Professor Emeritus of English and former Director of the Converse Memorial Library and class of 1926
Interviewed on December 2, 1977
Subject: Origins of the Hampshire Inter-Library Center (HILC)
Rights and citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]
An Interview with
NEWTON F. McKEON
Room 25, Grosvenor House
Horace W. Hewlett
For: Amherst College
HWH: This is Horace Hewlett in Room 25, Grosvenor House, with Professor of English and Director of the Robert Frost Library Emeritus Newton F. McKeon talking about the origins of HILC, the Hampshire Interlibrary Center.
Newt, I have it that HILC was incorporated on March 20 1951. There had been a lot of activity, I know, before that in cooperative library operation and use. I’d like to start, with those pre-1951 efforts to establish a library center. I have it that one Fremont Rider, who, I believe, was librarian at Wesleyan, called for a regional meeting in 1937, October 1937, to discuss creating a regional university library. Do you have any idea why that didn’t succeed?
McKeon: Well, Bud, this will probably fill the tape. I do. The meeting never was held, to begin with. Or, if one was, Amherst sent no one. And I was never told of it. But he did get out a document promoting such an idea. And he claimed, at that time, that he’d been working about six years on it.
The first meeting was held in Hartford at the old Hotel Bond in December 1940. Prior to that, he’d gotten out a document on the date you named, 1937, which passed around, but there’d been no call to gather. He then made his mind up that there were nine libraries that should be brought together and he sent out a document which re-phrased the earlier one. It arrived in our hands four days before we met.
We all went to Hartford on a bad winter’s day and he presented us with still another document, which we always called by the color of the wrapper on it, the “Terracotta Document.” The group comprised the three Connecticut libraries-- Wesleyan, Trinity, Connecticut College; the three Massachusetts libraries-- Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke. And then he swept into it Williams, Vassar, and Wellesley. We all met. It was a disastrous meeting in that the document ended with spaces for each of the nine to sign and thus indicate that we believed in it all and were committed to it. We hadn’t read it before we got there, but it was expected that we would all approve it. I think I should tell you a little bit about Fremont Rider, at this point.
He was what, in the period of Queen Anne, was called a “projector.” Defoe did a book called An Essay on Projects. Well, this was Rider. Solutions for everything. He has written an autobiography which is amazing reading. He called it Master of None, which is a sort of piece of inverted vanity because the point of it all was to show he could do anything and do it well.
HWH: Not to interrupt, but how old a man was he in the early 1940s?
McKeon: Let me see. At this time, this was just about my 36th birthday, and it must have been, I would say, his 55th. The trouble was that, though he had good ideas he was very assured concerning them. Some of his ideas came to pass because he wanted to bail himself out of situations he’d gotten into.
In any event, Bud, he was very assured about the things he’d lived with a long time in his mind, and he was quite convinced that everybody else should be at the drop of the hat. At the meeting, I kept notes in detail, and Mary Dunham, the Smith Librarian likewise kept notes in detail. So we have documentation of that meeting (as of later ones). Peyton Hurt from Williams pulled out immediately, in something close to disdain and umbrage, saying this business of Rider’s is simply a matter of asking, “have you stopped beating your wife?” No matter what you answer, you’re in the wrong if you don’t accept his proposals. The Wellesley librarian and the Vassar librarian likewise bailed out and that left six of us.
We had a second meeting which was introduced by still another document and we made a little progress but not very much. The whole trouble with it was Rider’s poor psychology of how to deal with other people and bring us along. He was the self-appointed bellwether and we were to be his docile flock.
HWH: Was he recognized in any way as a leading librarian at that time?
McKeon: Yes, although he was also, to a degree, a maverick librarian. He came out of the business world. He’d been in publishing, he’d been in printing, he’d been in a lot of things; he’s a Wesleyan alumnus. And after he got to Wesleyan he had big ideas, and big business ideas, so that instead of just ordering books that were wanted by Wesleyan, he took to buying what he called “libraries en bloc.” And then the place was full. He couldn’t digest them. They weren’t books necessarily that Wesleyan needed at the moment but...
HWH: He would go out and bring in collections even though they might duplicate each other?
McKeon: He would buy BIG! And I cite only this to indicate that there was a certain amount of the maverick in him. He was not doing it in the conventional way. He was ambitious for himself. He was ambitious for Wesleyan. After the second meeting, which got us nowhere... I would say everybody there was a person of good will and interested in making something of his proposals, but it was all a matter of assertion on Rider’s part, to which we were expected to give assent. On our part, we were saying, let’s demonstrate, let’s test some of these claims of yours before we go on. So after the second meeting, Miss Ludington from Mount Holyoke and I put our heads together, met with Mr. Rider, and took the lead away from him. We got ourselves made into a sort of informal committee which was to plan the agenda for subsequent meetings.
At the next meeting, the third, and these happened one on top of the other-- first December, then February, then probably April, and later May-- I’ll come to that. At the third meeting, the agenda for which Miss Ludington and I had prepared, we got right down to brass tacks of testing some of his generalizations. We agreed that we would collect all the current periodical subscriptions of the six libraries and put them together to see what we could learn about needless duplication. However, we limited that to the first part of the alphabet. We did letters A through F by title, and even that sample took quite a little time. There was also, all along, almost from the outset, his desire to establish what they love to call, a union catalog; i.e. a catalog of all the holdings of all the cooperators. And this was going to be printed out in what he called a continuously cumulative catalog, so that it would come out alphabetically and we would get A, then B, and run right through the alphabet. Then we’d redo it, and we’d be continually bringing the thing up to date. We had a strong feeling that because the places had similar commitments academically, the duplication that we were going to get out of this would be tremendous, the discovery of complementary sources would be relatively slight. So we beat him down on that and we chose the letter “F” in everybody’s catalog, the main entry, all authors’ names commencing “F”, and we collected slips on all of them and put them together and sized up what we were going to get. We saw that the editing was going to be tremendous, because we described things in different ways and we put names down in different forms and all the rest.
