James Tanis

by Daniel Traister
Department of Special Collections,
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library,
University of Pennsylvania

Presented 6 December 1996 at Bryn Mawr College
on the retirement of James Robert Tanis as Constance A. Jones Director of Libraries and Professor of History

My charge this evening is fairly simple, I suppose, and can be analyzed pretty succinctly. First, I have to celebrate James Tanis on the occasion of his retirement as your Director of Libraries. Second, I must do so without embarrassing him, which means, in essence, avoiding either the effusive or the maudlin. Third--and I owe this suggestion to several kindly people--there seems to be a consensus that it would be pleasant in me, whatever else I happen to do or say, to try to avoid being boring while doing or saying it. In the spirit of helpfulness, those who have urged this remarkable point have also been quick to remind me, just in case I'd not noticed it, that I would, after all, be speaking late on a Friday and after we'd all have had drinks and a meal. Finally, when we spoke about this evening some time ago, James himself emphasized one additional point: get up, get down, and get out. Keep it short.

Well, all these sound like pretty straightforward criteria to me. So if there's anyone here who also finds this assignment pretty straightforward, now's the moment to speak out.

It might not be such a bad thing if someone else did speak out, for I have no doubt that most of you are far better equipped than I to speak about James Tanis, who arrived at Bryn Mawr to serve as Director of Libraries and Professor of History in 1969. So I'm not going to give you a blow-by-blow of his tenure here. Even if I spent just a minute for each of these twenty-seven years, I'd outstay James's time limit for this talk, and all of you know that story better than I do anyway. Since this omission will tend to keep my remarks briefer rather than longer, I am convinced that even James will not fault my decision in this respect.

My own interactions with James during the years I have been in Philadelphia have been varied. It is out of them that I want to start. I start, in fact, with just the tiniest of memories. It can hardly reflect our first meeting--an event which, in truth, I no longer remember, although it's at least possible that it occurred not in Philadelphia but in New York, where I do remember first meeting Mary Leahy and Seymour Adelman when they were visiting the rare book collection at a biggish sort of library on 42nd Street. But no matter.

Sitting at my desk at Penn, I got a call from James on a day when, himself at Penn, he'd forgotten his library card and needed me to take out a book for him. I did. Since I haven't been dunned for it, it's even possible that he returned it.

How trivial this memory is! someone may be saying. It doesn't seem trivial to me at all, although maybe you need to work in a library--I will avoid cynicism and not say "in the academy"--to realize how few people seem ever to read a book, even when they spend their working days surrounded by them. Even of those people who do read books, however, the percentage of those who read them in order to pursue scholarly research is very small; and, of librarians who read, the number who read for scholarly purposes is smaller still. Quite rightly. Why would anyone who works a nine-to-five job without the time for research built into it that academics take for granted want to be a reader in his or her own library--or, worse, someone else's?

All very true, very understandable: we sympathize immediately. Yet, it occasionally seems to me that, for an academic librarian, it is actually not such a bad idea to engage in research now and again. If nothing else, doing so may give us a real feel for what the students, faculty, and researchers we theoretically serve have to go through in order to use what we think we're making readily available to them.

To that end, there is no better way than trying to use such stuff oneself. You learn very quickly that libraries are complicated to use; other libraries are always more complicated to use than yours is; and the bigger the library the harder it is to use, no matter how good it is, or whose it is.

One other thing you learn--and you learn it no matter how good a library may be--is that, if John Donne was right that "no man is an island," it is certainly even more right that no library is an island. No library is self-sufficient. Our readers always have to go elsewhere for something. It isn't any easier for them than it is for us; and, once they're there, sometimes they need odd forms of assistance in order to use the place. So it can be helpful if, as James did that day at Penn, the visiting librarian can scout around a bit in order to learn if the natives are friendly.

