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Photograph of Ruth S. Freitag with Halley's Comet Bibliography taken at the Library of Congress, April 1985.
Ruth S. Freitag with Halley's Comet Bibliography taken at the Library of Congress, April 1985.

Celebrating Librarian Extraordinaire Ruth S. Freitag

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In celebration of  Women’s History Month the American Library Association’s  Feminist Task Force  invited submissions to highlight valued women in libraries.  Library of Congress Science Reference Section Head Constance Carter has contributed this article about her mentor and inspiration Ruth S. Freitag.

Ruth S. Freitag is a librarian who should be celebrated during Women’s History Month.   Admired by grateful scientists and writers from Isaac Asimov to Carl Sagan, Ruth was simply the best at unraveling a foreign citation, locating an arcane pamphlet or discovering an elusive fact.  She immersed herself in the Library’s collections, spent her vacations in the British Library and/or at university observatories throughout Europe, and delighted in compiling epic bibliographic guides and resources.

Photograph of Ruth S. Freitag with Isaac Asimov on an Astronomy Cruise in1980.
Photograph of Ruth S. Freitag with Isaac Asimov on an Astronomy Cruise, August 1980.

Her knowledge of German, Italian and other Romance languages was superb and her knowledge of astronomy, bibliography and biography- encyclopedic .  Her letters were bibliographical essays and used as models and guides by generations of young aspiring librarians. In 1965, her bibliographic expertise and knowledge were instrumental in shaping the MARC (Machine-Readable Catalog) format.

Freitag made her mark in the Library’s Bibliography and Reference Correspondence Section.  A stickler for accuracy and good form, she compiled correspondence and bibliographical style manuals to ensure excellence and consistency.  She had the patience of Job and was a wonderful teacher, mentoring class after class of special recruits and staff.   She freely shared her enthusiasm for the hunt—and the high that comes from finding just the right source to connect the correspondent’s needs to the Library’s collections.  She received a wealth of mail from scholars and scientists, much of it foreign, and her assistance was acknowledged in innumerable books.  For many years she compiled, “Recent Publications Relating to the History of Astronomy” for the American Astronomical Society’s Historical Astronomy Division.

Automatic Asteroid Finder (Ein Asteroiden Selbstendecker ) illustration from Fliegende Blätter, v.59, Sept. 19, 1873: pg. 96 (no. 1470). Fliegende Blätter was a Bavarian satrical weekly
Illustration of Automatic Asteroid Finder (Ein Asteroiden Selbstendecker ) from Fliegende Blätter (LC call no. AP105 .F6), v.59, Sept. 19, 1873: pg. 96 (no. 1470). English translation of Ein Asteroiden Selbstendecker article by Ruth S. Freitag can be found in Mark Littman’s Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System.

Mark Littmann, in his Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System (1988, 1990, and 2004) wrote,

When in this book you find the names of people never fully identified anywhere else, when you find the phrasing precise, you know you have encountered the touch of Ruth S. Freitag of the Library of Congress.  She has at her fingertips the most amazing information.  It was she who contributed the vignette on the automatic asteroid finder.   Her encyclopedic knowledge and unfailing good spirits make me very fortunate indeed to have her as a friend and mentor.

After his lecture at the Smithsonian in the late 1990’s, Stephen Jay Gould was signing his Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown, dedicated to Carl Sagan.  The line was long and he had a car waiting with motor running to catch the last flight.  I had brought a signed copy of Freitag’s millennium opus, Battle of the Centuries: A List of References, and handed it to Gould.  He immediately began to pour over the 232 annotated citations.  I mentioned that Sagan in his introduction to Comet had written that the best part of researching the book had been meeting Ruth Freitag.  She shared with him her collection of comet cartoons and sheet music, pointing out that these types of literature were important in capturing  the tone and tenor of the times.  As the line grew restless, Gould reluctantly put down Freitag’s book and quickly signed a copy of his Millennium book for her with his regards.

After her retirement from the Library in 2006, Freitag opined that that her happiest years at the Library of Congress were spent in the Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division, compiling Halley’s Comet and other astronomy guides such as the epic Women in Astronomy and Star of Bethlehem (Inside Adams highlighted Ruth Freitag’s work in the article Christmas Star).

—Freitag graduated from Penn State in 1944.  She began her fifty-five year career in federal service in June 1945 when she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps, serving 3 years in China.  After this stint in the military, Freitag applied for a position in the Foreign Service and served as a communication specialist at the American embassy in London and later in Hong Kong.   She came to the Library of Congress in 1959 as a special recruit, after receiving her MS in Library Science from the University of Southern California

Comments (4)

  1. Well deserved, and congratulations to Ruth! I’d also like to recognize Connie Carter, who has “paid it forward” by mentoring so many science librarians, and helped thousands of authors and researchers with their publications. — Teresa Meikle

  2. As a 35-year veteran of the Library of Congress, I have often been impressed by the major impact that the institution’s “invisible” professionals have on patrons (“readers”) and on their co-workers. Ruth is a top-drawer example of this hidden force. My first contacts were indirect: at the (then) Archive of Folk Music, I recall Joe Hickerson (no mean bibliographer himself) talking about Ruth as a model and guide for the meticulous style required for Library of Congress bibliographies, a genre that (at the time) was printed on paper, widely distributed, and highly respected.

  3. I worked in the Naval Observatory Library 1987-2017 where Ruth was a heavy user. She taught me a lot about cataloging and bibliography. I know she also mentored some of the women astronomers. For years her understudy Constance Carter taught the science reference section in the Catholic University Institute on Federal Library Resources.

  4. Ruth Steinmuller Freitag……I am honoring her for her vast contributions to the field of Library Science…. A Life Well Lived…I was in awe of her knowledge and her relentless quest for precision …..she was a role model to all Researchers and Reference Librarians……Fay Kern Kennedy….

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