The True University
A History of the Western Washington University Library1899-1998
By Marian Alexander
In his welcoming message to students in the October 4, 1928, issue of The Northwest Viking, the newly re-christened student paper, President Fisher noted with pleasure that "the new library has already proved to be a great asset to our school equipment." In the first year of operation, the new library was such a success that the paper was moved to conclude on August 2, 1929, that it decidedly was "a building that would have amazed those students of other days."
The glorious reading room housed the 20,000 books most closely related to the current curriculum, while the rest were accessible in the nearby, multi-level bookstacks. Students no longer had to request issues of current magazines at a desk, as these were placed in open stacks in the reserve and periodicals rooms. As for study space, The Northwest Viking boasted on October 16, 1931, "there are plenty of tables for all the students to study in the main room as well as in the other two rooms."
The dramatic increase in space also allowed the librarians to present displays and exhibits, for which there had been no spare room in the old, over-crowded facility. Early exhibits focused on "the newest things in professional literature" and accumulation and care of a personal library in1929, and in June 1930, professional books related to psychology. The librarian of children’s literature, Beatrice I. Doty, prepared many displays of children’s books, celebrating such themes as International Book Week, the Olympic Games, and recipients of the Newberry and Caldecott medals for children’s literature. Miss Wilson herself contributed several displays on the subject of selecting recreational reading.
The new facility also provided welcome new space for staff, which by 1928 had expanded to include three librarians specializing in reference, children’s literature, and cataloging, and two staff assistants. Within a few years of the move, another reference librarian and a reference librarian/cataloger were added.
Starting to instruct
With this increase in personnel, the library was able to further develop its instruction program. Since 1903, Miss Wilson had provided lectures and classes on finding and using library materials, and in 1912/13, she initiated a two-credit elective library instruction course "to give teachers a working knowledge of library methods and the use of books."
In 1916/17, this became a two-credit course required of all juniors. With the 1924/25 school year, the course was required of all freshmen. In 1936, by now titled "Library Techniques and Book Usage," the course was raised to three credits, at the behest of Miss Wilson and with the full support of President Fisher. Miss Wilson also provided non-credit "library lectures," which, according to The Western Viking of October 14, 1938, were required that year of all new students as well as those who had not had library instruction during the previous ten years. Such importance was attached to these that students were to be "excused from conflicting classes in order to attend."
In 1932/33, the library introduced the "School Librarian Course" in order to "meet a definite need in the State of Washington for training school librarians for the Elementary School and the Junior High School." Further support came to this program with the appointment to the professional staff in 1934 of Miriam B. Snow, an experienced teacher, school librarian, and library school instructor. Re-introduced in 1936/37 as the "Course for Teacher-Librarians," the program offered such courses as Library Organization & Administration and Cataloging & Classification, together with courses on children’s literature and the specific aspects of library work with children.
Growth and concern
Along with services and instructional offerings, the library’s collections too continued to grow. At the time of the move into the new building, the library included over 38,000 volumes, "6,000 files of pamphlets, 500 files of magazines," and 3,500 children’s books. Not surprisingly, the pace of acquisitions slowed between 1930/31 and 1934/35, the core years of the Depression, to about 1,000 volumes annually, or half the rate of previous years. The library focused on the reference collections, adding such essential resources as the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.
The poetry, fiction, and literary biography collections also received attention, especially after the arrival in 1933 of Dr. Arthur C. Hicks as head of the English department. Many large sets, as well as collected and multi-volume standard editions, such as the Oxford Books poetry series, were purchased during this time. The periodicals list also continued to expand and in The Northwest Viking of August 2, 1935, Miss Wilson was pleased to report that "every subject now in the four year curriculum is represented by at least one magazine."
By 1936/37, the rate of acquisitions had picked up and the library numbered 51,500 volumes in its collections, along with 13,500 pamphlets, 9,300 vertical file items, 4,500 items in the picture file, and 4,560 children’s books. The Western Viking, re-titled to better suit the new school name of Western Washington College of Education, noted on April 30, 1937, that "Miss Wilson, our college librarian, has placed an unusually large order for materials for the library." By the fall of that year, there were "17,000 books on present day curriculum, all in the main reading room."
Still, there was concern, especially on President Fisher’s part, that the years of decreased funding had affected the quality of the collections. When he was informed in the spring of 1938 by William W. Bishop, Librarian of the University of Michigan, that the Carnegie Corporation of New York was preparing to provide grants to teachers colleges for the purchase of "books of value to undergraduates," he was eager to participate.
The Carnegie grant
Starting in 1928, the Carnegie Corporation undertook a series of projects to aid American college libraries. Four-year liberal arts college libraries were the first to receive grants, followed by junior college libraries. In 1938, heeding the pleas of the needy four-year teachers colleges, the Corporation commissioned an in-depth study of over fifty such institutions that amply documented the sorry state of their libraries. Eventually, the list was narrowed to thirty-one eligible institutions, including Western Washington College of Education. The grants available, up to $9,000 per institution, were to be used to supplement, rather than replace, regular library appropriations.