HWH: As I understand it, Newt, this involves, still, six institutions: three here and Wesleyan, Trinity and Connecticut College.
McKeon: That’s right. Now I should say quickly that it was the three at this end that mattered most to Rider, because he carried Trinity along in the hollow of his hand, more or less. Its librarian was a part-time Episcopalian preacher, a genealogist, and a passive kind of man, who was putty in Fremont’s hands. In fact his nickname at Trinity was “Putty.” And Connecticut College was the weak member of the six. The Connecticut College librarian was an aging spinster, who more or less marched to Fremont’s drummings.
HWH: Was any one library more eminent than the others in this group of six? Was Smith’s the largest?
McKeon: Smith’s was the one of greatest consequence. I think Fremont felt that Wesleyan was, or rather should be, but it wasn’t. But in order of strength at that moment it was probably Smith, Wesleyan and Amherst neck and neck, Mount Holyoke tagging a little behind. Trinity next, and Connecticut College next.
Well we still had the same troubles of Rider not being willing, not wanting to be patient with this, not wanting to test things to be assured of whether we were on the right track or not.
HWH: Were you meeting as a group of six, or were most of the meetings you three?
McKeon: As a group of six. We had a fourth meeting in May of that year in Cambridge where there was a New England College Librarians meeting at the time, at which time we, in effect, threw up our hands because Rider wasn’t going to give an inch and we weren’t convinced about some of the things he was proposing. However, he wasn’t going to give up. I discovered-- I have found in my notes-- that he went to McConaghey and wanted him to put the pressure on Stanley King to compel us to do as he wished us to.
HWH: McConaghey was president of Wesleyan.
McKeon: And I went to Stanley and said, “Will you please stop this pressure play because it is beside the point in our trying to make a plan and trying to work together?” He was calling it at that time and subsequently called it the “Connecticut Valley Plan.” It’s never been written up in full, not nearly as full as I’m giving it to you now, and it could be fuller.
So we sort of threw up our hands in despair that nothing was coming of this, somehow, and that the greatest stumbling block was the dominance of Rider, or the attempted dominance of Rider, in imposing on us what he wished to do. We also learned something which I can stress again later-- that where cooperation is concerned, the key factor is the individuals who are intending to cooperate. And if you don’t have them, it’s not very good.
Within a week Mary Dunham at Smith, Flora Belle Ludington, and I had a meeting at which we said: all right, this thing has died, but there’s good in it. Let’s salvage what we can.
HWH: Again, not to interrupt you, Newt, In the notes I took you had your first meeting December 14, 1940, the second December 18 the same year. Then you had...
McKeon: No. Only one December meeting.
HWH: Well there was a series of meetings and where we’re at now is probably the meeting of May 16, 1941.
McKeon: That’s the fourth major meeting. We had a meeting at Mount Holyoke with Rider, Miss Ludington, and me, in which we took the reins out of his hands, so to speak.
HWH: So then on May 21, my note says that you and Miss Ludington and Miss Dunham got together. May 21, 1941.
McKeon: That’s correct.
HWH: It’s ten years in advance of HILC.
McKeon: That’s right. Mary Dunham was ready to retire, but she was also prepared to do as much as she could before retiring to make something of this. We’d always lived with rather more informal cooperation than has ever become a matter of record. We knew one another. We agreed, and part of the history of what happened next is to be ascertained in my Annual Reports and probably in the Annual Reports of the others. We made some agreements immediately. And as I remember them, there were three. One was that thereafter we three would buy no book costing more than $10 without first checking with the others to find if a copy was in the area. We didn’t commit ourselves to saying we wouldn’t get it, but at least we’d buy it advisedly.
HWH: Because some books you’d need to duplicate?
McKeon: You have to. We all had to. That was the first point. It’s ridiculous to think of $10; over the years we raised that ante very considerably. I suppose today it would be $100. The next agreement we made-- and this like the others took effect in the following year-- was that we would do no inter-library borrowing from outside until we had exhausted the resources of the area. I had statistics on that in one of my Annual Reports, because prior to that, certainly as far as Amherst was concerned and I think the others, too, our faculty would come in and if they’d done their graduate work at Columbia, Yale, Harvard, they’d say, “Get this from Harvard,” and abject people working in the Library would send to Harvard, or Yale, or Columbia as the case might be. They never searched the area. Well, we found there was a great deal we could do for one another by means of this.
HWH: Did the faculty accept that fact?
McKeon: Well, it was none of their business. They wanted the book. If we got the book, that was what mattered. They wanted service, and we’d gotten quicker service as a matter of fact.
The third understanding had to do with periodical subscriptions. We agreed to inform one another in advance of intentions to commence or to cancel subscriptions. Miss Dunham retired. She was replaced by Miss McPherson. The War came on.
HWH: Was this in 1942?
McKeon: This was-- yes, that’s right. The War came on. Miss Ludington went to run an information library in Bombay, I got drafted to teach the Air Force, here, and had to leave the library. Miss McPherson wasn’t prepared to be cooperative very much, she didn’t know how to be. So we hung on to what we had, and we learned from the agreements we had made. They put to the test some of the very things we had been fighting Rider about. We were trying to learn how we could live together. It wasn’t until Miss Ludington was back from her War work, and all the confusions of the War had ended, and Margaret Johnson had succeeded Harriet Dorothy McPherson, that we had a trio that understood one another, could talk one another’s language, could tease one another, could listen to one another, and it was ideal. We were back on a peace-time basis-- things were returning to normal.
We began talking about formalizing cooperation and how we would do it. We thrashed this question long and hard. We kept the presidents, our three presidents, informed as to what was happening and they were sympathetic. They were very interested. Herbert Davis was at that point still president of Smith, and Roswell Ham had been for a decade or so at Mount Holyoke, Charlie Cole was here; he’d come in ‘46. After wrestling pro and con about how best to proceed, we decided the only way to succeed was to make a real commitment and that was to formalize cooperation, by incorporating under the laws of the Commonwealth. That is, we were convinced that reliance on mere good will was not enough.
HWH: My recollection is, Newt, that you held your first formal meeting to discuss this in September of, I think on September 22 of 1949, though you had been cooperating before that.
McKeon: That’s right. We had a good body of experience, as a matter of fact. We met at Roswell Ham’s house with the Presidents and we said-- and you’ll laugh-- we said: “In order to start this off, if you agree, we will each ante up $250 out of our current budgets. We won’t ask you for a penny.”
HWH: Did you have reason for that figure?
McKeon: No, we were living on very tight budgets. I had-- I won’t tell you what I had-- it was awfully small. $250 was SOMETHING! It was enough; it was earnest money; it was token money. Well, as long as we weren’t asking them for money, the Presidents were ready to fall in. Then Roswell Ham came up with a great idea. If we were going to get incorporated, we’d have to have a constitution, by-laws, and so on, and Russell Davenport was a Trustee of Mount Holyoke and an alumnus of Amherst and he’d do it, probably, for nothing. Well he gave it to one of the young men in his law office in Holyoke and socked us with a BIG bill, relative to our $750 ante. However, it went through.
HWH: Did it have any difficulty? When you say it went through, you mean in the legislature?
McKeon: In the normal way. I think it was simply dealing with the Secretary of State in his office or something of that sort in the end. (McKeon searches for a picture.) So (I’ve dug this out of the file) here we are signing it. Those are the Presidents-- by then, Ben Wright had come to Davis’s place.
HWH: That’s a good picture.
McKeon: It’s a good picture.
HWH: And President Baker of Massachusetts
McKeon: Van Meter.
HWH: President Van Meter. Yes.
McKeon: Now I should say, since you’ve gotten to that, that from the outset we said we must not forget “our poor neighbor”, which was the present University, with miserable resources and everything to gain by cooperating and we included Van Meter as a Director from the outset. It wasn’t the University at that moment, I don’t think. But the institution still lived in fear of the General Court and they were unwilling or feared to seek funds or put any money into HILC, so we said, “Look, you’re invited to be in the party anyway. Come along.” We could not, we felt, invite the University librarian because that was Basil Wood. You remember him. He had total recall and was a real eccentric and was quite incapable of working with. The University we carried for the first several years for nothing. They didn’t participate until Basil Wood retired; Hugh Montgomery came as librarian; Jean Paul Mather came as President, and they began to feel courageous about putting some money into it. However, in the first years, we simply, the three colleges, bought what was bought for HILC, bound what was necessary to be bound for HILC, paid for whatever messenger service there was, and so on, and divided costs three ways and never billed the University. We likewise began depositing-- putting together files that we had duplicatively-- which meant that we had a lot to sell and that added to our resources. The University did nothing of this sort. We paid our out-of-pocket expenses in equal shares and then had the proceeds from the sale of duplicates to spend on added resources.
HWH: Was that a significant amount?
McKeon: It became significant. I can probably give you a figure a little later. There were some very good things that we had to dispose of. So we got some chicken wire and had built a little cage in the Mount Holyoke stack to house the beginnings of HILC. And although we talked about cooperatively doing whatever cataloging and other work of a library nature was required, it was impossible to divide it up three ways, and so the then head cataloguer of Mount Holyoke did what cataloging work there was to be done.
HWH: Was Mount Holyoke quite ready to provide the space? Was that any problem?
McKeon: They were ready to provide that space. This was very very limited. It was all proportioned to that initial $750.
HWH: Did they offer it or were they asked to provide it?
McKeon: No, they offered it. We were all offering one thing or another. I had some old library furniture of wood, card-file cases and things like that and threw them in; and other people threw other things in, too, to get it started. Miss Wilkinson, who was, as I say, the initial cataloguer over there, died suddenly, and at that point the first person who was employed, and I can’t name the year now, I’d have to look through the Annual Reports, was Betty Montgomery, Hugh’s wife. This was a part-time thing that she did, and just about at the same time, Mrs. Cramer (the widow of Professor Cramer who had been an historian at Mount Holyoke-- Elizabeth Cramer) came in to be a handy-woman. She was well-educated and all the rest, with great capabilities. She worked for HILC from that time on, but being widowed, she later married a Dr. Nathan who lived in Holyoke and continued until last June. And on two, maybe three, occasions when we were without someone to run HILC, she was the acting Director and was quite capable of taking it on.
Well, it grew. Initially we exchanged things by the U.S. mails. They were better than they are now, but they were very slow and if we wanted to send something to Mount Holyoke it went to Northampton, to Holyoke, to South Hadley.
HWH: By parcel post?
McKeon: That’s right. So that at the first show of there being use and that there were enough accumulated resources for people to want them, we began a messenger service. I think, if I remember properly, it was twice a week to start with. And it grew. We let it grow as use grew, to the point where it was a daily thing.
HWH: Do you recall the nature of that messenger service? Was it a van?
McKeon: Oh no, it never has been anything but a deal with someone who had a car and was willing to accept mileage for the car and pay for the time. I remember a snarl that did come up over to what extent our liabilities, or the driver’s liabilities needed to be covered, and who could cover them and so on. We faced these things and worked them out somehow as we went along. That was, of course, a new service that had never been before, because the messenger from that day forward ‘til today, did more business in transporting borrowings among the college libraries than loans from HILC.
