The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.
The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.
Leading the Libraries
Libraries were once simple places: Books and journals came in, and, after they were cataloged, books and journals went out. The library shelves held collections of the world’s wisdom, and in the hushed reading rooms and research carrels, students and scholars pored over texts, steadily increasing the planet’s store of knowledge.
But while the fundamental concept hasn’t really changed—the library still exists to house information and provide it to whatever public it serves—the institution itself has recently undergone a radical transformation, both in the kinds of material it houses and in the ways it makes its holdings available. Nowhere is this more true than at the University, where the Yale library system, the seventh largest in the world, is adapting to a host of challenges brought about by changes in the nature of information.
These changes are now being managed by new leadership. Last August, Alice Prochaska, a historian with an extensive career in library administration in England, became University Librarian. Earlier in the summer, medievalist Barbara Shailor, a dean and classics professor at Rutgers, returned to her native New Haven to direct the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Both women bring a wealth of experience to a job that has become increasingly difficult to define.
“Technology is racing ahead so fast that we’ve arrived at a place where we no longer know what the library of the future will look like,” says Prochaska, who comes to Yale after serving as director of special collections at the British Library, the national library of England. “But one thing is certain: I don’t see the demise of the book.”
While partisans of paper and print will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, Prochaska, who is the second woman to hold the post of University Librarian (Millicent Abell, who served from 1985 to 1994, was the first), is no Luddite hoping to stem the digital tide. “We’re seeing the advent of the hybrid library, a place where laptops and Internet access are as important as traditional materials,” she says. “This trend will continue, and it means that librarians have a critically important role to play in ensuring that students and scholars can make the best use of every kind of information resource available, whatever form it takes.”
Prochaska oversees a bewildering array of material. The Yale library system includes 22 separate libraries—the Beinecke, science, medicine, forestry, social science, and divinity, among them. Library users have access to more than 10.5 million bound volumes and at least 63,000 journals, as well as, in the words of catalogers, 2.9 million “units of audiovisual materials.” The library system also houses a number of collections, from manuscripts and archives to human brains preserved in formaldehyde.
Among the highlights of the tenure of Prochaska’s predecessor, Scott Bennett, who retired after seven years as University Librarian, was the successful completion of a massive renovation program, the creation of an off-site shelving facility, the conversion of millions of records into a new online catalog, and, during the past year, significant advances in dealing with an ever-expanding number of digital documents (see February 2001).
Within this information landscape, Prochaska is perhaps most at home with the collections side of the Library. “I was trained as an archivist; caches of archival material are what I best understand,” she says.
Born and raised in Cambridge, England, Prochaska studied modern British history at Oxford. There, she wrote her doctoral thesis on the reform movement and the history of British radicalism in the early 19th century, receiving her doctorate in 1975. She also worked as a museum curator and in 1973 assembled a special exhibition on London in the 1930s that captured media interest, and Prochaska found herself on camera and in front of microphones. “I really enjoyed radio and TV,” she says. “It was terrific fun, much more than I expected.”
But it was the curatorial work that truly captured her attention. “I found my metier,” says Prochaska, adding that her career path was not at all unusual. “Many archivists are also historians. Not only are we involved in the care, preservation, and publicizing of the records of organizations, but there’s also a need to understand how the organizations have worked over time.”
After eight years at the Institute of Historical Research in London University, Prochaska joined the staff of the British Library in 1992 as director of special collections. “Much of the material at the British Library is similar to what we have at Yale,” she said, ticking off collections of manuscripts, music, maps, and sound archives. “So I’m on familiar ground.”
The new University Librarian is also no stranger to the issues and politics involved in the information revolution.
Prochaska chaired the British Library’s Digitization Policy Group, and she was responsible for moving the special collections into the Library’s controversial new building. “People have been carried away with the digital revolution,” she says. “We were asked, ‘Why does the Library need a new building when the book is obsolete?' One of our great challenges is convincing everyone that there isn’t likely to be any diminishing of the amount of traditional material we need to look after.”
According to Prochaska, libraries, at least for the foreseeable future, will be more than strings of ones and zeros that reside in banks of information-dispensing computers. A watertight roof, sturdy walls and windows, and a reliable climate-control system will continue to be necessary. Digitization does, however, offer an important advantage in these days of decreasing funds. “We now have the opportunity to work closely with other kindred institutions and share resources,” she says.
Ironically, the easy and instant availability of digital copies may make the real thing more, rather than less, important. “The true scholar will always want to see the original,” says Prochaska, “and when that happens, our goal will be to provide the best possible service.”
