Land of Grand Librarians

by Larry Guthrie

05/03/2016

Every day an imposing shadow strides across our nation’s capital from the largest library in the world. While the structure alone is a beautiful feat of architecture and design, it’s the institution’s contents that make it hallowed ground for those still dedicated to a secular Minerva, the Roman goddess of poetry, wisdom, and commerce.

The Library of Congress’s prime mission is to serve the US Congress, mostly through the Congressional Research Service (CRS). To serve this goal, the Library of Congress  holds 32 million cataloged books and other print material in 470 languages, plus 61 million manuscripts and the largest rare book collection in North America.

All this is overseen by the Librarian of Congress, who is appointed by the President of the United States, usually for life. The position requires high political savvy and connections, scholarliness, and library acumen.

Last fall, James H. Billington resigned from his position as Librarian of Congress, which he had held since 1987, and David S. Mao, an American law librarian, became the acting Librarian of Congress. Now, as President Obama deliberates his next appointment, he might note that much has changed since the Reagan years, and the next Librarian of Congress will have the ability to either ease or restrict copyright restrictions. Will the next Librarian of Congress embrace the Internet age by making more of our national archives available online, or restrict how Americans use content and technology?

Although Oklahoma has yet to produced a president, it has borne one of our nation’s top librarians, as well numerous other librarians of heroic distinction. Librarianship remains a strain of Oklahoma’s history, ever since on November 16, 1907, when Oklahoma’s first Governor Charles N. Haskell was inaugurated on the steps of the Carnegie Library in Guthrie.

Daniel Boorstin was Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. He was raised in Tulsa and graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1930 at the age of 15. While studying at Harvard, Boorstin renounced his membership to the Communist Party and became a conservative. He was awarded the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in History and was instrumental in starting the Center For the Book at the Library of Congress. Boorstin said, “Ideas need no passports from their place of origin, nor visas for the countries they enter…. We, the librarians of the world, are servants of an indivisible world… Books and ideas make a boundless world.”

Angie Debo was a map librarian at Oklahoma State University, author of 13 books, and heralded as Oklahoma’s “greatest historian” by Governor Brad Henry in his inaugural address in 2007. Her career was marked by controversy resulting from her book And Still Run The Waters, which details corruption in the treatment of Native Americans. It was completed in  1936  but not published until 1940, and after its publication she was temporarily barred from teaching in Oklahoma. She was an editor for the WPA book project Oklahoma: A Guide to The Sooner State, although her contributions were allegedly revised without her permission. Now her  portrait by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City.

Mary Hudson was Okemah Public Library’s first librarian in 1927 and librarian to Woody Guthrie until he moved to Pampa, Texas, in 1929. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Woody “was a passionate reader… from the Okemah Public Library to the New York Public Library, wherever he went he obtained books to read.”

Ruth Brown of the Bartlesville Public Library was terminated from her position as head librarian in 1950 with accusations of being a communist during the height of the McCarthy era. The Bartlesville Women’s Network said that the real reason for her termination was her decision to allow African Americans to check out books, which defied Jim Crow laws of the era. Honoring Ruth Brown’s heroism, subsequently, a film was made in 1956 entitled  Storm Center, starring  Bette Davis. Louise Robbins published The Dismissal of Ruth Brown in  2000, and a bust of Ruth Brown sculpted by Janice Albro was unveiled on March 11, 2007, at the Bartlesville Public Library.


Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016.