It sounds as if the point of my little memory of this encounter with James engaging in research is my discovery that it proves to be work-related research about research even when he is away from Bryn Mawr. As far as it goes, I guess that's true enough. But I mean a bit more than this, although it's something I can't convey easily. What I really discovered that day was the sheer pleasure James took in being able to take out whatever book he needed. What I encountered, in short, wasn't really "work-related research" at all. It looked, in fact, suspiciously like fun.


Of course I know that one is not supposed to think of Protestants as having "fun," particularly if, like James, they are also ministers. And yet . . . I do encounter James around my library now and again and I know what I see: he usually seems to be having what I can only call "fun."

Some cynic is bound to suspect that maybe it's just that, on the occasions when I usually see him, he's away from Bryn Mawr. But I don't think so. He looks to me to be having the same sort of fun when I see him at book fairs here or there--and, by the way, if this is a misperception, it's not mine alone: people who speak to me about travelling with him to book fairs, booksellers's establishments, or collectors's homes also speak of the fun he takes on such occasions. He also seems to enjoy himself when I see him at meetings or exhibitions in Canaday. Maybe it's just play-acting, but if it is it's awfully good. James gives an remarkably convincing impersonation of someone who likes books.

Perhaps I am peculiar, but I think that's not such a bad idea for someone who works in the library trade.

It is, after all, an attitude that allows you to feel that there's something clever about putting more books on the shelves, something that James seems to have participated in doing with an entirely admirable vengeance during his tenure here. Even an institutional outsider like me knows about some of the additions to Bryn Mawr's riches through such spectacular collections as Phyllis Gordan's early printed books; Seymour Adelman's variegated collections of later printed books and art; and Frederick Maser's American bookbindings. Of these, the collection whose fortunes I have followed most closely is the Maser American bookbindings. Here I have seen at first hand how James and his colleagues have kept that collection growing, building what was already, when it arrived, a major resource for study of an undervalued aspect of American book culture.

Growing collections require growing spaces. Do I need to recall, for this audience, the Library construction projects consummated, initiated, and continuing even as we speak, during James's years at Bryn Mawr? That these projects have produced not only additional space for collections but also what seem to be comfortable library study spaces for the institution's users may be something all of you take for granted. Coming, as I do, from an unusually harsh and unwelcoming physical library structure, now slowly and with difficulty refurbishing itself to provide spaces that look as if human beings, as opposed to some cost-cutter's idea of the "average student body," might enjoy them, I cannot take comfort for granted. The first time I stepped into Canaday, I was struck by how pleasant the place seems to be. It continues to have that feel for me.

Neither concern for a comfortable environment nor an emphasis on collections need to imply technological backwardness, tempting though such a facile contrast may seem. It is too easy to think that James has directed his career only at the patient accretion of materials that build general collections and the more grandiose acquisition of special collections; "too easy" because he has been the kind of book-oriented scholar-librarian I have already sketched; and particularly easy for me, as a person who comes out of the special collections end of librarianship and shares a similar orientation.

In fact, however, anyone who has overseen a library over the past two and a half decades has encountered--and either embraced or feared--the computer. As early as the sixties, while James was at Harvard and then at Yale, he had already encountered--and was quick to embrace--the future of library technology. Then behemoth-like monsters that crunched tapes or punchcards--remember them? and remember Bryn Mawr librarian Katharine Hepburn besting them in Desk Set?--computers now sit on desks everywhere. From those desktops, they provide access to catalogues internal and external, databases, newspapers, Books in Print, the occasional (but increasingly frequent) full text, and the basic management information that makes a place run. The computer may be the most overhyped aspect of modern American technological existence--but, at least as far as libraries and their users are concerned, their impact has not been overhyped at all: they have transformed how we do business and how library users work.

I am embarrassingly well-qualified to know how quick James has been on the technological uptake. During a period when we overlapped in working with a regional library consortium, James sought to use the consortium as a wedge to gain foundation support for equipment to enable the library to use the visual and image-making capabilities that digitization increasingly puts at our fingertips. It is mildly disheartening to recall just how far ahead of the pack he was in recognizing the potential of, and the need for, what many of the rest of us considered cute but unnecessary. Now we all do such imaging projects. James knew that we would all be doing them long before the rest of us realized we were heading down this path.

