University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Friendship and Greatness, Remarks given to the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries in Honor of their Tenth Anniversary, 2 June 1983

Volume XXXVI · 1983 
Friendship and Greatness: Remarks given to the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries in Honor of their Tenth Anniversary, 2 June 1983

How long do friends have to be friendly before they are called "old friends"? It's an interesting question. Two years is probably not long enough. Is five? Is 10? It depends. If someone asks, "Are you an old friend of Mrs. Thus-and-so?" and you have known her 10 years, you will, of course, answer "Yes, indeed." To say "no" or to qualify your answer would be rude. But having said "yes, indeed," you very well might have reservations if you have other friends you have known much longer.

As Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries, we are celebrating that tenth year of our friendship with four unusual institutions: libraries known by unusual names: Rush Rhees, Miner, Sibley, and Allen. And with 10 years of friendship accomplished, we have reached that tender point of being required to claim to be old friends when we are not really sure. We know these libraries, we like them; perhaps we love them, perhaps we know them well. But we are not sure we qualify as "old friends."

This kind of Friends organization has been an ideal of mine for over 30 years. And I am going to include in these remarks this evening, quite shamelessly, some personal reminiscences. (If I am labeled "a founder," I should be licensed to reminisce at least a minute or two.) When I began my college years in the fall of 1952, I took my first tour of Firestone Library at Princeton and saw a leaflet about the Friends of the Princeton University Library. The description of their activities was interesting but what struck me most of all was a quotation from Harold Dodds, then president of Princeton. He called the Friends "that one indispensable organization." I was impressed. Especially since I had long been taught that no one -- and, by extension, no group -- was indispensable. What place did this group have to inspire -- much less deserve -- such an accolade? I wanted to find out, so I took out a student membership. And I found out plenty. Most of what I learned benefited me and that was just fine. Among other things, I learned about a book collecting contest which offered the then impressive first prize of $25. I set out to win it and did so with a collection of Tennyson first editions which I bought from second-hand book stalls. The $25 did not quite pay for the cost of the collection, but it gave me a substantial boost toward new acquisitions. And I was soon on my way. So, I owed the Friends of the Princeton University Library a lot. That group had given me a vision of indispensability and a great stimulus for my own collecting and learning and also a nascent notion that their indispensability and my inspiration were not unrelated.

When I took my first academic job at Indiana University, I arrived shortly before the dedication of The Lilly Library. All the dedicatory events excited my bibliomania in ways I had not yet known and I shortly got acquainted with David Randall, the librarian, and began to accompany him on all his trips for acquisition and on his visits to great libraries around the country. Randall was one of the greatest bookmen I have ever known, in spite of his extraordinarily unlibrarianlike habits. He had no hesitation in smoking cigarettes over the Gutenberg Bible or the rarest manuscript and he drank whiskey on the rocks in perilous proximity to the greatest treasures. There never was any damage and perhaps these very habits insured that steady flow of fact and lore from him to those standing nearby. His autobiography, Dukedom Large Enough (an enviable title for a librarian, drawn from Prospero's great line, "My library was dukedom large enough"), tells all about his years at Scribner's in New York and about his work with Mr. Lilly, but it does not mention his thoughts on Friends organizations. I had hoped I was suggesting something I could do for him -- in exchange for all he had done for me -- when I mentioned one day that I would be willing to help him start a Friends of The Lilly Library. He bellowed his disgust: "Friends organizations are worthless! They're nothing but a bunch of old duffers who are constantly hanging around insisting on attention. They know nothing about books and are not really interested. All they want is cocktail parties and dinner parties, silly fireside chats, and flattery." Well, that was his opinion. But I was young and I let two years pass before I tried the subject once more. His answer was quick and sure: "I told you once before that Friends groups have no use at all. There'll never be a Friends of The Lilly Library as long as I'm here and that's that. Now don't bring up that subject again!" I didn't. There wasn't. Dave has been dead for a decade and there still isn't.

