The Old Guard

One of my research interests concerns rare book librarianship from the 1880s to the 1950s, during which amateur gentlemen (and a few distinguished ladies) morphed slowly and often with great reluctance into the professional librarians of today. That old world aesthetic is still around in some institutional corners.

I was recently going through the papers of Stuart C. Sherman (1916-1983) at the John Hay Library at Brown University; Sherman served as Librarian of the PPL from about 1943-1968, whereupon in a surprise move he left administrative work to “get back to the books” by becoming head of the John Hay, Brown’s special collections library. The die had been cast, however. By the late 1960s, no one could escape administrative work at a major library, and by 1978 Sherman was disillusioned and his health was deteriorating.

One particular letter from collector and eventual donor Albert E. Lownes (Brown Class of 1920) to Sherman, written several weeks after the latter resigned from PPL, is indicative of how the old bookmen felt about the new “professionals”:

“Four times in the past two weeks I have written letters to you and four times I have torn them up because they didn’t say what I wanted to say to you. First, of course, I would express my sorrow that you are leaving Providence Public Library, but our conversations on the road had convinced me that this was just a matter of time. In the past decade the whole concept of librarianship has changed. Until recently a librarian was a gentleman who cared for and knew about books. Suddenly he is an administrator, a money-raiser, a technician, and the rear end of a computer. If he has any feeling for books it is purely coincidental. It has been my privilege to know many librarians of the old school. William E. Foster, who could be equally enthusiastic about Horace and New Hampshire’s Mount Chocorua. (I wonder what became of his massive records of the mountain. Brad Swan might find them exciting.) Your father, George Parker Winship, Harry L. Koopman, H. B. Van Hoesen, Lawrence Wroth, Margaret Stillwell—these people knew and loved books. You are of that tradition by birth and by inclination. I think it will not be too difficult to find a new man for P.P.L. If the pay can be provided there will be no dearth of mechanized computerized librarians. But scholarly bookmen are in short supply. The shelves are bare and they can’t be produced by library school production lines.”


William E. Foster was PPL Librarian from 1878-1930

Harry L. Koopman was Brown Librarian from 1893-1930
Henry B. Van Hoesen was Brown Librarian from 1930-1949

George Parker Winship was Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library from 1895-1915, after which he went to Harvard

Lawrence Wroth was Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library from 1923-1957

Margaret B. Stillwell was Librarian of the Annmary Brown Memorial Library from 1917-1953.

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