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New York State Library Bicentennial Farewell

marbled endpapers

December 2018

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.

NYSL Bicentennial Farewell, center case, with photos and journals mostly featuring the exterior of the Cultural Education Center.

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.

reference desk, Education Building, circa 1943

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.

reference desk in Cultural Education Center, circa 2010

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.

NYSL Bicentennial Farewell, right case, with photos of Joseph Gavit and NYSL publications

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.

page from a Library School student's photo album, circa 1897

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.

  • Copies of two out of Four Images of Joseph Gavit (N, PRI 527) capture this beloved figure who rose from junior clerk to head of the Shelf Section (and was twice Acting State Librarian), one photo from close to when he began his career in 1896 at the age of twenty, and the other nicely bookended in 1946, the year of his retirement. A leather-bound volume of 139 warm and detail-rich personal letters from colleagues and others was collected at that time in the form of a festschrift in order to commemorate his long productive career with the Library.


Newspaper research in the main reading room
  • Copies of six staged but interesting images from Views Used in Annual Reports of Library, 1943-1944 (PRI 3160). Five of the originals are captioned on the reverse, enabling us to match names we may recognize with faces from back when the Library was housed in the State Education Building. Of particular interest to me (as I heard stories about "Tommy" when I first started) are two nice portraits of one Thomas J. Mittler, behind-the-scenes stacks man par excellence. In one that is captioned "Newspaper research in Main Reading Room" on the front and "Newspapers are the tools of the historian" on the reverse, he is shown assisting a named W.P.A. worker; in the other he is pushing a book cart in the basement 620s range in the company of fellow shelf clerk George M. Korb, one Helen M. Weinlein stepping off the cage elevator at that moment with sheet of paper in hand. Some of the wooden carts and most of the books we see in these photos are still with us.


NYSL Bicentennial Farewell, left case, with photos, documents, and a drawer of singed catalog cards from the 1911 fire
  • Next up are examples of catalog cards that barely survived the Capitol Fire, showing singed ends and water stains.
  • In the Odds and Ends Department from some early New York State Law Library files that have not been processed into Manuscripts and Special Collections yet, such ephemeral minutia as a 1913 memo from State Librarian James I. Wyer directing that all books on capital punishment "whether apparently legal in character or not, shall form part of one unbroken collection in this subject, to be classified and shelved in the general library;" a 1917 Order Section memo on blue paper sent with the intent "to guard better against the danger of misunderstanding" relating to ordering procedures; a rather snippy 1918 missive from Director Wyer regarding the State Education Building elevators in which he warns against pressing two buttons at once, "joy-riding," etc., threatening termination for purposeful abuse and urging use of the stairs instead, especially for "page boys;" an interesting twenty-one page list of reference questions answered by Assistant Law Librarian Frances D. Lyon between 1924 and 1934 (e.g., "Are lightning rods required in buildings, especially near arsenals?" [Answer: In short, No]); a couple of newspaper clippings from the 1950s regarding our acquisition of one of three known copies of the first "agreed" United States Constitution as procured by State Librarian Charles F. Gosnell (he served from 1945-1962 and I had the pleasure of interviewing him in the late 1980s as part of a New York State Library oral history project), and another newspaper clipping regarding whether the State Law Librarian still needed to be an attorney; and back-and-forth 1972 correspondence offering a professional position with the Legislative Reference Library (starting pay $9,100) in which the applicant apologized for not being able to respond (in the affirmative) by Western Union telegraph, as requested, as it was Mother's Day and they were inundated.
  • The 9/1978 issue of American Libraries featuring stellar State Librarian Joseph Shubert, homegrown Director Peter Paulson and other top Library officials in front of our brand new Cultural Education Center under the front-cover caption "The Pride of New York."
  • A 1979 report titled The State Library's First Year in the Cultural Education Center.

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.

NYS Library Images

Past: The Library in the Capitol and the Education Building

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.

page 1 of photo album, circa 1896, with images of three staff members
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).

page 3 of photo album, circa 1896, with images of NYS Library and Library Schoolroom
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.

Reading Room in the Education Building in the 1940s, with staff and patrons.
Periodical Reading Room

Library office in the 1940s, with two woman looking at a book and on using a card catalog.
Book Information Section

Library stacks in the 1940s, with shelves of books and a man with a book cart in the distance.
Library Stacks

Order section in the 1940s, with one woman standing and two others at desks
Order Section Office


Present: The Library in the Cultural Education Center

Cultural Education Center at evening, with the Plaza Christmas tree in the foreground
Empire State Plaza Aglow

The Cultural Education Center in winter, during a snow storm.

The Cultural Education Center (in the distance) in spring.

The Cultural Education Center in summer, with the park and pool in the foreground.

The Cultural Education Center in fall.

WWII memorial, with Cultural Education Center in background
New York State World War II Memorial Swooping Eagle

A red-tailed hawk perched on the Cultural Education Center
Red-Tailed Hawk on the Cultural Education Center Parapet, Southeast Corner (courtesy of Jackie Foss)

People at the crosswalk in front of the Cultural Education Center
The Gateway to Knowledge

books shelved in the 8th floor stacks
8th-Floor Stacks

WWII posters, from a previous exhibit
World War II Posters

rear entrance to CEC
Rear Entrance Bus Ramp


Rainbow over CEC
Cultural Education Center Double Rainbow

Old books, opened to show marbled boards endpapers and the NYS Library bookplate
Marbled Boards and Endpapers

handwritten license for Evert Wendal to practice law
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)

row of historic wooden card catalogs
Historic Card Catalogs

Circulation Desk patron reserve area with two carts of books
Circulation Desk Patron Reserve Area

Librarians Room, NYS Library
The Librarians Room

Talking Book and Braille Library stacks, with braille books shelved on the left and audio cartridges on the right
Talking Book and Braille Library Inventory

Bound issues of the Times Union from 1942, with comics on the left side and WWII headlines on the right
Last Page of the Sunday Funnies and Tense Monday Headlines from a Bound Volume of November, 1942 Issues of the Albany Times Union

microfilm readers, printers and scanners on the public floor
Readers, Printers, and Scanners

fine bindings on books in the Gotshall Collection
Fine Bindings

Preservation Conservation Unit
The Preservation/Conservation Unit

card and online catalogs
Card and Online Catalogs

four chairs from different eras
The Evolution of the Library Chair

Book trucks in the Reference unit
Reference Unit Work Area

card catalog drawer with cards singed by the 1911 fire
Singed Card File from the 1911 Capitol Fire

Two bound volumes of Punch magazine showing a gold dog on the spine and gold foreedges
Punch Magazine Gilt Decoration

palnts in front of a poster of Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal Classifications
The Corner of Dewey and Vine

windows on the western side of the building
Western Windows, 7th Floor

microfilm and books on hold
Circulation Desk Staff Hold Shelf

Technical Systems and Services work area
Long View of Technical Systems and Services Units

shelves of early bound records and briefs
Early Bound Volumes of New York State Court of Appeals Records and Briefs

part of a recent donation of railroad-related materials
Recent Donation

View from windows in Library Development area (10th floor)
Semi-Panoramic View from a Division of Library Development Office

Public floor research area set up for visiting group
Three-Day Fifty-Member Visiting Research Group Headquarters Table Just Before Opening

Future: The Next Generation

A staff member at her desk in the Cataloging Unit

A staff member retrieving material from the stacks

A staff member installing an exhibit on the public floor


New York State Library Bicentennial, 1818-2018

Exhibit curated and contemporary photographs by Shawn Purcell

Last Updated: November 2, 2021