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!
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox