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Library Legend John Y. Cole Retires

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John Y. Cole stands before a portrait of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, his favorite Librarian of Congress. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

John Y. Cole is the historian of the Library of Congress and the former director of the Library’s Center for the Book. He began working at the Library in 1966 and is retiring this month.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I was born and raised in Washington state, graduating from the University of Washington with degrees in history and librarianship. My grandfather was an itinerant linotype operator and newspaper editor who read to me frequently, managing to instill both printer’s ink and a love of reading in his grandson.

What first drew you to library work and ultimately to the Library?

At the University of Washington I was “lured” into library school by a wonderful teacher who introduced me to book and library history. My next lucky break came in 1964, when my two-year ROTC obligation took me to the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird near Baltimore, where fortunately my graduate library school degree was noticed.

As a result, and without my knowledge, 2nd Lt. Cole was not assigned to Vietnam with most of the rest of his class, but instead “stayed home” to head the Intelligence School Library. I learned about the Library of Congress (loved it from the start!) when I began visiting the Library’s Surplus Duplicate Collection to gather materials for my U.S. Army Intelligence School Library.

How did your career at the Library evolve?

I left the Army in 1966, knocked on the door of the Library’s Personnel Office and was shepherded into the 1966-67 professional intern program, then called special recruits. I served as the Library’s adviser for the program for the next several years; an early career satisfaction was being able to facilitate the opening up of this valuable “outsider” experience to qualified Library employees.

I soon found a job in the Collections Development Office in the Reference Department, which was a good “Library-wide” fit with my recent part-time enrollment in the American Studies Ph.D. program at George Washington University. My dissertation topic focused on Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress 1864-1897.

My interest in Library history was one of the reasons that, in 1976, Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin asked me to chair his one-year task force on goals, organization and planning. This key experience led in 1977 to my appointment as the first (and at the time the only) staff member of the newly created Center for the Book.

What inspires you to study and write about the Library’s history?

During my initial training year at the Library, I read “The Story Up to Now: The Library of Congress 1800-1946,” by David C. Mearns, a distinguished Library veteran who joined the staff in 1918 and retired in 1967 — one year after I had arrived.

I was astonished to learn about the national library vision and accomplishments of Spofford, who then was a relatively unknown Librarian of Congress. Mearns encouraged me to take Spofford on as a dissertation topic. I did so and then followed up on a lead from an earlier issue of the Library’s Information Bulletin about Spofford descendants in the D.C. area. To my amazement and delight, these family members in Great Falls, Virginia, and also New York City had kept important Spofford manuscripts and documents as well as a color portrait — all eventually donated to the Library. I still am inspired by Spofford and his remarkable achievements.

What are a couple of standout memories from your career?

Overall, I’m grateful to have been able to contribute to the Library in several different ways, especially in helping increasing understanding of our unusual and somewhat complicated role in American government and culture.

Specifically, I was privileged through my 39 years of service as the founding director of the Center for the Book to work closely with Librarians of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin and James H. Billington — both strong personalities who also loved the Library.

I especially treasure the friendships I developed, in tandem with Dr. Billington, with first ladies Barbara Bush, the honorary chair of Center for the Book national reading promotion campaigns from 1989 to 1992, and in 2001 with Laura Bush, the “founder” and co-chair, with Dr. Billington, of the National Book Festival.

What’s a little-known fun fact you’ve uncovered about the Library?

In January 1898, “on behalf of the American home,” the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union urged “our National Library” to stop liquor sales in its restaurant on the third floor of the newly opened Jefferson Building. And the campaign apparently was successful.

What do you see as the most significant changes at the Library during your time here?

The continued expansion and improvement of the institution, thanks largely to better internal communication with the staff and with also with Congress, libraries, scholars and researchers, and the general public.

Concurrently, a growing awareness of the Library’s unique characteristics on the part of both its staff and its talented top leadership. Each of the Librarians of Congress “during my time” has brought different interests and talents to the institution, continuing the “balance” needed to continue a high standard of service to our wide range of constituents — local, national and international.

What will you do during retirement?

My wife, Nancy Gwinn, retired last year after a long career at the Smithsonian Libraries. Now that I’m finally (in her view) joining her ranks, we will have more time, especially for family and international travel. The D.C. area, however, will remain our home, with our condo in Arizona as a western outpost. And of course I’ll be working on an interesting Library history project or two wherever I am!

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Comments (23)

  1. It is the end of an era! I was one of the many who was vastly enriched by working with John.

  2. Thank you for all you have done

  3. Thank you, John, for your long service and for starting the LOC’s Center for the Book! All best wishes for a joyful retirement.

  4. I’ll join the chorus of “thank you” comments and add my own huzzah for another aspect of John’s work from years past: the exploration and presentation of an overview of the Library’s holdings of New Deal era public art (including photography and folk music!), theater, and writers projects. John guided us all to see the breadth and diversity of this evocative treasure, a vast collection of documentary and creative expression that illuminates a critical period in the life of the nation — best to you and Nancy!! Carl

  5. I worked with John a number of times when I served as Teacher in Residence at the Library. He was consistently knowledgeable, gracious, and inspiring. His legacy will be with the Library in perpetuity.

