Farewell Lecture from Alice Prochaska, Yale Librarian

Building a great research library: one decade’s perspective on three hundred years of collecting.

A talk by Alice Prochaska, Yale Librarian, for the American Trust for the British Library given at The Cosmopolitan Club on April 15, 2010.

Alice Prochsa

Alice Prochsa

In 2001 Yale University celebrated its three hundredth anniversary.  It was an auspicious time in the university’s history and an auspicious time for its library.  For me personally, it could hardly have been a better time to join Yale as University Librarian, succeeding an honorable line.

According to Yale legend, the congregational ministers who came together “to found a college in this colony” in 1701 brought with them gifts of books, which they laid symbolically on a table at the house of the Rev. Jeremiah Dummer in Branford Connecticut.  Yale legend, as you can see, is generally memorialized in stone, glass, wood and metal, preferably with a combination of both images and uplifting sentiments; and the exuberant Sterling Memorial Library, which opened in 1930, spares no available surface.  [slides 2 and 3] From the point of view of the Library, the fact that these ministers, soon followed  by such munificent donors as Elihu Yale and Bishop Berkeley, made their gifts in the form of books is a great affirmation of the role of the library in the educational life of the university.  I do not intend this short talk to be heavy on library theory.  But if I have a theme, it will be to pose one or two questions as I go along, about how the role of the library has changed in a research university.  And, since this is an audience of friends of the British Library, one of the greatest of research libraries, it may be pertinent to keep in mind the question of how a national library does and should differ from a university library, and how the constituencies served by the two different sorts of library may affect the way they develop.

The Yale University Library in the first decade of its fourth century is (using figures that are still current but may change with economic exigency) the second largest university library in North America, second to Harvard in the number of its volumes and its staff and in some years exceeding even Harvard in expenditure on library materials in physical and electronic form.  The Library of Congress and New York Public Library rate as larger research libraries also, and then in the wider world of research libraries the British Library, and the national libraries of China and Russia are also huge.  If rankings matter, it might be accurate to place Yale among the top ten to fifteen research libraries in the world, with its thirteen million volumes and millions of special collection items housed in a range of library buildings and departments which taken together form one of the richest aggregations anywhere of primary research material.  The organization I am describing here is a relatively centralized federation of library staff and collections housed in some twenty buildings, of which the Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are the two best known.  Other departments, like the very distinguished Cushing Whitney Medical Library for instance, are generally found within buildings that are ‘owned’ and run by their parent schools and departments, not library real estate.  All departments and staff of the University Library system, however, with the single exception of the Law School’s Lillian Goldman Library, report to the University Librarian.

Libraries, like other organizations, grow asymmetrically.  They respond to the needs of their users, to gifts and opportunities and to the constraints of space and budget; and over time they throw up new challenges.  Around the time when I arrived at Yale, the collections had long since outgrown the available space and if this was to continue to be a great research library urgent measures were needed to accommodate it physically.  In the fourteen floors of stacks in Sterling Memorial Library, renovations had finally introduced proper climate control for the first time, but the installation of air-conditioning ducts had removed approximately the equivalent of one whole floor of shelving space and the building work left the collections in a truly filthy condition.  Dirty books were piled up on book trucks and overflowed from their logical positions on the shelves; faculty and students complained mightily, sometimes with visits to the president of the university, that they could not find what they wanted.  But they had also protested against the construction of a new off-site shelving facility, erected during my predecessor’s regime.  And the most influential faculty members were unmoved by such triumphs of organization and sheer hard labor as the retrospective conversion of Yale’s many card catalogs to automated form, or any of the other technological innovations that were laying the basis for better management of all the collections, in all their many formats.

When I was interviewed for my job, the search committee’s $64,000 question was whether I thought digital collections or books were more important.  This in a world where the advance of electronic technology was absolutely inevitable and was creating vast new possibilities for scholarly enquiry, but at the same time publishers around the world were continuing to produce books in unprecedented numbers.  At a seat of universal learning and ancient values such as Yale, there was, and there remains, no choice but to embrace all formats in which new knowledge can be derived and created.  Among my tasks at the beginning of the twenty-first century has been that of balancing budgets in order to ensure that the requirements of research and teaching in all disciplines could be met.  An equally important task, and one that has brought much satisfaction, is that of building a multi-talented staff: those who can read, select and catalog materials in multiple languages, those who can repair fragile manuscripts, maps and photographs so that they will survive for centuries, some who understand the intricacies of copyright and licensing, and those who work at the cutting edge of technology, in a zone frequently defined as “scholarly communications”.