On May 8, 1938, Mr. Bishop, chairman of the Corporation’s advisory group on college libraries, informed Dr. Fisher that Warren Perry, Librarian of the College of Puget Sound, would visit the campus to gather information and view the library. Following his visit on May 11, Mabel Zoe Wilson provided additional information as requested, including a summary of the teaching experience of the library staff, overall circulation statistics for the school year 1936/37, and a breakdown of circulation totals by broad Dewey Decimal classification number.
On August 10, 1938, Mr. Bishop informed Dr. Fisher that WWCE was one of the institutions being considered by the advisory group. "It would help the Group greatly in making its final selection," he wrote, "if you would submit to the Chairman a program indicating how the money would be spent if a grant for the library were made available." As Miss Wilson was away on her usual summer holiday, the President had to rely on an "assistant librarian and the secretary" to draft such a program, "expressing as nearly as they could the ideas which they know the head librarian has." The "Suggested Program" they devised proposed the purchase of reference works such as general encyclopedias, dictionaries, special encyclopedias, and handbooks in several subject areas; indexes to genres such as poetry and drama; complete sets of standard authors and translations of the classics; and additions to the ‘readers’ advisory collection" of non-curricular material "to induce our students to continue their reading and study after they have completed their college course."
Sending the requested program on August 17, Fisher hastened to assure Bishop that the grant, if received, would be appropriately allocated and managed. Among Miss Wilson’s fine qualities, he attested, "there is one that is outstanding, namely the selection and purchase of material for the making of a well-rounded library." In addition, all requirements of the grant would be scrupulously followed. "From my past experience with Miss Wilson, I can assure you that the money would be wisely spent and strictly in accordance with the provisions of the grant, should it be made to us."
On December 15, 1938, the good news came. The Carnegie Corporation would appropriate $9,000 to Western Washington College of Education. "This grant," President Fisher gratefully acknowledged, "comes to us at this season of the year as a beautiful Christmas present to our College." It would serve, he went on, to "make it possible for us to put our library in first class condition through the purchase of books of permanent value for general use."
Of the twenty-nine grant recipients, Western Washington College of Education was the only one located in the Far West, and one of only eight libraries selected to receive the maximum grant of $9,000. In a letter of December 30, Warren Perry, who had evaluated the status of the library on behalf of the Corporation, let Mabel Zoe Wilson know that the advisory group had been impressed. He felt success had come "because of the many unusual features in your Library service," which he had been able to report to the group. "I thought that especially significant were the absence of any money fines and the fact that you were able to report at any time on the actual use of books for any class." Of his own college’s library, he noted "I wish we could do the same here."
All the Carnegie grants were provided in three equal installments, the first made available immediately and the others on October 1 of 1939 and 1940. Miss Wilson organized a plan to expedite expenditure of the funds. This included meeting personally with each college department, developing lists for each department’s chairman of "subjects and phases of subjects which needed to be introduced, augmented, or specialized, from the library viewpoint," and collecting ideas from the departments about "subjects which they rated as valuable correlations to the curricula." The "subjects accented most" in this process were "fine arts, literature, social sciences, science, religion, and reference books."
The Corporation’s central office in Ann Arbor, Michigan handled all purchasing details. This was intended as a safeguard for those librarians required to use centralized governmental purchasing offices, which, the Corporation had found, sometimes exerted authority over the librarians’ selection decisions. Along with other grant recipients, Miss Wilson sent numbered lists of desired titles to Ann Arbor, rather than to the College’s purchasing office or directly to publishers.
Many of the titles requested by WWCE were either out-of-stock or out-of-print, according to reports from the book agents used by the Corporation. Other, more sensational perils also interfered with order fulfillment. "We have just received advice from London by radio," advised the New York office of the G. E. Stechert & Co. agency on December 12, 1941, "that another steamer has been sunk with a shipment for us of eleven cases of books and two bales of periodicals comprising two weeks issues."
Early on in life of the grant, Miss Wilson expressed concerned about accomplishing a rapid, orderly expenditure of the funds. "I am the only member of the library staff who can assume the work of book selection," she wrote to the Corporation on June 5, 1939. By early 1942, her strenuous efforts notwithstanding, WWCE was one of the very few grant recipients still showing a substantial account balance.
On January 29, 1942, she appealed to members of the faculty to let her know immediately the title "of any set of books by an individual author, government, institution, or association which you think we ‘ought to have’ and do not." Or, she would prepare lists of authors and titles if a faculty member had in mind "that a certain ‘field’ be greatly amplified." She also strongly encouraged suggestions for reference works, especially, in accord with the Carnegie guidelines, materials geared to undergraduates. "Do you have all you need under this heading?" she asked plaintively.
By June 1, 1942, the official expiration date of the grant, the unexpended balance was down to $310, which the Corporation transferred directly to WWCE for local payment of the remaining outstanding orders. Overall, the cumulative effect of the Carnegie grant on collection statistics was dramatic. By 1943/44, when all available grant items ordered would most likely have been received, the library could claim 66,000 volumes, a thirty- percent increase over 1937/38.
A different future
In the fall of 1939, Dr. William Wade Haggard assumed the presidency of the College following the contentious dismissal of President Fisher. Despite the abrupt loss of her longtime ally, Mabel Zoe Wilson’s enthusiasm for facing new challenges seemed undiminished as she entered her fourth decade of service. In May 1940, she submitted a document to the new President summarizing the "respective work of the members of the library staff."
She also suggested a re-organization of the library operation along the lines of "definite departments, each headed by a specialist." By this time, the professional staff included three librarians in addition to Miss Wilson herself: one reference librarian (Henry Coleman, followed in 1941 by Herbert R. Hearsey), a catalog librarian (Lillian George), and the "campus school librarian" (Miriam B. Snow; formerly called the librarian for children’s literature).
In a later report, "Post War Topics We Can Work On Now," probably written in 1943, Miss Wilson presented still more issues for future consideration. These included the need for a larger budget to properly support curricular expansion and the potential difficulties posed for the library by the growing number of department libraries on campus. Organizationally, the function of the existing children’s library in the campus school system required study and a complete inventory of the collections was urgently needed, as was a system of shared book selection similar to that which had worked so well during the years of the Carnegie grant.
In focusing on the future as the difficult war years concluded, Miss Wilson seemed in tune with the administration. The College anticipated rising enrollments, as well as a broadening of the curriculum to encompass Bachelor of Arts degree programs. The Carnegie grant had significantly expanded and enriched the library’s holdings and collection growth had continued at a respectable, if somewhat diminished rate, in the years immediately following. By the start of the 1944/45 academic year, the volume count was nearing 70,000, the 1928 facility was still adequate, although students complained continually about the lighting in the main reading room, and affection and regard for Miss Wilson herself remained high, at least among the students.
Then, on April 20, 1945, came the announcement to the Board of Trustees: "the appointment of Mildred E. Herrick, M. A. in Library Science, University of Michigan, to the position of Librarian, beginning October 1, 1945, at an annual salary of thirty-four hundred ($3400.00)." The news was made available to all in the Bellingham Herald of September 30, 1945, in an article concerning new faculty at the College. Listed among these was "Miss Mildred Herrick, who comes from Swarthmore college in Pennsylvania, where she was assistant librarian, to succeed Miss Mabel Zoe Wilson, retired, as librarian."
In the end, Mabel Zoe Wilson departed with the same alacrity that marked her unheralded arrival in February 1902 and in circumstances nearly as mysterious. What is certain is that on March 3, 1945, she had attained the age of sixty-seven. In January 1945, by an agreement reached in 1940 by their Boards and Presidents, sixty-seven became the mandatory retirement age for administrative, teaching staff, and other employees of the three state Colleges of Education. Retirement was to be automatic upon reaching sixty-seven, although individual employees could be asked to continue service at the discretion of the Trustees. There is no record that the Board made such a request of Miss Wilson.
After forty-three years of service as librarian of the institution in all its incarnations, with neither fanfare nor official farewell, Mabel Zoe Wilson was gone. By the time of her retirement, she was already something of a legend. Her outstanding achievement, wresting a library into being from almost nothing, was evident for all to see. Although, as her longtime colleague Miriam Snow Mathes wrote, "her dedication to one library was total," she also made her mark on the development of library service and the library profession in Washington State and the region.
She served the Pacific Northwest Library Association in many capacities, including as President, participated in the founding of the Washington Library Association, and was active in the drive to re-codify state library laws in 1935 to include centralized county library services. An avid traveler, she attended meetings and observed libraries throughout the state and nation, and made regular trips across-country and abroad, on which she reported in the student newspaper of the day. She was famed for the extravagant parties and dinners she hosted for students and staff at downtown hotels and for flashes of sentimentality ranging from silently acknowledging staff birthdays with flowers to creating part-time jobs for war widows.
This extraordinarily complex and vigorous woman, who left such an indelible mark on the institution she served for all her professional life, was perhaps best captured by the anonymous student who wrote, in dedicating the 1939 edition of the college annual to her:
"To one who has had all-encompassing vision for future worlds and present opportunities….who, through persistent and careful effort has built up the ‘library’ within the edifice….who has sought breadth of thinking and living, and found culture….to one who frankly and unflinchingly expresses her views….who can discuss issues in deadly earnest, and exchange sallies with no slow wit….who can still find time to laugh and be gracious….to WWC’s head librarian, Miss Mabel Zoe Wilson"