My Friends, the Librarians

In the course of doing research for her various biographies, CATHERINE DKINKER BOWEN of Philadelphia has read in libraries as far West from her home as California and as far East as Leningrad. Over the years she has kept working notes on the libraries and librarians whom she has known, and the paper which has emerged from this source we think happily appropriate for the celebration of National Library Week, March 16-22.

THE pleasing condition known as true love is seldom attained without difficulty. Nowdays, I can declare with truth that I am in love with librarians — engaged in a perpetual, delightful affair of the heart with all public custodians of books.

But in my early twenties, struggling in library basements with bound volumes of newspapers or shuffling through a jungle of card catalogues, I was convinced that librarians existed solely to keep people from reading books. It is natural for young readers to experience shyness in big city or university libraries; the presence of so many books is at the same time exciting and intimidating. The young scholar longs for introduction, a knowledgeable hand to reach, point, act as intermediary between herself and all those riches.

In early days, I tried not to give librarians any trouble, which was where I made my primary mistake. Librarians like to be given trouble; they exist for it, they are geared to it. For the location of a mislaid volume, an uncatalogued item, your good librarian has a ferret’s nose. Give her a scent and she jumps the leash, her eye bright with battle. But I did not know this. All unaware I used to make my way to those block-long municipal buildings, hope in my heart and in my hand a list of ten or fifteen books. Not books to read in the library but to take home, where I could copy at length, with time to think about what I was copying. I did not telephone beforehand and ask to have my books ready at the desk. I took my list and looked up the proper numbers in the card catalogue, rechecked each one, and carried the cards to the desk. The young woman would glance at the cards, and then she would say, “Only two books at a time can be taken from the circulation department, Miss.” Black hatred would then well up in a heart that had been ready to love.

“Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries.” Walt Whitman had said it and the words gave comfort, letting me know the great had their troubles, too, in libraries. But I was puzzled. Why should there be a conspiracy to keep anyone away from books? The fault must lie with myself, perhaps in my lack of systematized training in research. Had I possessed a Ph.D. in history, I would have before me a blazed trail, a path straight to the heart of my subject. (How was I to know that such a path cannot be found, and that the Ph.D. discipline can distill a poison as fatal to writers as the deadly nightshade?)

In the year 1936, Professor E. J, Dent of Cambridge University, the British musicologist, was a guest in my brother’s house. I admired Mr. Dent’s books about musicians; I was at work on the life of Tchaikovsky, my first full-length biography. Surely, so famous a scholar could tell me how to proceed. His experience would show me short cuts, a magic formula for libraries, open sesame to those tall imperious doors. I asked Mr. Dent point-blank how he went about his research. (I was too inexperienced to know this is not a question one asks of scholars.) “Have you a system?” I said. “How do you start, for instance?”

Mr. Dent smiled. “How do you start?” he asked. “How do you do your research?”

“Me?” I said. “Oh, I just plunge around in libraries.”

Twenty-three years and five books later, I know that Mr. Dent answered me in the only way he could. On that tortuous long journey there is indeed no sure trail, no short cut. I went ahead, plunging and bucking my way through libraries or slinking defeated from some municipal encounter. I do not know how it is with other students of history. But looking back, it seems my every forward movement derived not from success but failure, from some humiliation suffered, inducing anger, the stubborn resolve to find what I knew was on the shelves and use it in my own way for better or worse.

ONE day in the New York Public Library, I received a crushing rebuff. That the incident was due to my own ineptitude made it, as usual, no easier to bear. I had walked into the Slavonic Division and told the learned curator that I was writing a life of Tchaikovsky. Might I look around, not at the cards but at the shelved books, the titles? “You speak Russian, of course?” the curator asked, with a fine roll of the R. His question took me by surprise. Actually I knew enough to read titles and find my way about. But I gave a cautious negative. No, I didn’t speak the language.

The curator shrugged. “No Russian?” he said. “Then of what use to come to this room? What use to write a life of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky?”

I turned tail and fled, too flustered to stop and explain that I had a Russian collaborator, and that we both knew quite well what we were doing. At Penn Station I boarded the train for home. By the time we reached Princeton Junction I had recovered. People, I thought, should be thrusting books at me, not snatching them away! Moreover, at thirty-seven years of age it was high time I did something to resolve this feud between me and the charge-out ladies and gentlemen behind the desks. The train pulled into North Philadelphia, and it came to me with a redeeming flash that what I needed to study was not books, systems, “disciplines,” but librarians.

I bought a large notebook, something I am apt to do in moments of stress. Perhaps every student does it; a clean, untouched notebook invites the bravest plans. On the outside of this one I wrote, “Librarians and Libraries,” and then I began making lists of the librarians I had encountered. After each name I wrote a brief and useful characterization. The lists were continued for years, they were made in all seriousness, meant only for business, and they far overflowed that first notebook. I have them today and reproduce some samples, unchanged except for the exclusion of one proper name:

Library of Congress

Mr. Shaw Mr. Cole} Can find anything. God’s safes don’t forget your library number.