An important segment of staff skills, present often in the same individuals who can also do most of the tasks I have just mentioned, is that of working with academic faculty and students, to ensure that the resources of the Library are an integral part of the educational process. This, it seems to me, is one of the great rewards of running a research library that is embedded in the life of the university: the opportunity to engage closely with the processes of research and learning.  If it is the collections that make the Library what it is and help to draw scholars and students to Yale, it is the constantly developing, dynamic relationship between the collections and the learning process that has certainly brought me some of the greatest job satisfaction.  Immeasurably enhancing that sense of reward has been the way in which generous donors have made it possible for us to build spaces where the relationship between library and users can adapt and grow.  Above all, the new Bass Library and Wright Reading Room, and the Haas Family Arts Library with its marvelous facilities for the display and use of special collections, have transformed hitherto inhospitable spaces into places where students gravitate , and librarians can provide services in state-of-the-art environments.  [show slides] As an aside, I would remark that this relationship between collections and learning is cultivated in a completely different way in a national library, where the process of building and publicizing collections is much more autonomously contained within the Library and among its staff, and the connections with users have to be made in different ways.

I could spend the whole of my time this evening telling you more about the work of the research library, but I want to move on to the topic of the collections themselves, and pick out for you some examples of the great resources that our librarians have built up and work with.  These are often  resources that benefactors like some among you this evening have provided, or made it possible for us to acquire.  In my mind, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of friends like the Yale Library Associates, the University Librarian’s Development Council, or the American Trust for the British Library.  The continuing appreciation of the importance of library collections, and the all-round support that groups of this nature provide give us constant encouragement and refreshment.  Such groups also bring continuity to the life of the organization, reminding fresh generations of library staff, administrators and students, what the library and its collections have meant to previous generations, and why it is important that the record of human activity in all its diversity should endure.

I’ll start with some of the collections held in Yale’s Manuscripts & Archives department, housed in Sterling Memorial Library.  I have been working there myself recently as a researcher, and my appreciation of these wonderful collections of personal papers and institutional archives is quite fresh.   The archives go back to the foundation of Yale University: they embody the continuous history of the university as no other collection at Yale can do.   They include papers given over the years by alumni and friends of Yale, ranging from Charles Lindbergh (who as a Connecticut resident though not an alumnus, appreciated the service he got when researching in the library and left his papers to Yale) to Henry Stimson  Cyrus Vance [Show picture of Vance with LBJ], and William Sloane Coffin.  My own research has quarried the papers of Yale men who worked as “monuments men” and advisers to the “Roberts Commission” on the preservation of Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives during the Second World War. Their service with the Allied forces in North Africa, Italy and then in France and Northern Europe, was a hard and often heroic slog to protect the legacy of western civilization.  In some ways it stands as a metaphor for the importance of the work of the library in which their personal papers now reside.

A long history of collecting and preserving collections of national historical importance in this way helps to induce among potential donors a sense of pride in becoming part of this great legacy. I recall an occasion when I worked at the British Library, and we showed off our manuscript collections to Lady Antonia Fraser and the late Harold Pinter, two wonderful people who have demonstrated staunch friendship to the British Library over the years.  Harold Pinter bent over the letters of the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, and said quietly, “I would like to be among these great men”.  So it has been at Yale. More recent gifts of personal papers that have enriched our collections include an astonishing array.  I will mention just a few examples from the past decade.

In 2004, Anne Bullitt the daughter of the diplomat William Bullitt, who had been US ambassador to France and the Soviet Union, as well as a friend and co-author of Sigmund Freud, gave her father’s papers to Yale with a fund to enable us to have them catalogued.  As the work of sorting and cataloguing progressed, it turned out that the collection included the papers of Bullitt’s second wife (the mother of Anne): the colorful journalist and political radical Louise Bryant.  Until we rediscovered them, Louise Bryant’s papers had been thought to have been lost. With her previous husband John Read, author of Five Days that Shook the World, Louise Bryant traveled to Russia during the First World War and witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution at first hand.  (You may recall the portrayal of John Read and Louise Bryant by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in the film Reds.)  Here are a few samples of this research treasure trove.

Another example of deepening and enriching research resources comes from our Africana collections.   The eminent Yale sociologist David Apter has generously given to us his collection of photographs taken when he was a young man researching societies in West Africa at the time of decolonization. [Show Apter slides]  Apart from demonstrating that Professor Apter could easily have commanded an alternative career as a photo-journalist, these images now form part of a growing body of material from Africa: several collections of early postcards, the videos of an important documentary television series made in the last decade of Apartheid, and not least, a remarkable body of publications in some 190 African languages.  Some of these have been gifts, and some purchased.  Together they form a critical mass of material that will enrich African studies not only at Yale but for any visiting scholars and increasingly through digital dissemination.  We recently received support from the very generous founders of the Arcadia Trust, which is based in London; and among the work they have financed is a catalog of our rare African materials, most of which turn out not be catalogued anywhere else.

Among several important collection-building projects based at Yale, where the material is actually created by the Library, the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies is notable.   The archive has been going for over twenty-five years, but I mention it among our recent acquisitions both because we are continually adding new interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, and because it is another example of how one collection’s strength can form the basis for growing research depth.