I can say that I learned, the librarians never knew about this, but I learned that the colleges had gotten a grant from the Fund for the Advancement of Education.
HWH: I have several questions to ask you on that.
McKeon: And this was to enable them to study cooperation. They’d not thought about the libraries. So I went to Charlie and said, “Charlie, can’t it be arranged that the Library share in this grant?”
HWH: Well that’s a far cry-- I’ve jotted down something you wrote when HILC was incorporated on March 20, 1951, which you called the “pool of $750.” Quote: “The beginning of cooperation in the sense of fixed commitments rather than mere good will.” End of quote. Then I did note that you got a grant from the Fund for the Advancement of Education made initially, I think, to Amherst College for $50,000.
McKeon: This was for the three colleges to study cooperation. They must have taken library cooperation for granted.
HWH: And I think that HILC received $18,000 of that.
McKeon: This I believe to be correct and this enabled us to do two things: first, to engage our first full-time, paid director. That was Pauline Collins. Second, to get Keyes Metcalf to come up and do a survey and make a report. That’s the way that grant got used.
HWH: Was Phil Coombs involved in that in any way?
McKeon: Not to my knowledge, unless it was behind the scenes.
HWH: That was in 1954, that original grant. Then in 1960 you received a grant of $10,000 for three years that went through 1964, and I believe that same grant was continued for another three years, through 1968. And that was for $10,000, I believe, for each year, or was it $10,000 for the three years?
McKeon: These details I don’t carry in my head, I’m sorry to say. I can’t answer that.
HWH: Well, rather than the money, Newt, I wondered who was responsible for drawing up the proposal that the Foundation acted on. Did you do it yourself, or you three librarians?
McKeon: Let me go back to the beginning in answering that. On the heels of incorporation we embarked on a round of foundations viewed as likely to be well disposed toward libraries. Teams of two-- a president and a librarian from different institutions-- waited on them. I can’t recall all the approaches made-- none of them successful. Roswell Ham and I told our tale (vainly) to the Old Dominion Foundation, I do remember.
The first grant money HILC had we have already discussed. Obviously the librarians played no part in securing it. Neither did they with regard to a series of Ford Foundation grants over the next thirteen years, which totalled $32,757. You referred to these in your question about $10,000 grants which I could not answer. This was money for so-called “Area” or “non-Western” studies, or rather, for materials to support them. The proposals which led to it were from the interested faculty members working in concert-- Gwen Carter at Smith and others at the three other institutions.
HWH: I believe in ‘69 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare granted $50,000 for collection development in HILC, and a year later, 1970, HEW provided $40,000 for the same purpose. So I guess that...
McKeon: Yes, but they were in 1968 and 1970. As treasurer, I worked very hard on the applications for them. I did all the paperwork and consulted with the others.
HWH: My figures show something in the order of $125,000 from 1954 to 1970 but I see that these figures of yours exceed $140,000. Much of that, of course, was used for organizational purposes-- for salaries...
McKeon: No, it wasn’t. It was used for books. It was used for resources. In fact, the two Health, Education and Welfare grants were specifically for that and nothing else. And they were the biggest.
HWH: So the Colleges undertook the operating expenses.
McKeon: The Colleges, and we got it onto the basis of an annual fee from each member (hunts for paper-- thinks figures should be broken down).
HWH: Well, I don’t think that’s as important as the fact that the funds you received from grants went into resources, rather than into operation.
McKeon: That is correct except the initial grant that we began speaking about (from the Fund for the Advancement of Education) paid Pauline Collins for, I think, three years, and paid Keyes Metcalf for his survey and report.
HWH: You mean the survey of 1957?
McKeon: That’s correct, by my memory.
HWH: Well, do you recall, Newt, what areas you paid particular attention to in building up the collection?
McKeon: We had to be as fair as we could toward all the disciplines that our curricula were responsible for. So that our focus was, from the outset, important, little-used resources, concerning which, we believed that the presence of one set only would serve all purposes, and never forgetting that we had to take care of philosophy as well as history, French literature as well as political science, and so on.
HWH: Did you get into the hard sciences, such as physics?
McKeon: Very deeply. Very deeply. We carried some very, very expensive things for them. So it was a business of attempting to build the resources of HILC, to distribute the resources as we acquired them on much the same basis as we did our own buying for our own libraries. There wasn’t a great deal we could do for some disciplines.
HWH: You mean such as Fine Arts or Music or Dramatic Arts?
McKeon: You bring me back to what I keep insisting on, namely that cooperation is a function of the persons who are cooperating. I don’t think our Art Department ever showed any great amount of interest in HILC, if I can remember properly. They lived high, wide, and handsome. They had a lot of funds and they got what they wanted. And they weren’t, for a long portion of this period, they weren’t building an art reference library very hard. Their wants were not very great as they expressed them.
HWH: Their interests were more in paintings, sculpture than in anything HILC could provide?
McKeon: But I’m only guessing there. I can’t be sure; some of this is a little dim.
HWH: Can you recall the Colleges cancelling expensive periodical subscriptions they held in order to share with each other and HILC?