Harvard Archives

Mr. Lovett, wears glasses. Bright. Mr. Elkins, seventh floor, Widener. Head man. Cannot understand what I am trying to do, but helpful. Said, “You don’t want printed material, do you?” No use telling him why I want it. Just give him the numbers.

Widener Library downstairs

Mr. X . . . Old curmudgeon. Hates women. Keep away from him. Find out name the little short one, desk, head of stairs. Sweet.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Mrs. Hitchcock, the nice one who knows Mr. Henry Adams. When he comes in the basement she will notify me upstairs. Says better not let him catch me downstairs near the Adams Papers. Says he takes off his hearing aid to make it harder. Says don’t be put down by this. Says just yell.

This last was written in the late 1940s, before the Adams Papers, a superb repository of historical material, were thrown open to scholars. Mr. Henry Adams was custodian of the Papers, and only an occasional favored student was permitted a glimpse inside the room. Mr. Barnes’s famous arcanum of paintings, near Philadelphia, was never more difficult to penetrate; I was forewarned to failure. Already, there had been much correspondence by mail and by messenger. At Mr. Adams’s instance I had reduced my requests to specific queries. There were eight of these, carefully worded and typed; I had delivered them to Mr. Adams’s office on State Street. What I wanted from the Adams Papers was modest enough; it had to do with John Adams at college, between 1751 and 1755. Adams’s Autobiography had been printed nearly a century ago in what its editor called “fragments,” opening with the year 1775; the Massachusetts Historical Society had printed a brief and still earlier “fragment” in which John Adams told of taking his entrance examinations to Harvard. It seemed to me there must be more, somewhere. Adams was deeply interested in education. Surely, he would mention his teachers, his tutors. I counted on one more meeting with the curator of the Papers, here in the Historical Society. A last chance and I knew it.

I had been at work in the library for perhaps a week, when one morning Mrs. Hitchcock sent word that Mr. Henry Adams had entered the building and was on his way up in the elevator. The second floor of the Massachusetts Historical Society is a succession of handsome, open rooms that echo, with lofty doorways and marble floors. I stood perhaps ten steps from the elevator. Mr. Adams got out, took a startled look at me, and snatched a hearing button from each ear. My instinct was for retreat but I advanced, and there in the open room gave tongue for a full half hour. Mr. Adams had my list; I had a carbon. We stood, and I shouted. Finally Mr. Adams seized me by the elbow. “Mrs. Bowen,” he said, “I don’t want to block your work. I don’t want to be the cause of destroying your chapters, as you say I will. But you cannot have this material. It has never been printed. You know very well it has never been printed. How do you know it is in the Adams Papers?”

I told Mr. Adams I did not know, but that I had studied his ancestor for a long time, and such studies permitted one to infer that John Adams might have mentioned these matters in his Autobiography. I said that inference was the business of a biographer.

Mr. Adam’s voice rose to a pitch of real distress. “Mrs. Bowen,” he said, “I wish I had never laid eyes on you.”

Something in the desperate pronunciation of the noun softened me; plainly, Mr. Adams’s suffering was worse than mine. I gave up, and we parted in a mutual rush. Downstairs in the little retiring room I threw myself on the couch; the sound of my voice still rang in my ears. The entire Historical Society had been apprised of my work, hopes, ambitions; right now I desired nothing so much as dignified anonymity. A Japanese girl was standing by the mirror, arranging her hair. “Excuse me,” she said, “but are you writing a life of John Adams?”

I told the young woman she must know that, by now. Everyone in the building must know it.

She smiled politely, but her next words startled me. “What was the old gentleman afraid of?” she said.

I went home to Philadelphia and fidgeted. How could I complete my chapter without that material? I was genuinely worried, in a condition of frustration, and I could not proceed. At the end of three weeks, on the day before Christmas, an envelope came in the mail, postmarked Boston. Inside, typed laboriously by Mr. Adams, was everything I had asked for. Plainly, he had entered that sacred room, had found what I wanted, taken it down, and copied it line for line. What alchemy melted that New England heart I do not know. I know only that a surge of relief and joy came over me; I can feel it now, some ten years afterward.

Credit for this happy event belongs largely to Mrs. Hitchcock. Without her canny advice I would have been crushed at the outset by that telling gesture with the hearing aid buttons. Nor would I have had courage to stand my ground, overheard by the entire Massachusetts Historical Society, and yell.

