As the New York State Library rounds out its 200th anniversary year, we briefly turn our attention away from the collections usually highlighted here and toward past and present staff members whose toil and dedication have made such a milestone possible; as well as to the building we currently occupy, our fifth home since 1818.
It is probably safe to say that over 2,000 souls have served on staff over the last two centuries. To sample a few years, 100 or so employees were on the roster in all departments in the years 1900 and 1940, that number was 280 or so in 1980 in line with a steady and substantial increase in the number and types of services offered and collections amassed, and 85 or so presently serve. Some left within a year (early annual reports gave the reasons for departure, such as "married" or "transferred"), while others put in fifty years plus.
On a somewhat personal note, I felt fortunate in 1984 to join up as a Grade 1 Beginning Office Worker in the State Library's highly interdisciplinary Interlibrary Loan unit, where one is exposed to many facets of the profession. Once I started to make sense of the incredibly busy and productive beehive I now played a small part in I began contemplating those who came before. One's first exposure to departed comrades-in-books can come by way of consulting various early card files and check-in records as recorded by so many hands over the generations, some more legibly than others. The first time it really hit me though was when I noticed a tiny sideways pencil notation a few pages into an old book a patron wanted to borrow that abbreviated the date on which it was processed into the collection, something like "Je 6, '22," along with the initials of that long-ago staffer. New York State Museum and State Archives personnel must have similar experiences running across old artifacts, notations, and writings in the course of their work.
Once this awareness of predecessors sets in, small evidences abound, more so in a research library than in most work settings, as our job is to preserve. Look how strategically somebody placed our State Library sticker on the front cover of a now-old magazine, taking care not to paper over the images or text that illuminate its contents. Consider the flotsam and jetsam that falls out of these print materials, including notes to other units, instructions for the commercial binder, earlier versions of call slips, and things better removed, like a retro gum wrapper once, and prehistoric-looking paper clips. Ponder the increasingly archaic cataloging terms they used back then such as "recto," "historiated initials," "frontispiece," "extra-illustrated," notes as to what might be "lacking" (Issue No. 3 of 12, a particular hand-colored plate, or whatever), "uncut," "vellum," "recension," "t.e.g.", "wrappers," "tail-piece," etc. And for more of an in-one's-face example, one of my first desks—moved over from the old building, heavy, dull gunmetal gray, and still doing yeoman service unlike certain shiny improved models which proved inferior—had been serving as a dead-technology graveyard piled high with such mysterious devices as a Dictaphone, complete with attached foot petal, my first duty at this desk being to surplus all of that out before turning it into an efficient and personalized workspace, as others had done before.
For a more in-depth understanding of the evolving mission of the New York State Library, the personalities involved, the methodologies they employed, and attendant setbacks and successes, early annual reports (which are surprisingly lengthy, detailed, and candid) and in-house publications serve well. There is much to learn from the former about our basic shift from assisting state government and the legal profession to serving the public at large around the turn of the last century; increasingly modern methods of library organization and efficiency; how we led the way in establishing the first library school and statewide library association, serving the blind, and promoting the establishment of traveling libraries and of gift and exchange programs; and how we dealt with world wars, economic downturns, and one of the worst library disasters in history, the 1911 Capitol Fire. Lots of funny little things too, like State Librarian Melvil Dewey's brief 1899 remarks on staff uniforms for men and boys on duty in the public reading rooms. "At first a dark blue uniform was used, but last year a quaker drab was tried." He goes on to claim "No one after our experience would be willing to go back to the old system," but one wonders if the uniform-wearers were eligible to vote on the matter.
As for in-house efforts, The Bookmark (D, LIB, 132-3, BOOKM, 79-65477) was published in one form and frequency or another between 1926 and 1992. This widely distributed periodical was loaded with influential content, particularly with regard to the Library Extension Division (now named the Division of Library Development) and its pioneering work in developing library systems, providing statewide leadership and advisory services, and administering state and federal funds for library services and programs. Tucked into these pages were helpful and charming columns complete with little photos of their authors, lists of new books to consider, personnel notes, and county-by-county library news. Its content and cover design, as with so many periodicals, changed rather dramatically from the 1950s to the mid '60s.
