Friday, December 31, 2010

A Year in the Life of The Library History Buff

Since my retirement from full time library work in 2003 I have devoted more and more time to my role as a "library history buff".  So much so that it is almost like a regular job, only more fun. I describe myself as a library history buff in order to distinguish myself from library history scholars who approach library history in a much more serious and sophisticated manner.  I have a great deal of respect for these scholars and much of what I do depends on their excellent research and scholarship. My personal mission, however, is to promote library history to a wider audience inside and outside the library community. Many of my efforts have fallen flat, but like Don Quixote I keep on tilting at windmills. I have created a page on the Library History Buff website that provides an overview of the activities of a library history buff in 2010. Please note that although it may appear otherwise I also have a life outside of my activities as a library history buff.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen, Brown University Librarian

It must be tough to have Christmas Day as one's birthday. Henry Bartlett Van Hoesen (1885-1965) was one individual who suffered this fate. This Christmas will be the 125th anniversary of Van Hoesen's birth. He served as Librarian of Brown University from 1930 to 1950. In somewhat of a left handed compliment, Brown University President Henry M. Wriston said this about Van Hoesen: "With no qualities of showmanship at all, and without any appearance of the go-getter, Dr. Henry Van Hoesen has been one of the most progressive library administrators in the United States." The Special Collections Deparment of Brown University Library maintains an excellent History and Guide to the collections of Brown University. The section on the 1930s and World War II deals with the development of those collections under Van Hoesen. As a philatelist, I was impressed that Brown has a substantial philatelic collection that originated with a donation from Colonel Webster Knight during this period. The large drawer in the table in the image above was said to have housed the entire Brown University Library at one point. The collection shown behind the table is a collection of early books in the library reassembled by Van Hoesen in 1938.  Both the table and the collection are displayed in the reading room of the John Hay Library. It is not often that a library is able to preserve such an important artifact in its history. I wrote a post earlier in the year about Reuben A. Guild (1822-1899) who served as Librarian of Brown from 1848 to 1893.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pasadena Public Library 1890

Pasadena, California is being mentioned quite often here in Wisconsin because the University of Wisconsin football team will be playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The photograph above which is part of my collection shows the Pasadena Public Library building that opened on September 9, 1890.  This was the same year that the first Tournament of the Rose took place in Pasadena. This building was replaced in 1927 by a new building that was part of a civic center and which continues as the Central Library of the Pasadena Public Library. The 1890 building was declared unsafe in 1933 and was razed (except for the entrance arch) in 1954.  In 1955 the entrance arch was restored but it was severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The photograph above was part of a collection of photographs of Pasadena and surrounding areas taken by the Jarvis Gallery. A brief history of the Pasadena Public Library can be found HERE

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Origin of Vertical Files

Research by the Early Office Museum makes a strong case that the first vertical file cabinets were produced by Library Bureau, the library and office supply company founded by Melvil Dewey.  The earliest advertisement for a vertical file cabinet was found by the Museum in a 1900 Library Bureau catalog. Information in this catalog indicates that vertical files utilized the same technology pioneered in library card catalog cabinets which were also produced by Library Bureau. I'm very impressed with the web site for the Early Office Museum which does not have an actual physical location. The site and all the information on it is compiled and maintained by three volunteers. It is a potential model for a library history museum or a component of a library history museum.  The Library History Buff web site and the Wisconsin Library Heritage Center web site are other models.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Retrieval Systems

When the magnificent new central library building (now known as the McKim Building) of the Boston Public Library opened at its Copley Square location in 1895 it contained beautiful art work and some unusual technological innovations.  One of its unique features was a book railway system which allowed books to be transported mechanically from library stack areas to the library's Book Delivery Room where they could be picked up by those requesting them. An illustration of the railway book cart taken from an 1895 Boston Public Library handbook is shown above.  Almost all large libraries of this period had closed stacks and getting a requested book to a library user in a relatively short period was important. In 1895 the Boston Public Library was one of the largest libraries in the country and its multi-tiered stack arrangement presented challenges in this regard. The book railway solution that the library came up with was adapted from a system used by retail department stores to transport cash from multiple sales points to a centralized cash receipt office.  The Lamson Consolidated Store Service Company in Boston was the developer of Boston's book railway system which involved railway tracks around each stack level connected to a small elevator that went to the Book Delivery Room.  In 1927 the new central library of the Free Library of Philadelphia also utilized an innovative book retrieval system. A number of large libraries used pneumatic tube systems to transmit book requests to stack areas where library employees were stationed to retrieve books. The New York Public Library still uses pneumatic tubes for this purpose.  Modern day libraries face the same challenges as early libraries when it comes to book retrieval. The University of Chicago Library is constructing a massive automated retrieval system for its new book storage facility. A number of libraries are making use of RFID technology to implement the automated sorting of returned books.  I have a previous post about an early concept for a book retrieval system.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Great European Libraries at The Morgan