SINCE those hazardous days, matters have begun to run smoothly for me in libraries. Confronted by fifty thousand books I have not lost my diffidence; perhaps it has increased. But I am not at all abashed in the presence of librarians. I can remember the day the tide began to turn. It was in the Pennsylvania Historical Society, at Thirteenth and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. I was three quarters through my life of John Adams and needed some eighteenth-century broadsides to brighten my chapters on the Continental Congress. Research for my preceding book, on Justice Holmes, had been done in Boston and Washington; I was unfamiliar with the Pennsylvania Historical Society and no one there knew me. I walked into the building and upstairs to the library, signed my name in the ledger, and went to the card catalogues by the window.

I had not gone through the A’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and the librarian from the desk handed me a folded slip of paper. It was a note from the director, Richard Norris Williams. “Mrs. Bowen,” it said, “would you like a quiet room to work in upstairs?”

I kept that message tacked above my desk for weeks. It cheered me, though I had not accepted Dr. Williams’s kind offer, because I like the genial commotion of the card catalogue room, the silent companionship of other readers, and the nearness of the books. In research libraries, one hesitancy remained, however, to plague me. It was brought on by the repeated question, put first to me by Mr. Elkins on the seventh floor of the Widener Library, “You don’t want printed material, do you?” That query, always phrased negatively by research librarians, still had power to put me down. Yet even this bogy was shortly due for exorcism. Again, I recall the day.

Let me explain, first, that the biographer finds her material, at times, in unlikely places, for the reason that she is hunting for detail. In the life story of a famous man — Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Adams — the big things are known. The statesmanship, the grand philosophies, the historic cases are in newspaper files and the indexes of textbooks. What the biographer wants is a floor map of the law offices of Shattuck, Holmes and Monroe in the 1870s, or to find out who was proprietor of a certain Philadelphia tavern favored by John Adams in a hot June of 1776. These details may be concealed in some quite ordinary volume, say the published memoirs of a cousin thrice removed, or in scattered notes on Philadelphia streets, compiled in mid-nineteenth century by some finicky antiquarian and printed obscurely at his own expense.

A list of such publications is not impressive to scholars, accustomed as they are to primary or manuscript sources, and I was conscious of it. The incident that liberated me took place in the Free Library of Philadelphia. It began on that vast second floor, where I had gone to check my book numbers, carrying in my hand a list of just such titles as I have described — thirteen of them, each referring to material vital to my subject and discovered by me at the cost of much time and digging.

I had never used this public library, but the general reference collection is large, and it seemed likely the volumes would be here, rather than in a more specialized collection. I found my numbers in the cards and took them to the librarian at the circulation desk. “Only two books at a time,” she began.

Two blades of grass to a cow, I told myself, would be as nourishing.1 I left my books on the desk and wandered off. In libraries it is not well to hurry. To the research worker, haste is fatal. The books have been where they are for a long time; they reveal themselves slowly, at their own pace.

Drifting downstairs in search of help, I came upon a door marked Assistant Librarian in Charge of Research. For a public library it was an odd, inviting title. I knocked and walked into a big square room, littered from floor almost to ceiling with the tools of the working scholar: bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, rare book catalogues, and unanswered letters, no doubt from other librarians.

A young man with startling white hair rose from a table where he was writing. I told him my name and what had occurred upstairs. He seized my hand and wrung it, said I could have anything I wanted in the library, took my list, ran an eye over it, and remarked, all in one loud welcoming breath, “Trash! Everything on this list is trash. My name is John Powell. What do you want with third-rate books like these?”—and was on the intercom telephone to start the wheels rolling.

It was the beginning of a lasting friendship. With this young man I could defend myself, and did. John Powell was himself, it devolved, a biographer — a fact that was to me of utmost significance. If academic historians are primarily scholars (before they are writers), then biographers I might say are primarily writers. Academic historians like best the reading part of their work, and they are quick to admit it. But research for its own sake is not the biographer’s business, even though he will, as has been somewhere said, turn over a library for the sake of one book. Yet, as the biographer reads, selects, and copies, it is his own book that he has in mind, and for his comfort he cannot get at the writing of it fast enough. Nevertheless there is no material the biographer can afford to ignore, whether primary, tertiary, or quinquennial. Old Thomas Fuller, in his Holy State, confesses that he has taken his material not from manuscript sources but from the English chronicles. “And let him die without pity,” Fuller adds, all unabashed, “who will not quench his thirst at the river because he cannot come in at the fountain.”

History withholds so much! Thomas Carlyle has said it with his usual violence and the hammering of his bold Germanic capitalizations: “Listening from a distance of two Centuries, across the Death-chasms and howling kingdoms of Decay, it is not easy to catch everything.”

