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

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.

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