University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The History of the University of Rochester Libraries--120 Years, Chp. 4

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

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The Eighties and Nineties: Enter Mr. Phinney

Herman K. PhinneyDuring the 1880's the picture darkened for both the University and its library. Once again, financial debts proved overwhelming. Salaries were cut; President Anderson retired, and Robinson retired as librarian. Acquisitions dropped from a high of 1,240 volumes a year to a mere 515 volumes. A few valuable private libraries were bequeathed to the University when several of the older faculty died. In later years, one of these bequests had its somewhat amusing aspect. A highly respected faculty member died and the University purchased his "personal" library from the estate. What wonderment was created when it was discovered that a large number of the volumes which the library had acquired were library property "borrowed" throughout the years by the professor. One of the most important gifts of books to come the library's way was that of the 1,900 volume library of the Rev. R. J. W. Buckland of New York, a former faculty member of the Colgate Rochester Divinity School. This library was purchased by John Hall Deane, an alumnus and trustee, for $2,000. 

One of the library's most colorful personalities started work in 1880. He was the University's perennial assistant librarian, Herman Kent Phinney. For fifty years, Phinney, with his wispy, uncut beard and apple-red cheeks, was a familiar figure in the library and on the campus. He was forever an assistant librarian, and in painstaking fashion performed much of the tedious labor of record keeping, besides stoking the library fires and cleaning the plugged gas jets. In his own words his work was "always quite multifarious and unostentatious. The circulation of books . . . the reception, checking, sewing and cutting the periodicals . . . the collation of sets for the annual binding . . . the ordering of the periodicals, the new books . . . the criticism and entering of the bills in the accounts kept here; the labeling, cataloging and often times cutting of the leaves of the new books; the guidance of readers to the books . . . the regular scanning of the religious and secular papers. . . ." He failed to mention his annual June visit to the fraternity houses, carrying a basket in which to load whatever missing books he could find. Students looked forward to these visits and vied for the distinction of providing him with the heaviest "load." 

Phinney was the target of many other student pranks, however friendly, also of verse in the yearbook, the Interpres:

"Phinney's whiskers, Phinney's whiskers
Fuzzy wuzzy, thin and spare! 
They run races round the cases, 
Flaunt themselves upon the air."

On one occasion, Phinney's bicycle, an antiquated high wheeler, was hoisted to the top of the flagpole in front of Anderson Hall. Finally the bicycle mysteriously disappeared for all time, and the students replaced it with a modern safety bike. Legend has it that the high wheeler was concealed in a fraternity house and brought out only on "state occasions." 

Phinney was a veritable mine of information not only on the library and the University, but also on the city of Rochester as well. He was regarded as a "good reference tool," but experience dictated that he should not be consulted if the desired information could be secured from any other source. One of the later librarians said of Phinney that "until about 1920 when the library had grown to 75,000 volumes, Phinney's off-hand judgment as to whether or not a certain book was in the library never failed to be correct." 

Phinney did not pass through all these years as merely a fixture. His idiosyncrasies vexed the various presidents, librarians, and professors to the point that they threatened his dismissal, but he persisted and often demanded "full time and full salary, with the full title of my position!" It was often, from the late 1880's to 1915, that Phinney was left with the sole care of the library, and he discharged his duties faithfully with little reward, except possibly that he was "the library" to all the students of these years. 

For a few years in the 1890's, Arthur Latham Baker, professor of mathematics, served as librarian. During his administration he organized the government documents for more effective use, and made arrangements with the Rochester Academy of Science for the library to become the depository of all the Academy's publications and library. Most of the library operations during the 1890's were directed by a faculty committee which delegated the tasks of running the library to Phinney. The University was gradually expanding its curriculum, and offering more electives. Academic departments were increased and the enrollment rose. Classes were scheduled the entire day and students began to enjoy free hours between classes, thus turning to the library for a study hall, and necessitating a full day's schedule of library hours. Students claimed they would use the library even more if comfortable chairs were provided and if resources in fiction, poetry, and science were enlarged. 

This new and expanding role of the University created new pressures upon the library. Students complained of the inadequate lighting and heating, and physical improvements had to be initiated. Among them were electric lights in 1898! These new lights caused the student newspaper to comment: "The library has been wired for electric lights so it will now be possible to read there on afternoons and dark days without straining the eyes and it is whispered that there is a possibility of opening the library in the evening . . ." A typewriter for the staff also was an innovation that year. The library, by 1900, had 37,000 volumes, but the students and faculty with their new interests and advanced programs were demanding collections which would provide something more than just the necessary reading for an undergraduate college. 

Some new directions were taken in the ordering of books. In the later years of his administration, President Anderson finally turned over the responsibility of ordering books to the librarian, from lists made out by the professors. In 1889, Henry F. Burton, professor of Latin, introduced the use of departmental book fund allotments. After appropriations for binding, periodicals, and books of a general nature, the remaining library funds were apportioned among the several university departments and the professors instructed the librarian on which books to buy. A typical division of the book fund, one approved for 1900, showed the following allotments: General and continuations, $100; English, $100; Rhetoric, $80; Latin, $80; Modern Languages, $100; Mathematics, $60; Physics, $100; Astronomy, $20; Chemistry, $40; Biology, $120; Geology, $40, and Philosophy, $80. 

Library History continued >>