TO CATCH everything? It is not easy to catch anything at all, or at least anything that will communicate in living terms across the centuries. The biographer is much in the position of a journalist who looks for news. Not for fillers or musty historical chestnuts that can be found in the textbooks, but for biographical news. Sometimes the biographer’s news is gleaned from the mere titles of books. I well remember the morning when first I saw the Holmes’s family library. The books had recently been moved to the Library of Congress, in Washington, and awaited settlement of Justice Holmes’s will before being catalogued and arranged. A young librarian took me upstairs in a small staff elevator, led me down a corridor, unlocked a door, and beckoned me into a narrow, steel-walled room.

Stored and filed on shelves, tables, chairs, were the accumulated personal libraries of three generations of Holmeses. It was an inspiring, dazzling, dusty sight. Here were books beloved of Wendells, Olivers. Jacksons, Dixwells, Holmeses, inscribed on flyleaves by donors and owners: “O.W.H. Jr., from his loving father and mother. Christmas, 1859.” Here were Dr. Holmes’s books on music, acquired no doubt when he was learning to play the violin in the 1850s. (A trying time for the family; the good Doctor considered fiddle playing to be a mere matter of time and application.) Here were books I had myself been reared on: The Dolly Dialogues, Anstey’s Tinted venus, the many volumes of old Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature. There were enough Latin books to stock a school — Mr. Epes Sargent Dixwell’s own school, no doubt, where O. W. Holmes, Jr., had studied. And here was Mr. Dixwell’s Phaedrus, with a signed photograph of William Tyndall pasted in, dated 1877. Here also was the Reverend Mr. Abiel Holmes’s own copy of his Annals of America. I paged it over with delight and copied the opening sentence in my notebook, merely because it seemed so characteristic, with its grave formality: “Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, having formed a just idea of the figure of the earth, had several years entertained the design of finding a passage to India by the western ocean.”

During all this time, the librarian had waited, sitting on a box by the door. I paused in my reading to tell him a person could learn more about the Holmeses, here in this little room, than in a dozen interviews with the Justice’s friends and relatives. The librarian asked how long I expected to stay. “All day,” I said. The librarian replied that he would have to stay with me; readers were not permitted in this room by themselves. I said I was sorry to take up his time. Following my usual procedure I opened my brief case, took out paper and a dozen sharpened pencils, and laid them conveniently by. Then I removed my hat and shoulder bag, produced from the latter a kitchen apron (library dust can begrime one’s traveling clothes), and put it on.

The librarian watched. Then he smiled. “I think the library can assume this risk,” he said quietly, and took his departure.

I never saw him again. But I remember that young man with gratitude. He led me where I wanted to go and showed me what I had come there to see, then took my measure and left me with the books.

Recently I heard a young lawyer say, “When I go into a really good library, things happen to me.” For the librarians there could be no tastier compliment and none more true. Since I began to read in libraries some thirty years ago, times have changed and policies have altered. Modern librarians look on it as their business to make their shelves inviting. A librarian’s policy depends of course on where he is placed. Among rare books, custodial care is of first importance, whereas in the public libraries of great cities it is important to “get the titles off the shelves,” whether or no the volumes fall apart from overwork.

But to the biographer, a scholarly librarian stands at times in the relation of editor. By tactful approach the librarian will discover the scheme of one’s book, how widely one plans to explore certain phases of history, certain scenes and personalities. What he says can encourage expansion, a deeper treatment. He calls on the telephone or writes letters at strategic moments: “We are on the trail of that map (or that portrait or holograph letter). We have written twice to England and enclose replies to date. We will surely track this item down. By the way, last night our Miss Y. found that 1607 edition of Cowell’s Interpreter. Do you still want to take it home? . . . May we say your treatment of the Norwich episode is especially valuable and we hope you will not give up but pursue it further.”

In the five or six years it takes to write a biography, such expert, persistent interest is to the writer like food to the famished. The librarian has gone beyond the path of duty; he believes in one’s book and his involvement proves it. For lack of certain material, the biographer may have deleted a telling episode. But the librarian’s letter gives the writer heart. She fishes her chapter from the pile, inserts a blank page on which she scribbles, Librarian X will supply material, and arranges her narrative accordingly.

As it is, I am especially dependent on librarians because my scheme of biography requires that I do the entire bulk of reading myself. Contrary to common practice, I do not engage research workers to go to libraries and read for me, or even to search for specific things. Such a helper, no matter how skillfully trained, may miss something on the way, some side picture, name, or incident vital to the illumination of my characters. Therefore I prefer to make the journey alone, though it may add years to my task.

In almost a lifetime of study for biography, I have known, perforce, librarians over half the world. I think their praises are not often sung; I am glad to sing them now. Love, I have heard said, is gratitude for favors received. And I am in love with librarians.

  1. Emerson Greenaway as new director has revolutionized the Central Library and its forty branches; circulation today checks out eleven hooks to a reader and no questions asked.