His work with that regional consortium requires a variation on a point I made a few minutes ago, that no one who does research can fail to be aware of how interdependent libraries are on one another. There is no subject for which only one library is all a reader needs, if that reader is doing any sort of in-depth study. Philadelphia and its surroundings are unusually rich in libraries with collections whose strengths complement one another: this is, in fact, one of the richest book cities in the country. But many of our strongest repositories have collections stronger than their finances. As a response to this situation, the special collections-oriented regional consortium to which I've referred came into existence in the 1980s. James saw it as a venture worth working with and supporting, as he had already supported other cooperative consortia. From this one, as I've just mentioned, he sought means to support bringing imaging and digitizing technologies to Bryn Mawr. To this consortium, in recent months, he has in turn brought an opportunity for public exposure that, without him, it would not have had. That kind of cooperation is something we all talk about in theory. Not only is it hard to put into practice; it is also, understandably, not common, either.

I don't know whether James's traditions provide words for people who do try, uncommonly, to turn such theory into practice. Mine does, as it happens, although I am grateful that the word that leaps most immediately to mind has stopped needing much translation: the word is "mensch." It seems to me exactly the right word.

It applies to the spirit with which James has tried to give back to as well as to take from the consortium in which he has participated since its birth. It applies to the percipience he has brought to his work, with respect to its technological underpinnings, to its physical surroundings, and to its primary purpose, provision of the material information and knowledge bases for study, teaching, research, and reading on which an academic place depends. It applies to his sense that, in order most usefully to provide the environments, technology, materials, and services on which others depend for the success of their work, he had better know something about what their work involves--and to the pleasure he seems, to my eye, anyway, to have taken (indeed, to continue to take) in doing that work. It applies, in short, to the spirit in which a person in a field like ours undertakes work whose purpose is to serve the work of others. Librarianship is a service profession, we all know. But service is something that can be rendered in a variety of ways, and graciousness is, alas, not always one of them. In treating his service with grace, James has exemplified one of the characteristics that, for me, the word mensch evokes.

I do think there is a word that comes from James's tradition which, in its different way, says some of the same kinds of things. It is a word that once was used regularly about academic appointments: in older books, we hear about professors being "called" to their institutions, rather like ministers being "called" to a church. I can remember James telling me, some time ago, how he had decided to come to Bryn Mawr. More than two decades after the event, it did sound to me like the story of a person responding to a call. Clearly, at Bryn Mawr College and its Library, James Tanis found his calling.

His will be a tough act to follow, and a tough act most especially for an institution losing more than one of its central administrators at the same time. On the other hand, the legacy--buildings, technological infrastructure, programs, staff, collections--that James leaves is strong. It is the model he presents that will be hardest to lose--and I mean that in both senses: hardest not to have around, but also hardest to forget.

May I borrow something from a Bryn Mawr publication as a closing note? I had been thinking of one of the collectors who was so important a benefactor of your Library during James's years here, a man whom I also knew a bit, Seymour Adelman. I pulled my copy of his essays off the shelf; but as I reread it I found myself thinking that, although he was a wonderful collector, a great benefactor, and a lovely man, he was not, alas--for to whom are all things granted?--as good a writer as some other people are. (Since Seymour was a good writer, maybe that just means that I found nothing I could easily use for my purposes here tonight.) So I looked into a pamphlet that sits alongside his essays on my shelves, Seymour Adelman: A Keepsake, which your Library published in 1985 following Seymour's death. There I found Cynthia Ozick saying of Seymour,

he stands for the embodiment--the ingathering--of imagination, of heritage, of civilization and its arts.
I do know I shouldn't embarrass anyone this evening, so I will simply conclude by saying that such praise, if applied to a librarian as well as to a collector, might not seem entirely unreasonable. With respect to James Tanis, it doesn't seem entirely out of place, either.

Thank you.