University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The History of the University of Rochester Libraries--120 Years, Chp. 2

Volume XXV · Spring 1970 · Number 3
The History of the University of Rochester Libraries--120 Years

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Rochester's Library Pioneer

President Anderson's call for more "careful administration" of the library was answered in 1866 with the appointment of Otis Hall Robinson, a graduate of the University in 1861, and professor of mathematics, as assistant librarian. He became librarian in 1869. He was a lover of system and order and he plunged into the business of organizing the library, doing all of the work himself as he assumed the responsibilities formerly held by student assistants. It was not until the 1870s that he had one student assistant. And, although he too was a part-time librarian, he found the energy to improve library techniques, to improve student use of the library, to assist in the founding of the American Library Association, and to contribute papers to various library publications. 

Otis Hall RobinsonRobinson initiated Rochester's first card catalog on the dictionary plan, although he did so over many objections, such as: "It presents to the eye only one title at a time; Time and patience are lost in turning over the cards; it cannot be carried about, but must be used at the library, and only one person can consult a given part of it at a time." Robinson enlisted the aid of Joseph H. Gilmore, professor of rhetoric and English literature, and several student assistants, and they wrote out all the cards, for 9,560 volumes, in ninety-three hours, completing the task in the summer of 1870 at a cost of $329 for labor and materials. It was progress, but frustrating progress, since there was nothing to hold the cards in place, and users were apt to "borrow" the cards to use as reference. But, Robinson was inventive, and he was to devise a solution, which became the common practice of all libraries. He descried the situation and his solution quite precisely: 

"The tendency of even careful persons was to pick up from the case a small bunch of cards for a close examination, and when examined to put them back, while the mind was occupied with the contents of the card, into any convenient opening. I am informed that this is still a great annoyance in many libraries where card catalogues are used. To overcome this difficulty the cards were then punched near the lower left-hand corner, as they now appear, and a short wire inserted, running through the entire case. . . ."

Robinson then devised a stiff rod to hold the cards in place. He is not always given credit for this now widely used invention, for a French librarian, M. Pincon, also had experimented with the rods and holes. However, only Robinson's scheme worked, because he was clever enough to make the holes larger than the same size as the rod. 

This handwritten catalog, which at first was contained in two trays, served the needs of the library some forty-one years, until 1911, when technically trained assistants were hired, and supervised the replacing of the old manuscript cards with cards of standard size, printed by the Library of Congress. 

Knowledge in a Nutshell

Robinson, who recognized that "there is a great demand in this busy age for knowledge in nutshells," also invented a loose-leaf system for a subject index to periodicals, and a loose-leaf index to over 200 volumes of essays and general literature. He believed that it was the duty of the librarian to administer his library so that everything it contained should be accessible to every reader, with as little inconvenience as possible. He worried less about how many books his library had, or how much money he had to buy books. It was the usefulness of the books that guided his administration. 

It was with this in mind that he undertook the challenge of what to do with the increasing amount of unindexed periodicals and miscellaneous literature which contained reports of the latest investigations and opinions of the day. He knew that the only periodical index, published by William F. Poole of Yale, covered that type of literature only to 1853, and, therefore, he wrote to about twenty of the leading libraries in the country to see if anyone was preparing indexes for current periodicals. The response was that everyone saw the need, but no one was about to do anything about it. Justin Winsor of the Boston Public Library wrote him that "In reply as to what we do for an index to periodicals since Poole's I beg leave to say we only mourn." Poole answered that he hoped at some period to issue a supplement to his index, but he was too busy to do it then. 

With no encouragement from these librarians, Robinson enlisted the aid of some student assistants during the summer vacation of 1873, indexing the leading sets of periodicals in the library from 1853, the date of Poole's index. These indexes to not only periodicals, but also to essays and general literature, were continued every summer vacation until the American Library Association sponsored a new edition of Poole's Index which was published in 1882. Robinson loaned his loose-leaf indexes to Poole when that gentleman prepared his new work.

Robinson, however, was concerned with more than simple techniques. He also was interested in developing the more scholarly use of books and libraries. Until his day, Rochester students had merely referred to library books; Robinson believed they should instead become intelligent readers. With this goal in mind, he initiated classroom instruction in the use of books and libraries, and supported that with additional instruction within the library. He and Professor Gilmore made themselves available to talk about books with students and to help students make their selections. They showed the students how to carry on an investigation of a topic--"reading a few paragraphs in one place, a few pages in another, and a few volumes in still another, till they made the library yield up all it contained on the subject in hand." The two professors also contributed articles on the library to the student newspaper. In several of these, Robinson explained the arrangement and cataloging of the library. In others, Gilmore gave his "hints" on book-buying and about reading. 

Robinson then proceeded to encourage students to take books freely from the shelves, a practice which may have encouraged reading, but which he somewhat regretted since he no longer could account for the current whereabouts of every volume. It was this new freedom which inspired the custom of "sub-coat tailing," or concealing a book under one's coat without charging it out. However, Robinson believed that the merits of this new system far outweighed the drawbacks, relating at one time two stories which convinced him of the necessity of open shelves: 

"I have seen a college library of 25,000 volumes or more, all in most beautiful order, everything looking as perfect as if just fitted up for a critical examination, where the reading room was entirely apart, and the books could be seen by students only through an opening like that of a ticket office at a railroad station. The reading room contained dictionaries, cyclopedias, newspapers, and magazines, and, it was said, a well kept manuscript catalogue of the library. The result one can easily conjecture; the students read the newspapers, and the librarians preserved the books. At another college which has good claims to rank among the first in the country, a friend residing as a student, after complaining of the great difficulty of using a library by means of a catalog and with no access to the shelves, writes that he knows it contains plenty of good books, for he got in through a window one Sunday and spent the whole day there." 

Library History continued >>