I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I had been a business librarian 100 years ago. Two articles from Bankers Magazine from the 1920’s on early bank libraries offer some insight. One article from June 1921,“Usefulness of Bank Libraries,” was brief and really only gave a little information about Guaranty Trust Company of New York’s library collection of approximately 24,000 books, pamphlets, and other material. However, I found a kindred spirit in Miss Margaret Reynolds, a librarian at the First Wisconsin National Bank of Milwaukee, who was quoted in that Bankers Magazine article:
The library believes that it is fulfilling its function when it helps its patrons find solution[s] for their problems. (p.C9)
The other article from the December 1924 issue, “How Financial Libraries Serve Banks,” written by the same Margaret Reynolds (then the Chairman of the Financial Group of the Special Libraries Association) was more informative. In it, she is notes the growth of bank libraries:
A generation ago the library in a bank or an investment house consisted merely of the dictionary, a local directory and perhaps an atlas. Pamphlets were scattered about in desk drawers of the various officers. The only newspapers or magazines about were those which the banker himself brought in from his home or club. This worked very well then for industry had not branched out along so many lines and trade journals were not needed.” (p.1075)
Librarians were hired to bring order to the various print pamphlets, newspapers, journals, and other publications which had been squirreled away, and to establish a library that could be used by everyone. These libraries would have staff to assist in finding what they needed, as well as what they didn’t know they needed. The idea caught on and at the time of the article there were more than fifty libraries in banks and investment houses in the United States, including libraries at the district banks of the Federal Reserve.
As for the job itself, Reynolds thought it was a necessary to understand what is important to bank officers so, “The more contact one has with the officers the more one learns about their interests and the better service one can give them.” (p.1077) This would help library staff keep officers informed about news on clients and customers, as well as provide additional relevant information on other news and world events.
A large part of their job was answering questions that came via mail and by telephone from both staff and people outside the bank. While some questions may have been simple, others like information on cost of living, were more complex. Library staff answered many questions from employees looking for facts and funny or relevant quotes for speeches. I smiled when I read that a favorite source of hers (and mine) was The Statistical Abstract of the United States.
Of course, bank staff also went to the library when they needed something specific. They may have wanted to read a journal or were looking for a particular article in a banking journal. Sometimes they were looking to use a particular resource like something from the Brookmire Economic Service or the Harvard Economic Service. Books from the library’s collection could be checked out and if they didn’t have what the person needed, they would arrange to borrow it from a local library.
The resources and tools librarians use may have changed but the librarian hasn’t. The 1915 book Profitable Vocations for Girls included a chapter on being a librarian. There was information on the various jobs in a library, but it was the part about being a reference librarian that interested me. The author thought that a reference librarian must be a scholar who wouldn’t be satisfied with just directing people to the books they ask for, but directing them to what they need and:
The most important qualification for librarianship is not a love for reading. The beginner who hopes to find at the library desk an opportunity to read all of the latest books will probably never advance as far as the desk. The librarian is not in the work to satisfy her own tastes, but to cultivate the interests and acquire the information that will be of most value to others. (p. 138)
I also found a few other fun articles about bank libraries in several issues of Special Libraries in the 1920s:
- “The day’s work in a bank library.” By Margaret Reynolds. Special Libraries, 1921, Vol. 12, p100-101.
- “The special service of a banking library.” By Jeanne B. Foster. Special Libraries, 1921, Vol. 12, p177-179.
- “The function of a special bank library.” By Frederic H. Curtiss. Special Libraries, 1925, Vol. 16, p107-109.
- “Relationship of the library and research departments to the bank.” By Donald M. Marvin. Special Libraries, 1927, Vol. 18, p215-219.
- “Libraries in banking institutions.” Special Libraries, 1926, Vol. 17, p239-242.