McKeon: Yes, indeed. This all tied in, in two ways. First of all, we submitted to every department, each of us, lists of the periodicals and the big sets to which they were committed, or which were already in the library, and asked them to scrutinize them and say which things they thought were HILC materials and were willing to forego that way. This meant that we deposited so-called (a certain amount of library lingo gets into this, I’m afraid, Bud)... If there’s a file of something periodic that either ended through suspension of publication or through cancelling the subscription-- that is called a closed entry. That sits on your shelves and is not being added to. Those, when we put them together, we found we had lots of duplicated sets that we were willing to throw in. The duplicates we sold. On current subscriptions, when we reached agreement that we could drop our subscriptions, three of us, two of us, whatever it happened to be, and carry the thing on with just one, then we would agree that we would also put, since we were maintaining it currently in HILC, we would put all that we had previously owned in HILC, too. So that meant some more deposits and some more duplicates. I should say that we told the Presidents from the outset, and they accepted this: “You won’t save a penny! But you’ll build much greater resources for your money.” And it was just as simple as that. When three of us were alone running it, we could have within reach an expensive “something” at a third the cost of what we paid before. And when there were four of us, it was a quarter of the cost and so on.
HWH: I wanted to ask you about that. In 1954 the University was invited to join the corporation, and in 1962, I believe, Forbes Library came in. Just because of their addition, I would guess you did not run out of space, but with your activity I would guess that Mount Holyoke’s facilities became a problem.
McKeon: Well, this little chicken-wire cage that I spoke of didn’t last very long and then the question was, what shall we do? It just so happened that Mount Holyoke had done an addition in the late ‘thirties (about ‘37 or so) at the Williston Library. It included a tower which they had not yet fully used or developed. So the next step was much discussion of what we would do when we outgrew the little cage-- and that came very soon-- and the proposal came from Mount Holyoke, I presume: “We can find space in the tower. There’ll be a level which HILC can have. And that will allow for readers if they wish to come and the staff to do the work and shelves to do the storage.” At that point the three Presidents agreed to ante up the money in equal shares to buy the stacks and furnishings for this, and each put up $3,500. Again, the University wasn’t a party to this. That space had been an area which, during the War, some enterprise of the Mount Holyoke psychologists that bore on the war effort had been using. That project had ended so we got that space.
It hadn’t exhausted its usefulness when the addition was made to the Goodell Library at the University, and they virtually BEGGED HILC to move there-- offered us everything, they were the ones that were going to be the gainers, immediate access to resources such as they’d never had-- they can’t buy today even...
HWH: Their collection was fairly small at that time?
McKeon: Incredible! In fact, I would say that it was, in the latter part of the ‘sixties sometime, about ‘66 maybe, that shouts of glee came from up there, “We’re bigger than you are now!” You see, HILC had been going on for fifteen or more years, with “it” the weak sister. And we advisedly said, “yes, we will move HILC up”-- because they offered a lot of space and they offered more facilities for readers and office space and all the rest.
HWH: And in a way it was more central, too. Not to Mount Holyoke but...
McKeon: Not to Mount Holyoke.
HWH: But it was closer for Smith than South Hadley, and certainly handier for Amherst.
McKeon: That’s right. So there it was. It continued there. Well, things went on that way until the University began to grow by leaps and bounds and we went through, time after time, CURIOUS exchanges with the University library people: couldn’t we have some of this space which has been provided for HILC? Well, of course, it was their space and before we were done they pushed HILC right into a corner.
HWH: And of course Goodell, even with the addition, was so limited in space for what their real needs were.
McKeon: That’s right. Because HILC had so many polyglot things-- German, Russian, Latin, Greek, and so on-- and that’s the area of little used things-- other languages, for one thing, its cataloging required access to good bibliographical resources. They had them, they were within reach at Mount Holyoke; they were within reach at the University.
I remember when they were planning the new library, and in the very early stages Keyes Metcalf was a consultant-- he pulled out of it, for what reason, I don’t know-- but I remember talking to Keyes, and saying, “Now, I hope that you’ll do your best to see that HILC moves into the new building because it needs access to those resources. It can’t be left an orphan child at a remote location.” You see, we never built up a working library for HILC; we depended on the “host” library. Well, that never happened. The move occurred. I can’t put a date on it, but in any case, they moved HILC out to the Graduate Center putting it in a basement area which was undesirable. It was full of mechanicals. B & G at the University resented having it there; and there wasn’t much space, and just above it was a growing library for the graduate school.
By then talk was heard, emanating from University faculty members, saying in effect, “We’ll just take over this HILC thing any day.” So it lived there, a little precariously. My feeling was, it was after my time this happened, my feeling was, that if HILC was to live, it had to be taken away from the shadow of the University. It was, essentially, the enterprise of the three colleges. The three colleges put the money into it. They put their resources into it. Some of their real life-blood was in it. And the University had done very little of this, but it loved to have the stuff within reach. So that when all this latest sequence of events occurred, I had talked to Bill Ward about this divorce from the University, for one thing, and I talked to Will Bridegam when he first came. The deal that was made of moving it to Amherst was the first possible step in perpetuating HILC somehow, which hasn’t happened, as you know. But, nevertheless, it freed it from a kind of trap in which it was, and so there you have it-- two sites in Mount Holyoke, as it grew, two in the University, one in Amherst for a five-year period, and kaput.
HWH: Well, Hampshire joined HILC in 1970 and I suspect, but I don’t know, but I suspect that while they may have taken their share in support of HILC financially, they had the most to gain from its resources.
McKeon: And inasmuch, too, as HILC’s messenger service made the resources of ALL libraries themselves available to them, sure. The simple fact is, I would say, that despite this impending demise of HILC I can in the back of my mind see that if we shook off the University and if we shook off Hampshire, there could be a useful chapter ahead in which the three colleges carried on such an enterprise in THEIR interest only.
HWH: Where they began in the ‘forties.
