred Theology.

During the Japanese occupation in the 1930s (see Pott’s letter to Butler below**), some buildings at area universities were taken over and used as barracks. However, Low Library remained in operation and opened its doors to outside students, temporarily serving as “The Low Library of St. John’s University, being the joint reading-room of the East China Christian Colleges and Universities.” The library continued to serve students until 1952, when the Communist Party shut down St. John’s. Nowadays, some of the original St. John’s campus buildings are still in use as part of East China University of Politics and Law.


** In the Columbia University Libraries’ Facebook post, Herb Sloan pointed out that “Pott’s 1932 letter to Butler referred to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, which didn’t take place until 1937. In fact, Potts was probably referring to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.” His correction is most appreciated.


Pott to Butler, May 6, 1932. Nicholas Murray Butler papers, Box 310, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[1] Francis Lister Hawks Pott to Nicholas Murray Butler, February 3, 1916. Nicholas Murray Butler papers, Box 310, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[2] Francis Lister Hawks Pott to Nicholas Murray Butler, December 20, 1911. Nicholas Murray Butler papers, Box 310, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.