From December 10, 2010 through January 9, 2011 one of America's great libraries, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, will host an exhibit of photographs of Europe's great libraries. The Morgan commissioned Massimo Listri, a photographer from Florence, Italy, to take the photographs. The large format photographs which are almost five feet in width and four feet in height include among others: the magnificent Long Room of Trinity College Library at the University of Dublin (shown above with permission from The Morgan); the Malatestiana Library in Cesena, Italy; the St. Gall Monastery Library in Switzerland; the Laurentian Library in Florence, which was designed by Michelangelo; and the Vatican Library. A visit to The Morgan is a wonderful experience in itself, this exhibit makes it even more so.

When I learn of a special event such as the one above I check my collection to see if I have any related items. I have several items that I picked up at a visit to The Morgan a couple of years ago, but the most interesting item I have is a brochure for the traveling exhibit of treasures from the library that took place on its 50th anniversary in 1957. This exhibit included 108 items which were selected to show the range and quality of the library's collection. Three of the items were of special note. They included the Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the 1459 Psalter on vellum, and the Constance Missal (only one of three known copies). The exhibit traveled to seven of the nation's most prominent museums. A web page with links to information about the history of The Morgan can be found HERE.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Introducing the Chicago Public Library

The recent winter weather in the Midwest including Chicago brought to mind a small booklet that I have about the collections, services, and programs of the Chicago Public Library that was published in 1947 or 1948. It features a pen and ink drawing of a wintry scene in front of the old Central Library by William Mark Young.  When I first got the booklet I puzzled at the selection of such a daunting scene for the cover.  I'm still puzzled.  To see more Chicago Public  Library artifacts from my collection click HERE

Friday, December 10, 2010

Melvil Dewey's Library Postal Card

Since today (Dec. 10) is the birthday (159th) of Melvil Dewey, I thought it would be an appropriate occasion for a post about the  postal card which the United Stated Post Office Department (USPOD) issued in 1898 as a result of lobbying by Dewey. The pre-stamped postal card which Dewey lobbied for is the same size as a library catalog card and is commonly referred to in philatelic circles as a "library card". Dewey was largely responsible for standardizing the size of the catalog card at 12.5 cm x 7.5 cm and he felt that postal cards should also be standardized at a similar size. Interestingly, it was the early government issued postal cards (the first one was issued in 1873) that influenced the size of the catalog card, specifically its height. The "p" in "p-slip" stands for postal. Dewey took credit for getting the USPOD to issue a library sized postal card in an 1898 Library Journal article. Dewey himself made heavy use of the new library size postal cards.  The unused postal card above documents Dewey's move from Albany to Lake Placid after his resignation as New York State Librarian in 1905.  Postal cards could be purchased in a single sheet of fifty to facilitate pre-printed addresses and/or messages. The New York Library Club utilized library size postal cards to send out announcements of its meetings. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

License Plate Librariana

Thanks to the generosity of library consultants Bill Wilson and Ethel Himmel I have added a license plate to my collection of librariana. It is a Wisconsin vanity or personalized plate that reads "LIBRARY".  Bill and Ethel beat everyone to the "LIBRARY" plate when Wisconsin went to seven letters and numbers several years ago. They already had a "LIBARY" plate. I've seen a variety of library and book related messages on personalized plates but you can't beat just plain "LIBRARY". There have also been a number of states that have specialty license plates which benefit or promote libraries. Several are depicted above. If you have an image of a library related license plate, I would like to get a copy. Contact me at