The curator of the archive has forged links with the Auschwitz museum and with the Jewish museum in Berlin, opening up Yale’s material to a wider public and at the same time enabling our own scholars and students to share in material and projects based in Europe.  Further, our curator of Judaica collections has been adding to the resources for the study of Jewish history by collecting archives and “memory books” from vanished communities in Italy and North Africa, and building up among other things, a valuable accumulation of “Ketubot”, those often very beautiful decorative manuscripts that serve as marriage contracts required under Jewish law.

The Jewish Ketubot are kept among the other precious cultural manuscript collections in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library whose immense riches would take a separate lecture or two if I were to do justice to our recent collecting history at Yale.  Among the literary treasures that have built up there recently, I must pay tribute to the comprehensive collection of material relating to Rudyard Kipling that is the generous gift of David Richards and the subject of a recent exhibition that he curated. I should also mention that the collection of American Literature is renowned for its great modernist materials including the papers of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and for the depth and extent of its African American literary papers.  The Langston Hughes papers were the subject of a spectacular multi-media exhibition early in this decade, which really set the standard for digital interactive displays, and for engagement with the local school community.  More recently, the Richard Wright papers have formed the basis for a course created jointly by a professor of English and the Beinecke curators, where students can follow the process of composition of Wright’s masterwork Black Boy and the transformational working relationship between the author and his publisher.

Before leaving the subject of the Beinecke Library, which is probably the largest of American libraries dedicated to rare books and manuscripts, I will refer to two more recently acquired sets of treasures: the Frederick R. Koch collection of music manuscripts, a munificent gift, and the Royal Music Collection from Hanover . Among the marvels of the fabulous gift from Mr Koch are the papers of British composer William Walton, celebrated with concerts and displays at Walton’s centennial in 2006, and important manuscripts and rare publications of Bach, Handel and many others. [Show Handel’s Laudate Dominum and a Walton piece]  This gift provided the impetus for further important collections of primary sources in music, most notably of all the Royal Music Library, which absorbed a large portion of our Osborne Collection acquisitions budget for a two-year period.  Taken together with the papers of American composers and performers in the Gilmore Music Library which is based in the Sterling Memorial Library building, and the interviews with leading lights of American music in the Oral Histories of American Music which is just now celebrating its fortieth anniversary (not to mention the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, the only one of these that falls outside the Library’s care), the Koch collection and the Royal Music Collection have helped Yale  to surge to a leading position in resources for the study of  music that is comparable to the growing eminence of the Yale School of Music, not forgetting the Institute of Sacred Music, a great resource in its own right.

When Lansing Lamont invited me to speak on the subject of running the Yale Library, I knew I would have to be selective in my choice of subject matter, and I have chosen to focus on the topic of collections.  But even limiting myself in this way, I cannot draw this talk to a close without at least referring back to the question that my interrogators on the search committee nearly ten years ago rightly considered to be so central, even if they posed the question as a dichotomy that professional librarians might consider to be a false one: the role of multi-media and electronic collections in building a great research library.  The proportion of expenditure on electronic materials has grown inexorably in all libraries during the past decade, and at Yale we now spend something like $8 million on electronic collections.  Much of this is expended on licenses for scientific journals and databases; and some on digitized versions of, for example, early English books or early American newspapers.  Like other libraries, even though we are not part of the Google enterprise, Yale has spent a considerable amount of time and effort on digitizing its own collections and facilitating the creation of shared digital collections. We entered into a short-lived agreement with Microsoft in 2007-08 to digitize some of our out-of- copyright books, we run a multi-million dollar enterprise under the banner of AMEEL, “A Middle East Digital Library” which has been the recipient of repeated federal grants and which now includes some manuscript digitization, and we are now working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in a collaborative enterprise with other libraries to create a digitized resource on the history of medicine and science, using the rare book collections of our Medical Library.  An Integrated Digital Image Resource project in 2006-08 produced a Visual Resources Collection of more than 250,000 images in digital form.  Donors are helping us to digitize the Fortunoff videos in order to preserve their content as the original tapes are deteriorating.  And the university is planning to build a shared digital repository that will make it possible to store our electronic materials centrally and reliably.

Whatever the future holds for Yale and the other great research libraries of the world, electronic resources and their preservation will play an increasingly important role.  They are already the principal means whereby scholars and students in almost all scientific disciplines and most of the social sciences gain access to what they need for their research and teaching.  The library’s role in this provision is crucial, even if often delivered from behind a virtual veil.  Equally, the library of today and tomorrow has an immutable obligation to continue collecting and preserving the record of human activity in whatever shape or format they appear.  Books, manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, films, works of art and videos: all are important elements in any collecting policy.  I mentioned when I started, that Yale is prone to engraving uplifting sentiments on every surface.  Outside the entrance to Sterling Memorial Library is the legend, “The Library is the Heart of the University”.  One might paraphrase that to embrace research libraries in general: “The Library is at the heart of Civilization”.

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