McKeon: There they began in the ‘forties. That’s right. Now you spoke of the Forbes and I should say a word about that. When the Forbes Library was founded, its eminent librarian Charles A. Cutter had generous funds and he bought and built a library initially more or less on the pattern of the Astor and Lenox in New York, the Newbury and Crerar in Chicago-- a reference library of GREAT substance. For quite a few years, Smith had no library. They used the Forbes. So the Forbes had wonderful research resources that we, all of us, had known and used over the years, that we wanted to draw into the picture, plus the fact that Larry Wikander, who was then librarian of Forbes, was very wisely recognizing the fact that it was a town library, a town circulating library, and that these resources probably had to go. They were not being used. They were a heavy load to carry. We bought some things from them. The University bought some things from them.
HWH: You moved things physically from the Forbes to wherever HILC happened to be.
McKeon: That’s right. And so it was important to get Wikander on the Board. I remember, I personally, having a kind of row at a HILC meeting with Ben Wright when it was proposed that Larry be made a Director and Wright didn’t want him. We exchanged words but we got him on and it was a good thing because it opened us up to all the libraries of Western Massachusetts through the Forbes. This relieved us all of what had always been a nuisance and embarrassment. Somebody would come down from Worthington, who was taking a course at what shall we say, Bay State in Springfield, needing to borrow books. But we didn’t recognize these people, and it was always very awkward, and we couldn’t loan to their libraries, which were only open two afternoons a week and that sort of thing. The Forbes became a vehicle for connecting with the Western Regional Library group of 115 or more little libraries, so that we could, through the Forbes, serve them somehow-- this was I think, unique in American library experience, that we opened up our resources to them.
HWH: So in one sense it was a two-way street of the riches and resources of the Forbes and in another way it put an intermediary between the academic libraries and the public libraries.
McKeon: This is right.
HWH: I wondered, Newt, why Keyes Metcalf was called in in 1957 to study and report.
McKeon: Well, I must say that Keyes has been through the years and still is a sort of doyen of library experts-- library consultants-- I think he was one of the chief movers in the New England Deposit Library which was set up in Cambridge or thereabouts which rented space to libraries at so much a foot and they put things-- a great many libraries-- put things into it. So he had some experience with one kind of cooperation and was respected. I don’t know who else we might have gotten, but anyway we got him-- we knew him.
HWH: But you felt the time had come to assess where you had gone and where you might be going.
McKeon: We thought that an experienced eye, taking a look, might tell us something that would be useful. In simple fact, it didn’t work out that way. We did have one meeting in consequence of his report, at Mount Holyoke, and I’ve forgotten how widely the net was cast, but the Springfield Public and various other libraries were represented. We had a query from the Springfield College Library to join HILC and we rejected that because they had nothing to bring to it and they had borrowing privileges anyway. And it was only going to clutter things up.
HWH: Well, as I recall, one of Mr. Metcalf’s recommendations was to consider bringing in associate members. And I don’t believe you got very far. Maybe that is what you’re speaking of.
McKeon: Well, we never succeeded. After-- long afterwards-- Larry Wikander left the Forbes to be the Williams Librarian. He was a Williams graduate. He’d always believed in HILC. He was a great rooter for it and he wanted Williams to work out some sort of an arrangement. He knew that there was a motor truck service daily-- I think it came out of Hadley and ran from Northampton to Williamstown among other places-- and that it could be used for conveying things back and forth. He attempted to promote some kind of associate arrangement, and at his invitation Bob Whitney and I went up to talk to the Williams faculty.
HWH: Of course, Bob was then Five-College Coordinator-- FOUR College Coordinator.
McKeon: He was then the Four-College Coordinator. We went up and talked to a fair selection of Williams faculty trying to tell them what HILC was, how it might serve them, and one thing and another. Nothing came of that, although we had it all set up, at least to run a trial delivery service via this trucking service which would have to pick up things at Smith to go there.
By then, Margaret Johnson had retired, and those who followed her just didn’t want to be involved. It fell apart. Then just about 1970, I think, Wesleyan and Trinity came and said, “We’d like to talk seriously about joining the whole party.” I was retired by then. I heard about it. I’ve always been very close to Don Engley and Wyman Parker, too, for that matter, and the HILC Directors rejected them out of hand. It looked like a real blossoming, a possible blossoming, at that point, and maybe a return to Rider’s Connecticut Valley Plan in a sense. So that is as near as we ever got to associates and that’s died now because Don Engley has gone to Yale and Wyman has retired.
McKeon: You asked about the faculty. I would say that a number of them take HILC for granted because it brought re sources that they would not otherwise have. Will Bridegam told me about the faculty meeting at which this whole business-- the future of HILC-- came up and that Bill Hexter was among those who spoke, complaining about the fact they wouldn’t be able to see the journals-- you see, we moved the current issues that HILC gets around from place to place on a routing basis to show them off. Whoever is most interested, whoever pushed hardest for it, gets it first for a period and then it moves to the next, the next, and back to HILC.
HWH: To individuals?
McKeon: To the libraries and from them to some department libraries. Now they have been displaying biological things in Biology as they came through and Will tells me that Bill Hexter was troubled because they’d no longer be able to see these things that they’d always seen. In other words he assumed these riches but had never demonstrated any particular interest in what brought them. Duane Bailey is a marked advocate. He was a faculty member of the Directorate and threw himself into it. Hugh Aitken, at one time, spent quite a little time on it. He talked like a Dutch uncle to the Presidents, once, about the way they financed HILC and worked on a scheme of sort of proportionate commitment annually by each place based on a percentage of what they had spent for their own libraries in the previous three or five years or something of that sort. A good idea but it fell on its face.
HWH: I recall that he undertook to prepare this report himself, didn’t he? Wasn’t he a faculty member of HILC?
