Monday, October 28, 2013

Reminiscences about Old Libraries by an Old Librarian, Part 2

       After three years at Colorado College, I decided I wanted to continue working on my PhD after all.  I was very interested in the literature of the Romantic period at that time and I read something about the Miriam Lutcher Stark Library at the University of Texas, a rare book library that specialized in the Romantics.  I got all fired up about going there and I applied for a half-time position in that library with the idea of  taking graduate classes the other half time. 
       This worked out well.  I was hired as a cataloger of rare books and although I ended up dropping out of the PhD program after one year, I continued to work at UT through the sixties and into the seventies, both in rare books and in the regular catalog department. 
       My first experience of a really big academic library was Cornell, where I got my MA in English literature.  My second experience was at UCLA (Master's in library science).  UCLA's library was a formidable, older set-up with closed stacks, that is, if you wanted a book, you got the call number from the catalog and then somebody paged it for you from the stacks.  However, as a library school student, I had stack privileges and I spent lots of time roaming those dark, gloomy, and somewhat intimidating environs.
This picture is from 2005, but it looked exactly
the same in 1966.  Whitman fired from the
observation deck at the top.  The Stark
Library was in the red-roofed level on
the fourth floor.
       Still, the UCLA library didn't hold a candle for weirdness to the University of Texas.  Here is a picture of the Tower.  It's a famous symbol of UT and at the time I was there, it housed the main library -- yes, most of those floors you see in the tower itself were occupied by stacks.  Most of the books are now housed in other, more up-to-date venues, but my memories are of the Tower. 
       I've written before of how my mother and I arrived in Austin one day after the Charles Whitman Massacre, where a young man went up to top of the tower and opened fire with a rifle on the courtyard below.  These days we've gotten kind of hardened to that sort of atrocity, but it wasn't so common in 1966.  Only two days after the massacre I was walking across that same area.  If we had arrived two days sooner, I might have been one of the people who was shot!
       My official employer was the Humanities Research Center, which not only administered the Stark Library but was building its own collection of rare materials, many of which were contemporary first editions, manuscripts by well-known authors, etc.  The HRC had its offices in the tower, so I immediately had to go up in the very same elevator that Whitman had taken two days before.  The Administrative Assistant in the HRC told me she had actually held the elevator door for Whitman so he could bring in a footlocker.  It contained his rifles, but she just thought it was a load of books destined for the collection.  You can imagine that security got a bit tighter after that!
       The collections in the Stark Library were a donation by the eponymous donor.  I won't go into the history; if you're interested, go here
and here  You can see on those sites how grandiose was the venue where I worked!  I later worked in new HRC library.  By that time the Stark Library had been dismantled and turned into an office for the President of the University of Texas.  The pictures on the two websites are from that period (I couldn't find anything from the sixties), but I'm confidant that the view on the right below is of the room where I usually ate my lunch.  The furniture was all shabby Victorian, taken from Mrs. Stark's home.  The books were housed in locked cases around the periphery and on the balcony.  There were long windows with heavy Victorian drapes and there was a tall painting of Mrs. Stark which we staff members faced as we ate seated on a worn velvet settee and clustered around a coffee table.
       There was a funny story about the painting.  It showed Mrs. Stark standing by a table in 1890s dress and the Head Librarian, whom I will call Mrs. M. (things were very formal -- not even the student workers were called by their first names), pointed out a strange horizontal line across the center of the portrait.  She said Mrs. Stark thought she looked too short in the picture, so the painter cut it in two and lengthened her from the waist down.  If you thought about, it really was out of proportion.  Where her waist was and where her floor-length skirt ended would have made her legs impossibly long!
       The Stark hired its own cleaning staff, usually a student, so Mrs. M. could keep tabs on who came and went in this place that housed such a valuable collection. When I was there, the janitor was a young man who wasn't quite with it (this was the sixties, you know). He was not what you would call energetic. Mrs. M. talked about how he sat down to run the vacuum cleaner, and I saw him do it with my own eyes. Frankly, I do that sometimes myself these days, but this kid wasn't 73 years old!

       The Stark Library also had a rooftop terrace.  In the picture of the Tower, it's the area in front of the red-roofed structure.  The grassy part had a resident tortoise named Epicurus.  My cataloging friend used to feed it lettuce, but one time she fed it a butterfinger, which it ate with relish.  Then it disappeared for a long period of time and she was afraid she had killed it, but it finally turned up no worse for wear.
       The library had its own cataloger and catalog department, which actually was the kitchen.  The whole place was very cramped for space.  It was a tiny room with a sink and cooktop, perhaps oven, too (I've forgotten), and refrigerator, and that's where the food for breaks or events was kept.  It also had two desks.  The long-time catalog librarian resented my intrusion on her space in the beginning -- she liked things done certain ways, and here comes this young whippersnapper with three years' experience being thrust into her world.  However, I'm very good at following instructions and I soon learned her ways.  In the end we became the best of friends and remained so even after I went on to other things, until she died in the 1990s. 
       The cataloging was not like anything done in an ordinary library.  The books were all 18th and 19th century imprints, and we collated every last one of them.  That means you page through and record the signatures from the bottom of the page, checking for errors in paging or missing pages.  You also looked for stubs where pages have been cut out and for tip-ins where new pages might have been inserted.  Handwritten marginalia and autographs were noted, and inclusions in the books, like notes or drawings, were extracted and sent to the manuscript collection.  Once, in a book from around 1815, I found a beautiful paper cut-out of a lion with a putto on its back playing a harp and my boss said I could keep it.  I still have it.  I framed it in a gold frame against a red background and I just love it.  Who has the patience to do anything like that these days?
       After I quit my PhD work, I went to the regular UT catalog department, but later when the Stark Library was dismantled, I rejoined my rare-book cataloger friend in the HRC Library.  I was just in time to help them move.  What a job!  I'll say only that she and I worked as a team unloading book trucks in the new library and shelving the books.  I ran into a first edition of E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ourobouros.  It was the first time I'd ever heard of it.  I had already read Tolkien and begun writing fantasy, and that helped me take off into other books of that genre.
       I have one more story to tell about my regular cataloging days at UT, but I'll put that in a third part to this post.


  1. The University of Texas archives are a great source of Texas history. I found background information on places and people I included in the Tales of a Texas Boy stories (coming soon in audio book!) and a few of the old photos I included in the print edition of the book.

  2. I never worked in any State archive but I know UT has a great collection of that kind of material. Thanks for stopping by, Marva!