Monday, December 6, 2010

ALA's First San Francisco Conference 1891

In 1891 the American Library Association held its first conference on the West coast in San Francisco. It was the thirteenth conference of ALA, and Library Journal called it the least effective of any of the annual meetings of ALA. ALA President Samuel S. Green, who had stepped in to replace an ailing Melvil Dewey, said that there was so much entertainment the members were not fit to do any work. He suggested that future conferences be held at quiet, "less seductive places". [Source: Dennis Thomison's A History of the American Library Association 1876-1972 (ALA, 1978)]. Taking Green's advice, ALA did not meet again in San Francisco until 1939, 48 years later. In later years, San Francisco was, not surprisingly, one of the most popular conference sites for ALA. I've had the pleasure of attending six conferences in this wonderful city. Probably due to costs, ALA has not met in San Francisco since 2001. However, ALA will return to San Francisco in 2015. The book shaped publication shown here is the ALA Handbook of the San Francisco Meeting 1891.  It measures approximately 3 1/2 inches by 5 inches and is less than 25 pages in length, a far cry from today's enormous conference programs. This particular copy was discarded from the Library of the American Library Association and came to me via the Library History Round Table auction at Library History Seminar XII.  It was donated to the auction by Norman D. Stevens. I have a previous blog post about the 1891 conference. I also have an online exhibit of ALA's history which includes artifacts from other ALA conferences.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Otis Hall Robinson (1835-1912), Rochester University Librarian

Happy birthday to the man who put the hole in library catalog cards. Today marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Otis Hall Robinson who served as Librarian of the University of Rochester Library from 1868 to 1889. Robinson is noted more for his advocacy for library instruction than for his idea for dealing with the annoying tendency of library users to remove catalog cards and put them back in the wrong order (or to keep them for later reference). But lets not underestimate the importance of that idea. How often has a single idea or practice been adopted by every library in America. Robinson's plan called for punching a hole in the lower left corner of each catalog card and running a rod through all the holes to prevent the removal of the cards. Later with the development of standard catalog cabinet drawers the hole was moved to the center of the catalog card. Although French librarian M. Pincon had similar thoughts, Robinson's holes (which were larger than the rod) were more effective. The catalog card above (a Harvard sized catalog card) started out with the hole to the left but was moved to the center later.

Robinson is listed in the Dictionary of American Library Biography (Libraries Unlimited, 1978) where there is an excellent article about him by Edward G. Holley. There is also actually some information on the University of Rochester Library website about Robinson (although it is easier to find through Google than their website). Both sources provide a good picture of the challenges and limitations of academic librarianship in the 19th century. Robinson was exceptional in his views on serving the library and information needs of students. Even so, the library was only open a few hours each day.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New York Society Library Charging Ledger 1789-1792

Earlier in the year there was a great deal of publicity about a couple of overdue books at the New York Society Library (NYSL) which had been borrowed by George Washington. I even did a blog post about it here. The NYSL has recently launched a new component on its website which makes available a digitized copy of its first charging ledger which covers the period 1789-1792. In addition to the digital images of the pages of the charging ledger, there is a link to each individual user in the ledger which takes you to more information about the individual including a listing of the books checked out by the individual. Users of the NYSL who are listed in the ledger include George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. There is also a link to each book checked out by the user with information about the book and who else checked out the book. All in all, it is an extremely well done project. In September of this year, I attended Library History Seminar XII, a national meeting of library historians, and a thread which ran throughout the conference was the historical importance of preserving library circulation records. Noted library historian Wayne Wiegand promotes an approach to library history which emphasizes the library in the life of the user in contrast to the user in the life of the library. Historians are able to utilize charging ledgers such as the one at the NYSL to approach library history in this manner.  The online charging ledger of the NYSL can be utilized as a research tool and also as learning tool for library school students and those interested in library history. As is noted on their website, there are additional charging ledgers for later years that have also been preserved at the NYSL. When you visit the NYSL website take time to look around, it is an excellent website. Permission to use the image of the first page of the charging ledger shown above was granted by the NYSL.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

MA State Library Recalls Law Books 1855

The State Library of Massachusetts was established in 1826. By the 1840s the space in the Massachusetts State House for the library was greatly overcrowded. One solution was to "farm out" duplicate materials to other libraries on the condition that the material could be recalled at a later date. Between 1853 and 1856 an addition to the State House was constructed which provided additional space for the State Library.  The pending availability of this additional space prompted the State Library Board of Trustees to recall its loaned material in 1855. The envelope and enclosed letter featured here were sent to the Law Library of Harvard University requesting the return of materials loaned to that library. An additional reason for the return of the books was the preparation of a new catalog for the State Library. The envelope above is a pre-stamped envelope.  These envelopes became available from the United States Post Office Department starting in 1853. They were heavily used by libraries. This postal item is the "Library Cover Story" for December on the Library History Buff website.