McKeon: He was the faculty member at one time on it. So there are a few, a very few, I guess, active partisans of HILC. I do them an injustice by not pausing to name them here. There are quite a number that take it for granted, quite a few who don’t know anything about it and don’t care much. At the outset, we said to ourselves, if this thing is going to work, all our faculties must understand what it is and must be brought along so they believe in it and participate. And we tried all sorts of dodges, way back in the ‘fifties which we referred to with one another as “educating the faculty” on HILC. This distributing current issues was one of them, as visible evidence that HILC existed. And this was a real obligation to win over those who were opposed or not interested. We worked it as hard as we could and we got about as far as we could. There was a great deal of inertia.
HWH: I recall, I think it was 1952 Newt, that I worked with you in bringing out HILC’s first annual report.
McKeon: That’s right.
HWH: It was a lot of fun. And you continued that right through your...
McKeon: Well, I wrote the first five or six annual reports, and then Pauline Collins took them on and they ended in 1967-68, I think, because at that time we had a Director, Jackson Lethbridge, who wrote a report that was so, SO impossible that Anne Edmonds and I spent a lot of time saying, “You can’t revise this. One of us will have to write it.” In the end neither one of us did. There’s never been a report since then.
HWE: Just out of curiosity, I looked into those associated with HILC as Directors or cataloguers and so on. You mentioned Mrs. Montgomery at the very first; Pauline Collins was Director from ‘59 to ‘66; Jackson Lethbridge, ‘66 to ‘69; Elizabeth Cramer Nathan was Acting Director, ‘69 to ‘70; then Vlasta Greenbie, who went to the Graduate Research Library at UMASS, was Director from ‘70 to ‘72; then Mrs. Nathan came back again as Acting Director, ‘72 to ‘76; and of course Greg Wilson has been aboard under a new title, Librarian and Research Associate since ‘76. With all the advances the library profession has introduced in recent years, we come to this present situation of the disbandment of HILC. I couldn’t believe what I saw in the Library-- that television-like monitor that can call out from Ohio all the information you need by pressing buttons. It must be sad to see a baby grow and mature and really come to adulthood and then have science overtake it. Do you have any feelings about that?
McKeon: Yes, I have some. In fact I spent a lot of time with Will (Bridegam), and some with Bill Ward and others trying to see WHY it had to fail, as they seemed to think it must. I was motivated, I must say, by the fact that never did anyone have, I would say, never have I had, as admirable a pair of collaborators as Flora Belle Ludington and Margaret Johnson. And with them both dead, I had a strong feeling of piety toward them to do what I could with artificial respiration, if possible.
HWH: You said earlier that cooperation is good, it functions only so much as the people involved.
McKeon: That’s right. Now the present difficulty is that the University has outgrown this thing, really; that Smith happens to have a librarian who is not dependable in the way these other two I mentioned were; so that what is left, really, is Amherst and Mount Holyoke that can go on doing something together.
My one concern about the new chapter is this, that we had succeeded in learning to live together easily and in a great many ways, and in understanding how you could preserve local autonomy and still give in a cooperative way. This new business, as I said to Will (Bridegam) the other day, this new proposal opens up the possibility of more local autonomy or going your own way than used to be when HILC was operating full fledged, because it’s a matter of punching the keys if you choose to, and not punching them if you don’t choose to. I think they’re on the brink of going their separate ways again and I think that’s a loss. Now, I can also double-back quickly, and this is changing the subject a little bit, and say that the first coordinator, Sidney Packard, was an enthusiastic and totally committed advocate of HILC and supporter of HILC. Bob Whitney was the same.
HWH: May I interrupt to say that these two coordinators were on a part-time basis with time given leave from their duties as members of the Smith and Amherst faculties. Quite different from what that is today.
McKeon: True. EVERYTHING is different, everything is changed.
HWH: I interrupted you, I’m sorry. You were talking about Sidney Packard being a strong supporter.
McKeon: And so was Bob Whitney. Then came North Burn. North rolled his sleeves up, initially, to take over HILC, which is a separately incorporated thing. He thought it belonged to him. Well, it did in a way. But we had to fight off from the outset his using the messenger service for everything else possible. We couldn’t render our service unless we controlled it. We stood him up on that. Then, about the same time, up to then, up to the early portion of Calvin’s (Plimpton) period, the Presidents had always been on the Board and were always involved in two meetings a year-- the Annual Meeting and one other. This kept them informed, kept them involved; it enabled us to talk right straight to them together and to get them to ante up. Calvin walked out with all the Presidents and said they wouldn’t be on the Board any more-- that North would represent them. I am very confident that North never represented HILC properly to the Presidents, that he was a little grudging about the fact that he didn’t own it fully and he was interested in his own affairs. The net result was that HILC began to go down hill at that point in terms of its governance, in terms of the involvement of those concerned.
Well for quite a period of time I was the treasurer of HILC, most of the decade of the ‘sixties, I think. This meant that at one of the meetings with the Presidents I had to present a budget, and this was a very embarrassing going-on because they all started nit-picking and showing-off to one another, and Dick Gettell would say, “Oh that’s too rich for our blood.” I was backed into a corner defending this thing and this was what got Hugh Aitken to speak up and say, “This is a miserable way to treat your finances; let’s put this on another basis,” which North was supposed to represent to them and never did.
HWH: Was Hugh at that meeting you’re referring to?
McKeon: Yes, Hugh was there.
HWH: So he heard.
McKeon: Yes, it was because he’d been at the meetings and observed this squirming while they were being big administrators, you know, and picking little flaws and so on. Well, that’s about it.