The Staff Information Bulletin (D, LIB, 132-3, NEWYS, 83-4) first published in 1972 was more for internal consumption, and is the best surviving institutional and personal record from this era. This homemade and hand-stapled newsletter chronicled much that went into our Herculean relocation from the State Education Building to the Cultural Education Center in 1978, the year in which it morphed into the New York State Library Weekly Information Bulletin. The "WIB" (1978-2002), which was an efficient way for staff to communicate before email and the Internet, fostered a great sense of esprit de corps. Same with the building-wide OCE-Go-Round staff newsletter (1987-1999, D, EDU, 610-3, OCEGR, 88-19885). Ironically, these extinct publications along with paper archives and old file cabinets full of correspondence, office memos, detailed accounts of staff duties and accomplishments, and printed plans and policies will preserve the history of our day-to-day existence and work product better than their electronic counterparts can going forward.
Also on display are the following, the first three examples of which are under the care of the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit:
Copies of three pages from the circa 1896-1898 Photograph Album of a New York State Library School Student (N, PRI 3640), portraying various rooms in the Library when it was housed in the State Capitol, and highly important early staff members such as Mary Salome Cutler Fairchild, Florence Woodworth, and Martha Wheeler. We can discern recognizable workplace features in these ancient photos, right down to creeping wall clocks, and piles of books and paperwork amid soothing plants on their busy desks. Of inkwells and high Victorian collars, however, not so much nowadays.
The rest of this exhibit is given over to contemporary photographs of the New York State Library and Cultural Education Center that may be useful to future researchers as the above-mentioned images have been to us.
In closing, let us remember those who came before, the women and men who paved the way. As I sometimes say to frustrated genealogical researchers striving to tune into the increasingly faint echoes of their forebears, they would probably take comfort and pride in the fact that somebody is still thinking about them.
Okay, back to work now.
These images come from the photo album of a student at the New York State Library School, circa 1896-1898, when the Library was housed in the State Capitol.
Three staff members of the New York State Library School: M.S. Cutler, Vice Director (upper left); her assistant, Florence Woodworth (lower left); and Martha Wheeler, cataloger (right).
New York State Library - Old school room (top) and State Library (bottom)
Some of these photographs, taken when the NYS Library was in the Education Building, were used in the Library's 1943 Annual Report.
Periodical Reading Room
Book Information Section
Order Section Office
Empire State Plaza Aglow
New York State World War II Memorial Swooping Eagle
Red-Tailed Hawk on the Cultural Education Center Parapet, Southeast Corner (courtesy of Jackie Foss)
The Gateway to Knowledge
World War II Posters
Rear Entrance Bus Ramp
Cultural Education Center Double Rainbow
Marbled Boards and Endpapers
License for Evert Wendal [should be Wendell] to Practice Law, Signed by New York State Governor Robert Hunter, Dated April 5, 1717 (Manuscripts and Special Collections, 6976)
Historic Card Catalogs
Circulation Desk Patron Reserve Area
The Librarians Room
Talking Book and Braille Library Inventory
Last Page of the Sunday Funnies and Tense Monday Headlines from a Bound Volume of November, 1942 Issues of the Albany Times Union
Readers, Printers, and Scanners
The Preservation/Conservation Unit
Card and Online Catalogs
The Evolution of the Library Chair
Reference Unit Work Area
Singed Card File from the 1911 Capitol Fire
Punch Magazine Gilt Decoration
The Corner of Dewey and Vine
Western Windows, 7th Floor
Circulation Desk Staff Hold Shelf
Long View of Technical Systems and Services Units
Early Bound Volumes of New York State Court of Appeals Records and Briefs
Semi-Panoramic View from a Division of Library Development Office
Three-Day Fifty-Member Visiting Research Group Headquarters Table Just Before Opening
Exhibit curated and contemporary photographs by Shawn Purcell