But at Rochester things are different. The University is different. The library staff is different. The town is different. For one thing, we had Robert Metzdorf, that indefatigable bibliophile whose love of Rochester knew no bounds. He always wanted a vigorous Friends group at his university (as opposed to that Harvard or that Yale where he worked) and he lived to see this group well established before he died in 1975.

In 10 years, the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries have made an enviable record. The organization has presented the four libraries with cash sums which now total over $109,000. Of this amount over $16,500 has been placed in endowment funds for permanent support of the collections and over $92,500 has gone to direct support of the current needs of the four libraries. Even more tangible than hard cash, if that is possible, is the contribution of the Friends in the presentation of books and manuscripts to the libraries. The monetary value of these contributions is, of course, always difficult to assess, but a recent conservative estimate indicates that books and manuscripts worth over $200,000 have been presented to the University of Rochester libraries as a result of the direct efforts of the Friends in the past 10 years. In addition to these gifts, many important materials have been placed on deposit at the University libraries. Probably most memorable are the papers from the Susan B. Anthony House.

Dollars and acquisitions are by no means all, however. Library publications have been sustained and expanded.The Bulletin, long a first-rate ambassador of the University (and generously supported these last four years by loyal Friends, Mr. and Mrs. Brent G. Orcutt), has been joined by Bibliotalk, now in its tenth volume. In addition, the Friends have published two books, Patrick Campbell's A Journey Through the Genesee Country and Henry Clune's I Like it Here, a series of elegant post cards and note cards, as well as a limited edition of an 1832 map of Rochester. The student book prizes, started by a loyal Friend who has always maintained anonymity, have flourished each year. The Book Fair has become a regular and much-welcomed part of the Rochester scene. Less frequent, but no less delightful, is the Book Auction, also sponsored by the Friends. And few can forget our magnificent Dickens dinner, nor the book collectors' seminar, nor the Alistair Cooke lecture, nor Robert F. Metzdorf Memorial lectures by Stuart Schimmel, Robert Taylor, Nathan Lyons, and Mina Bryan, nor the exhibitions which mark Friends events, nor the evenings of literature and music generously presented by two devoted Friends, Anthony Hecht and Frank Glazer. And other Friends projects are yet to be assessed fully. For one, the Oral History Project, begun by Helen Bergeson, has now been supported by the Provost of the University and should have a good deal more to say for its existence within another year.

Indeed, the record of The Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries is an enviable one. Early returns from a recent survey of Friends organizations around the nation reveals that very few have managed to put together the kind of record which has been set in this place. This Friends group has every right to be pleased with its accomplishment. Pleased, but not yet satisfied.

The Friends started with five goals: to support library acquisitions, to support the Library Bulletin, to support the student book prizes, to conduct a membership drive, and to establish a newsletter. When this organization began, these goals seemed formidable. Ten years later, they look very comfortable . Acquisitions must always be supported, but the Friends have established a sound pattern. Thanks to two generous Friends, the Bulletinhas been published each year. The book prizes are now supported by the whole organization, not just by one anonymous Friend. Membership has increased to over 400 individuals and a good newsletter, Bibliotalk, now reaches all our members four times a year. The vigor of this organization owes much, however, to that early setting of formidable goals. The lesson of this history seems to be that we perhaps could use some new, or at least additional, goals for the next 10 years. Continuing business includes support for acquisitions, publications, and prizes. Unfinished business includes providing permanent support for the Bulletin. New business must of necessity include commitment to continue our Fair, our Auction, our publication of books, and our special events. But are there other areas of which we now have no special thought? Should the Friends themselves become more sophisticated collectors in order to coordinate efforts to enhance the library's collections? Should the Friends perhaps give recognition to each other for beginning interesting collections? Should the library staff develop bibliophilic interests beyond their professional duties and coordinate these interests with other Friends? Should Friends be concerned with changes in library technology? Should Friends support the bibliographic efforts of scholars (staff members and others) to make library materials better known and more accessible? Should Friends encourage special catalogues of special collections? (Rumor has it that an official of the National Endowment for the Humanities wants to match funds with a library Friends organization which hopes to support such a bibliographic effort.) Should Friends support more seminars for bibliophiles, even for small groups, especially ones which stimulate interaction among the various constituents of our membership? Should Friends learn more about the ways libraries think they are changing? Should Friends consider supporting some of these changes? Should more Friends volunteer for jobs in the reader and technical service divisions of the libraries? Should the Friends form a new list of desiderata?