I can say that in 1949 we were all ready to go with HILC: we were back from the wars, things were going, we had some experience, we knew pretty much what we wanted to do. We wanted a REAL commitment. You put something there, you couldn’t get it back. It was not good will. It was real firm stuff. I was one of several speakers at the dedication of the Lamont Library at Harvard, and at that time I indirectly introduced HILC simply by asking questions and presenting evidence, the answer to which would be, “Of course, you should pull together and so on and so on.” So this was an early document in the thinking.
Then, in ‘53 I think, I had to go to a conference at Goucher-- that was in HILC’s second year-- and I described it, that was the heart of my speech. I looked at it not so long ago; it’s rather a fascinating picture of an infant, an infant thing, in getting going with a lot of enthusiasm. But I did say, in it, “This is a pure act of virtuosity because there is no other cooperation in the classroom or otherwise, and until this happens, this is just a voice crying in the Wilderness.”
HWH: Over the years you must have had many inquiries from other libraries and institutions about how you built HILC, how you went about it. Do you know of any that aped your plan?
McKeon: No, none could, exactly. Our propinquity and our similar, exceedingly similar, natures (that is that of the three colleges) would be hard to duplicate readily. Others would have to collaborate in other terms, probably. I think if one hunted, one could find a modest lot of literature about HILC; various things were written and done but I never tried to keep track of them. Well, that’s it, Bud, I don’t know what else to...
HWH: I think this has been very interesting.
McKeon: I can add that I think that, once again, this bears on the persons involved-- I would judge that Margaret Johnson, Flora Belle Ludington, and I probably may have spent something like 20% of our time on HILC.
HWH: That much?
McKeon: And this leads to another possible guess as to why it seemed to begin to fall on its face. The only one now around who was at all connected with the three of us is Anne Edmonds. She came to succeed Miss Ludington. Apart from her the librarians fell into the habit of really putting nothing of themselves into it. A Committee for this, a group for that, and responsibility got farmed out; more time was spent on meetings by this group, that group, and the other group, but the input on the part of the librarians themselves diminished greatly. And that, added to the Presidents pulling out and so on...
HWH: I had in mind to talk to Miss Edmonds and also to Mrs. Collins, and if she’s available to Mrs. Nathan, as I think those three probably had more continuing experience, aside from you, of course.
I thank you very much. I think this will really be an interesting document, particularly to have in the Robert Frost Library.
McKeon: It sounds a little incoherent as we’ve done it, but we’ll see what we can do.
HWH: Newt just said that what he’s about to say needn’t be taped, but I’d like to have it on the record.
McKeon: Well, I was starting to say that Miss Ludington, who was a model professional librarian, who assumed her obligations to the whole library world (she was President of the American Library Association, and one thing and another) brought great consequence to Mount Holyoke by her presence and she has said more than once to me, and in my hearing, that this particular enterprise of HILC was perhaps the most exciting thing that she had been involved in, in her career, which was a tremendous career in many ways. We put a lot of ourselves into it and it meant a lot to us, and it still does. I’m not going around weeping but I’m sorry, as I said earlier, that I feel that had we not carried the load of the other two places, a perfectly acceptable future for HILC might have been carved out, without, you know, all this technological business that is recommended. It’s fine, but I’m not sure the Presidents are going to pay the bill for it. It’s very expensive.
HWH: I’ve been into HILC recently, two or three times, and I’ve talked to Greg Wilson there. I was impressed with how attractive that center is in the Frost Library.
McKeon: I’ve used it quite a bit.
HWH: And also the space that is still available. I agree with you, it’s sorry to see a healthy adult...
McKeon: Put away in a pine box. You know what we started-- somewhere I’ve got some papers bearing on this-- once you start to cooperate, no matter who you are or where you are, and particularly depending on how little you really know, the first thing you want is a union catalog. This is the answer to everything.
HWH: I’ve run across that frequently in what I’ve read.
McKeon: Of course we always dumped on that idea for these colleges, knowing that our duplication is so tremendous, and the cost of turning this thing out. So at that time I had estimates on the cost of making one. TECHNOLOGY!! was at a point where, I’ve forgotten what particular means of duplication of cards was, but it was a very primitive thing. Things have happened very very fast in the world of technology that are available to libraries.
HWH: And I’m told that it’s going to be on both a national and regional basis in the not too distant future with the Library of Congress being one center...
McKeon: That’s what they’re hoping.
HWH: The Ohio center being another,
McKeon: And of course, the Yale, Harvard, and New York Public Library business has been deep in the planning stage of that. That was the Metcalf deal of twenty years ago or so-- Northeast Regional Library I remember it was called.
HWH: Weren’t they going to have one in New Haven? Columbia, Yale,and Harvard?
McKeon: Something of the sort.
HWH: One thing I neglected to ask you, Newt: did you ever face a problem of any of the cooperating institutions trying to unload what they didn’t want on HILC?
McKeon: No-- and we held the line on that. In fact, it was NOT to be a dumping ground. And we ran it in such a way for years; you had to propose what you wanted to deposit and we passed on whether it was acceptable or not. And this was pretty rigid.
HWH: By “we”, you mean the three librarians.
McKeon: Yes, that’s right. No, you see that’s just begging the question to move books from one place to another just because you don’t really know what to do about them. I know that they have been talking in late years apparently about-- (what do they call it?)-- some category of individual books going to HILC. You see, by sticking to periodicals and sets, you get one catalog card for lots of volumes. Once you start taking little individual volumes you’re into big costs.
HWH: You’re lost.
McKeon: And the only way you could do it, I think, would be to say-- well, suppose it were fiction-- it would be to say, we’ll arrange them alphabetically by author and you can ask us to see whether we have it. I just don’t see how you can spend the money to take some fiction that somebody doesn’t want to shelve and dress it all up as something worth having.
The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.
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Oral history interview with Newton McKeon, 1977 December 2, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 15), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/newton-mckeon>
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