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'My Library Was Dukedom Large Enough'

On journeying from Swarthmore to Shakespeare

McCabe Library was the beginning. 

It was all so different—I saw beautiful stone, polished wood, comfortable seating, miles of books, and red-carpeted stairs. My first time there, I slowly circled every floor, stopped to gaze at huge trees through slim vertical windows, and felt a stillness that, for me, was unknown. 

After four years of military service, I felt so grateful, and classes hadn’t even started yet.

I had flown military standby into Philadelphia, stood at the bottom of Magill Walk that first night, and cried. The next day I went to the Office of Financial Aid, where a lovely woman said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” It was overwhelming, going from a difficult, loud, lonely time to a place where kind people spoke quietly in complete sentences and talked about everything, upright or sprawled in deeply cushioned lounge areas of the library. I made a friend who was a real poet, and still is. Another could recite King Lear, front to back. People read Thomas Mann in German, for fun. I learned about Einstein’s trains, listened to a prepared piano, and saw W.H. Auden give a reading in his bedroom slippers.

Soon my days began and ended in McCabe: my touchstone, a place of solace and concentration. I saw that other students had their routines: preferred corners, favorite chairs, reading in comfortable postures or gazing out those same windows, thinking. I’d never known anything like that privacy and calm. Between classes I bent over exhibition cases or walked through the stacks picking up books, smelling them, books I knew about and wanted to read, along with unfamiliar titles. It changed my life to know that I could reach out and touch anything I wanted.

I became interested in how libraries work, and why they don’t. I became a student of library operations, not just the mechanics of collecting and circulating resources, but in the care and management of those resources, the details of conservation and bibliographic control, and, most important, in the feel of a place. It was in McCabe that I learned to appreciate the vitality of research environments, without knowing that creating them would become my life’s work.

I went on to spend 15 years as librarian of the Folger Shakespeare Library and am often asked what it was like. 

It was a privilege. I worked with talented, remarkable people who gave everything to their work, who lived it.

For all of us, the thrill of being at the Folger was living every day with that peerless collection, which included the largest holdings of early English printed books in North America, from Caxton to Dryden, with rare editions of Spenser, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, Donne—from the Tudor-Stuart period through the Restoration—and of course everything by and about Shakespeare from the 16th century to date. 

Alas, scholarship is a lonely business. At times, even people who love you don’t want to hear about it anymore. That’s where librarians come in. We listen, discuss, and provide resources that scholars know about, and others they don’t. We are their support system. It’s why we unlock the doors in the morning, with a simple commitment to support study and research. It’s the integrity of the work that draws us.

For me, everything began at Swarthmore, in my classes and in the McCabe Library, and it makes perfect sense, in retrospect, that it led to a career in librarianship. 

That respect for learning and love of the resources that sustain it, the physical objects as well as the content—it ultimately lit my path, as I hope it does and always will for all patrons of Swarthmore’s libraries.