When the Friends dream, they should dream with strength and imagination. This group has had the will to set high goals and to move steadily forward toward achieving them. We have also had the courage to set forth, not only in words but graphically, an important dream for The Great Hall of Rush Rhees Library. Just because that dream now seems impractical and expensive is not reason to abandon it. Even if a new Great Hall is delayed for another 10 years or longer, the Friends' plan stands as a vision for excellence which we all need to cherish: excellence not only in the collections of our libraries but in the buildings in which they are housed.

Almost all generalizations have flaws, I suspect. But if I were to generalize about libraries and excellence, I would say that, in my experience, great libraries tend to become greater and poor libraries tend to languish. But then one has to come to grips at once with what that elusive quality, "greatness," is in a library. There are surely some things which it is not: it is not size; the library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, which has only 20,000 volumes, is indisputably one of the great libraries of the world. So, also, is the Pepys library of Magdalene College, which has only 3,000. One might respond, however, that these libraries are specialized and that their size is irrelevant. But size and specialization and greatness are not inextricably linked. Specialization is not the sole key to greatness, either. Take, for instance, The London Library; with around 700,000 volumes and a very broad range to cover, this library has been considered "great" ever since it was the haven of our most venerable nineteenth-century writers. The same quality is ascribed to the Atheneum in Boston. Nor is mere antiquity the answer. While we all wince at the insensitive generalizations about "a batch of old books," we have all seen collections of older books which have no system and are not used. But merely modernity is not the key, either. At least several of us have seen early attempts to transform libraries into information retrieval centers, to do away with the book and to supply what used to be called a reader or patron with no more than an access terminal. I do not mean to reject any of the newly developed techniques for organizing information or for obtaining information, but an obsession with technique can fail to hold sacred the joy of learning and can leave an eager student without fact or lore. If greatness is not just size, nor specialization, nor antiquity, nor modernity, what is it? In libraries, greatness probably involves each of these collection qualities-size, specialization, antiquity, modernity -- to some degree: a sense of size in relation to subject matter and the presence of old and new materials in relation to these subjects and the needs of readers. But most of all, "greatness" is recognized as a quality of a library which has a staff which knows the virtues of the materials in the library and is eager to make them available to patrons, to bring enlightenment and joy to the minds and hearts of those who come to the library for work and sustenance. A collection must, of course, have materials with virtues, but even the smallest libraries, public or private, have surprises, even for the most jaded patrons. With interesting materials and interested staff, there will be readers. The magic which generates greatness lies in the relationship between book and human being, between librarian and book and between book and reader. So, I can say that the Rush Rhees, Miner, Sibley, and Allen libraries are great libraries. They are supplied with the testimony of mankind's concerted efforts to discover and record the secrets of the universe. They have librarians who know the wonder of these possessions and find deep joy in having them explored by students of all ages who love learning. They have readers who want to know the news that their predecessors have discovered and recorded and who also want to make this news have meaning for themselves and for anyone else who might be interested.

In the company of greatness, where is the place for Friends? Are they merely hangers-on? Anything but. In the first place, friends of a library are integral parts of the institution. Librarians are friends; readers are friends; would-be readers are friends. When I first began to speak of excellence I mentioned that in my experience great libraries tend to become greater. How does this happen? It happens, I suspect, because of that continued excitement, that extended delight which all a library's friends know in its presence. The ferment of learning, of ideas, infects students and librarians so that they cannot fail. And when friends are organized, as they are here, that group can have as its central charge the nurture of that intellectual vigor which surrounds learning and ensures its health, its continuity, and its increase. Meliora.


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