  6. Thank you for everything you’ve done, John, for the worldwide community of library historians. Your work is both scholarly and accessible, and will be referred to for many years to come.

  7. Congratulations, John. You are the history of the Library of Congress. And your influence has guided the creation of the new field of print culture. We couldn’t have done it without you!

    James Danky
    Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  8. John’s energy in establishing centers for the book throughout the country gave the Library visibility and influence nationwide–another reason for him to take pride in his accomplishments, and for us to be grateful. Happy retirement to you and Nancy.

  9. Congratulations to you, John! I remember with fondness and gratitude the time and assistance you provided us during our Beyond the Book research. May you enjoy your free time with lots and lots of reading!

  10. Wonderful read – thank you for sharing.
    Congratulations on your retirement & thank you, John, for your evident committed work to the LOC. Your work will forever be notable!

  11. You’ve been a wonderful inspiration and a generous colleague. I know you will go on to enjoy your retirement!

  12. Best wishes John and Nancy! I fondly remember our many adventures around the country with the National Treasures, Local Treasures tour. Thank you for your efforts to make teachers and students feel welcome at the Library of Congress.

  13. Congratulations,John! It was a privilege to know you during my decade of professional employment at LC, during the period of a major reassessment of the Library’s role and activities. I was amused by your mention of the WCTU–my Montana grandmother was a mover and shaker in that organization. (Not that it had any lasting influence on me, I’m afraid) My best wishes and congratulations to Nancy, whom I first met in Sheridan, Wyoming when we participated as fellow flutists in a high school band get-together.

  14. John,
    I wish you and Nancy all the best. I remember many pleasant visits in your book-filled office. You helped us become the home of our state Center for the Book and inspired and encouraged us throughout your tenure. Your influence on libraries and education reaches worldwide. Thank you.

  15. Congratulations and thank you so much for all your hard work, teaching, sharing, advising, guiding, kindness, respect, and creating so many valuable assets for now and future generations at LOC! Never forget you and all your work! I am very happy to have both of them from your last day at the Library of Congress! “A Brief History of the Thomas Jefferson Building & Jefferson’s Legacy /A brief History of the Library of Congress”. It is not brief it is very interesting, knowledgeable, and well written with reach and real history. Hope you will visit your legacy and see you again! All the best and stay, blessed, safe, healthy, happy, be well, and enjoy your retirement with your beloved wife, families, and friends! Respectfully,

  16. John,

    Congratulations on your retirement. You have made such a significant impact on our State Centers for the Book! I have wonderful memories of our work together — AND of our trip to South Africa … loved the safari!

    I can still see the stack of journals in your office, recording your many tasks/accomplishments over the years.

  17. I had the pleasure of taking a few library tours with Dr. Cole — always something new to learn! His books on the library will continue to inform new visitors and researchers for generations!

  18. Congratulations , John , your family is so so very proud of you!!!!

  19. I arrived at the Library shortly after the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the centralization of the Copyright system in L.C. Early on, I got my hands on the L.C. Quarterly Journal, which included your outstanding article about how it all began. As a new employee in copyright, I found the history to be enlightening and it truly sparked an
    interest and curiosity in the deposits…past and present. This interest brought me great opportunities and joy.
    Thanks for being such an inspiration, mentor, and friend. My years at L.C were certainly enriched by knowing you. Best wishes to you and your wife.

    Frank J. Evina

  20. The “Book Palace” will never be the same.
    John always made time for everyone — even Library Gift Shop staff — and his love for the Library showed through in every moment.
    Enjoy your well deserved retirement

  21. Congratulations and thank you so much for all your hard work

  22. It was an honor working with you and getting to know the Center for the Book! Thank you.

  23. It was the greatest honor ever for Dr. Graziella Tonfoni, Invited Scholar, to be able to collaborate scientifically with Dr.John Y. Cole, The Director of The Center for the Book at The Library of Congress,at those times.
    Dr. John Y.Cole made possible a truly respectful preservation of most relevant publications and bibliographies, listing accurately classics in Information Science, lectures, interviews witnessing times of advanced scholarly interdisciplinary research, pages, and a pamphlet illustrating fundamentals in CompLit i.e. Computational Literature, by and large. Without Dr.John Y.Cole’s most accurate and competent listening, fully and correctly understanding and capturing the essence and longtime relevance of a large and specilized body of knowledge, such as Artificial Intelligence Archeology in the pioneering stage, early Eighties in the Past Century and beyond, Multimedia Education tools, Information Design, and later on Documentation Management and Knowledge Architecture as reflected and presented in Tonfoni G. methodologies, legacy of which, was destined to fade away, so many important pages, would have been for ever lost. Younger generations of scholars and historians and librarians will be able to be exposed to rare books and rare papers, which are and always will be most meaningful items, thanks to Dr. John Y. Cole Historian of the Library of Congress.

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