The mission is much the same across Wall Street at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Now 38 years old, this late-Modernist jewel box holds one of the finest collections of “originals” on campus—and, without a doubt, in the world. Barbara Shailor, who became the Beinecke’s fourth full-time director last summer, was already familiar with its contents. “This is where so many of Yale’s treasures are preserved,” says Shailor, who succeeded Ralph Franklin, the library’s director for 18 years. “There are very few places like the Beinecke.”
The landmark building, itself an icon of modern architecture, was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and opened in 1963. Behind its striking translucent marble panels is one of the few surviving Gutenberg Bibles, two double-elephant-folio original editions of Audubon’s Birds of America, and an illuminated manuscript presented by Elihu Yale in 1714 to the Collegiate School, which became Yale College. The Library, funded and endowed by the Beinecke family, is Yale’s principal repository for literary papers and for early manuscripts and rare books in the fields of American, British, and German literature, theology, Western American history, modernism in art and literature, and the natural sciences.
During Ralph Franklin’s tenure, the Beinecke’s holdings, as well as the infrastructure to support scholarship and education, grew dramatically. The library now houses more than half a million volumes, nearly 200,000 of which reside in a climate-controlled central tower, and several million manuscripts. Its holdings range from ancient papyrus rolls of Homer’s Iliad to the avant-garde “metal book” of F.T. Marinetti, and from the manuscripts of Cicero and Juvenal to the papers of Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes.
Among the treasures is a group of rare, pre-1600 manuscripts that the new director has studied extensively. “Originally, I thought I’d be an archaeologist,” says Shailor, who grew up in Hamden and went to Wilson College in Chambersberg, Pennsylvania, from 1965 to 1969. There, she met Cora Lutz, an eminent medievalist who conducted much of her work at the Beinecke and hired Shailor as a summer research assistant. Shailor, a classics major, was intrigued with the history of ancient Greece and had hoped to be walking through the lands mentioned by Homer. But as she set about putting the Beinecke’s medieval manuscripts in order, “the experience literally changed my perspective,” she says.
Shailor was hooked. She enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, earned a doctorate in classical philology (the study of the interplay of language, literature, and culture) in 1975, and wrote her doctoral thesis on the way knowledge in medieval Spain had been transmitted through books. “I fell in love with the idea of the book—of the book as an artifact that represents the culture that produced it,” says Shailor. “In essence, I was still doing archaeology.”
After graduation, Shailor joined the classics faculty of Bucknell University in 1975, teaching there for more than 20 years and serving in a variety of administrative positions. In 1996, she left Bucknell for Rutgers to become dean of its Douglass College, the largest undergraduate women’s college in the United States; she was also professor of classics.
Through it all, Shailor made regular trips back to the Beinecke, where she continued the work she'd begun in the 1960s with her first mentor, research that culminated in the monumental three-volume Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Shailor’s 1988 study, The Medieval Book, also derived from her research at the Beinecke, and has been reprinted several times, most recently last year, and she has several other projects in the works. The proximity to some of her primary source material will no doubt make her life as a medievalist easier.
“The kinds of materials we’ve collected—books and manuscripts, along with such things as photos and letters—that’s where research in the humanities begins,” says Shailor. “If you want to understand a writer such as, say, Gertrude Stein, you can’t just read her published works. To put together the full picture, you have to look at photographs and examine letters sent to her and letters she wrote. You can do that here.”
The Beinecke came about because of a realization in the 1950s that “a major research university needed a library devoted to special collections,” Shailor continues. Major gifts from various members of the Beinecke family provided funds for the structure and an endowment for maintenance, staff, conservation, and the purchase of new material.
As such, the library is a financially independent organization. Shailor reports both to the University Librarian and to the Corporation. “We’re distinct by historical mission and identity,” she says. “But there’s a great and growing sense of synergy between the Beinecke and the Yale library system.”
There is also a sense that its collections could be used by more people. “This is a laboratory for the humanities,” says Shailor. “We’re trying to figure out how to bring more undergraduates into the Beinecke, both by integrating our material into the curriculum and making it easier to access.”
The new director sees an important role for technology in solving that problem. Increasing the number of entries of nontraditional objects in the Beinecke’s online catalog would, for example, enable potential students to more easily determine whether something is of scholarly interest. Conservation, of course, is an ongoing issue, so digitizing delicate artifacts would allow them to be studied, even “handled,” electronically by a wider array of the public than is now possible.
Shailor is also thinking beyond Yale, globally as well as locally. “We want to use the fruits of our research in the humanities to enrich the scholastic environment of New Haven-area students and teachers,” she says. “That’s an opportunity—and an obligation.”
Between Shailor’s own efforts and those of her colleague Alice Prochaska at Sterling, Yale’s libraries would seem to be giving new meaning to the term “world class.”
©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. email@example.com