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My Job at the Library: The Library’s First Official Historian

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This post is reprinted from the November–December issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The entire issue is available on the Library’s website.

John Cole. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

John Cole has enjoyed a remarkable 51-year career at the Library, culminating with his most recent appointment as the first official Library of Congress historian.

Throughout his long tenure at the Library of Congress, John Y. Cole has worked to increase public understanding of the key role that the Library has played in American history and now plays in American society. His latest position, as official historian of the Librarian of Congress, is a new focus of a lifelong interest.

“As an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the late 1950s, I was pondering an uncertain future,” he said. “I was a book-loving history major but didn’t want to teach history. When I was a senior, a library school professor persuaded me to take her course on the history of books and libraries as an enticement to enroll in the graduate school of librarianship the following year.”

It worked. “I postponed my ROTC-required service for a year and got my library degree. As a result of that degree, when I showed up for duty, I was assigned to replace the civilian head of the library at the U.S. Army Intelligence School. I stocked my little foreign-intelligence library via the Library of Congress surplus books program.”

Cole finished another master’s degree while still in the service and was hired into a special recruitment program at the Library of Congress in 1966. “That’s when I really fell in love with the Library and its history, thanks in part to David C. Mearns, a historian and chief of the Manuscript Division.”

The deal was further sealed when Cole chose as the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the transformative Librarian of Congress who guided the institution from a small reference library for Congress to a national institution serving the American public.

Cole began writing articles about the Library, one of which brought him to the attention of Daniel Boorstin, who began his tenure as Librarian of Congress in 1975. Based on his historical knowledge, Cole found himself heading Boorstin’s yearlong task force on goals, organization and planning.

He thought he’d end up in a new planning office, but Boorstin had other ideas. “‘You’re going to be head of the Center for the Book,’ he told me, and it turned out the center was his personal recommendation to the task force.”

Created by federal law in 1977, the Center for the Book was charged with implementing programs, awards and prizes to nurture a culture of reading. Cole spent nearly four decades leading the center, which drove the Library’s literacy efforts via affiliated centers in 50 states, a national public-service announcement campaign (“Read More About It”), Letters about Literature, the National Book Festival, the Young Readers Center and the Library of Congress Literacy Awards.

Simultaneously, he kept writing about the Library in its various roles, including the books “Jefferson’s Legacy” and “On These Walls,” plus dozens of articles.

“But somewhere along the line, [former Deputy Librarian] David Mao noticed that the Library had no official historian. I had always been kind of an unofficial historian, but David thought it was time to change that.” The new appointment came just last year. Coincidentally, Cole had begun work on a new image-heavy update of a Library chronology originally published in 1979. The new book will be out soon.

And he’s not stopping there. He has encouraged a colleague, Jane Aiken, to write a new scholarly history of the Library. Also in the works is a book profiling Library of Congress staff who have made important contributions in their various fields, from librarianship to history to preservation science and more.

In more than 50 years of service at the Library, Cole has come full circle, first as a history major who found his love in libraries, now returning as full-time historian to the world’s greatest library.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that a library degree won’t get you anywhere.”

Visit the Library’s website for more information about Library of Congress history.

Comments (12)

  1. Love hearing how someone’s career morphed into where they are today. Mr. Cole’s illustrious career sets an example for all of us with a “library degree.” Best wishes to Mr. Cole in his future endeavor.

  2. What an informative article about an inspirational and dedicated man. He seems the perfect person for all his varied positions.

  3. Congratulations, John. What a wonderful career you have had and how lucky I was to have had the privilege of working with you!

  4. Congratulations, John. A fitting cap to a great career.

  5. Congratulations, John! What a perfect position for you!

  6. My congratulations to you John. Continuing best wishes.

  7. Congratulations John, it has been a pleasure to work with you over the years from Boorstin’s Task Force to the Center for the Book and more recently, to the literacy initiatives of the Library. Your perspectives on the history of the Library of Congress have been invaluable. Best wishes to you for continued success.

  8. Cole service to the library clearly demonstrate his commitment for a better library. This is also show how the history of library is important to the future. I believe your appointment will keep the library history alike. this is indeed a great career.

  9. M’Lisa Whitney, I agreed with your statement. Mr. Cole affection for Library and his dedication paid off well and make it possible for promotion. As elderly he is, I think this appointment was his best moment working in the Library.

  10. Cole must appreciate the professor that persuaded him to take library as major and this direction changed his academic journal for good. As stated in the reading, it landed him with job at the US Army Intelligence replacing the civilian authority. this related to my personal life story. I was kind of confuse too when I started the university. I was not sure what to study until one of the professor reviewed my transcript and revealed that I was strong in social science track. This is how I ended up as social science major.

  11. I think this job must be a fun job. As 1st Library’s history, he meets new people all the time and learn a lot about the history of the community, people and their government. Cole must take the library to whole new level to educate more people about the history of the library and tell his own story and the daily sacrifice he provides everyday.

  12. I would like to join many others to congratulate you on your preferment as Library first History. I read almost every comments on your blog. These positive comments from your colleagues and others affirm your integrity and your readiness to lead this noble Library. Congratulation.

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