Library Lesson by
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Library Lesson

I was an English lit major in college and on track to teach high school English.  But an aunt and a family friend were librarians and they both encouraged me to consider that field.

It sounded perfect for me,  and I applied to the graduate library programs at Simmons in Boston and at Columbia.  I’m a New Yorker and as an undergrad lived at home and commuted to NYU’s then uptown campus on University Heights  in the Bronx.   (See Ghostwriting in the Family and The Fortune Cookie Candidate)

And so I thought it was time for an out-of-town experience and living in Boston for a year was very appealing.  But eventually Columbia won out – it was reputed to have the best library program and I’d have an Ivy League degree to boot.  And although Morningside Heights in Manhattan was an easy commute from my parents’ Bronx house, they agreed I could live on campus.

So in September of 1964 I moved into Johnson Hall, a dorm housing female students from all of Columbia’s graduate programs, a wonderful cohort of bright, interesting women. The 60s political scene added to the energy on campus and the activists were gearing up for the protests and sit-ins that soon rocked the university.

But in a dozen classrooms on the 6th floor of Butler Library,  high above the reading rooms and the stacks,  things were still pretty sedate as we eager young grad students began our studies at the School of Library Service.

Of course I have many memories of that time, academic and otherwise.   Like everybody else, my classmates and I drank beer at the bars on upper-Broadway,  but every Friday afternoon after our last class,  we future-librarians would join the library school  Dean for conversation and sherry as is literary tradition.

In the decades since those pre-Internet days, the library field has changed drastically, and it may be hard for non-librarians to imagine what we studied and how demanding were our courses,  but believe me, we worked hard and had wonderful and inspiring teachers.  (See Frances Henne)

On the first day of classes I remember one professor who stood in front of the room with a large book held aloft in his hands.  Then,  as we all gasped in horror,  he ripped the book in two.

”Books are made of nothing but  paper and paste.”,   he said,  “It’s the ideas inside the books that you must solemnly pledge to preserve.”.  Along with my fellow library students,  I vowed that I would.

Despite the tech revolution that dramatically transformed the way libraries look and function today,  what hasn’t changed is our mission to bring knowledge,  information, and inspiration to our patrons.  I hope today’s librarians will take the same solemn pledge I did in that Columbia classroom over half a century ago.

Dana Susan Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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Tags: Libraries, Librarians, Columbia University


  1. Great story, Dana. When I was in the Searching and Filing unit at least four of the women were enrolled in the Simmons program. I gather it accommodated folks working full time. They would talk among themselves, in our presence, about what they were studying, what they planned to do afterwards, etc. It gave me a wonderful glimpse into the world of professional librarians.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    How startling to see your professor rip a book in half, but the point he made about the knowledge inside sticks with you all these years later, so the point was well-taken.

    Here’s an interesting one for you. Back in the ’30s, my mother wanted to be a librarian. She had graduated from The Ohio State, lived in Toledo, but was told that the profession was not open to Jewish women! In 1935 (as she always said to me) AT THE HEIGHT OF THE DEPRESSION, her father, who owned a jewelry store, cashed in his life insurance and sent her New York City for a year to study dance (with Doris Humphrey, a contemporary of Martha Graham; Mother spent the summer at Bennington studying with both of them). But she realized she wasn’t good enough to be a professional, so came back to Toledo. She was told being a librarian wasn’t open to her, so she became her father’s book keeper until the war, moved to Detroit, lived with her older sister and worked for the USO, until marrying my father in 1946. I get my love of the arts from her.

    • Betsy, How interesting to learn about your mother, and I didn’t know that the library field had been closed to Jews in those days. But credible of course as there were Jewish quotas then in so many fields, and at schools and universities.
      What a sad legacy!

  3. Risa Nye says:

    This brought back a memory I have of posing for a picture in front of Butler Library when I was a little girl–my father was working on his doctorate at Columbia so we relocated from California for a year. To a child, this library looked HUGE! thanks for sharing your memories here.

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Dana! Sounds like you made a good choice in going to Columbia for library school. I’m glad your parents agreed to let you live on campus, I”m sure that added a lot to the experience. As Betsy said, how startling it must have been when the professor ripped the book in half! I wonder if he used the same book every year, and just had the binding repaired.

    • Thanx Suzy!
      Actually librarians are always weeding their collections to keep them vital, and thus there would always be books that could be “sacrificed” to make the professor’s point!

      Truthfully weeding can be a sore point for patrons who don’t understand the need, and so I took the coward’s way out and did it surreptitiously to avoid having to defend and explain!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    That was a powerful lesson, Dana, although I cringe at the image of someone tearing a book in half. If I didn’t already mention it to you, The Library Book by Susan Orlean is pretty interesting.

  6. John Shutkin says:

    A great story — a “ripping” one, dare I say — Dana. Though, like Laurie and others, I cringe at the idea of a book being torn, regardless of the statement being made. That said, if someone gave me “The Art of the Deal,” I wouldn’t have any qualms about running that through the shredder.

    But my condolences of having lived in Johnson Hall. A few of my (female) classmates at Columbia Law lived there a few years later when they were 1L and went quickly running to find nearby apartments.

    • Thanx John, but please don’t cringe.
      I’m sure the professor was using a “weeded” book to make his point.
      If you don’t understand the weeding rationale, I’ll explain, but trust me it’s all good.
      I loved Johnson Hall, I lived there for 3 semesters, sorry your friends were unhappy there!

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for reposting this story Dana. The advice from your professor about preserving the ideas inside the books was important then, and it resonates today as well. The current attack on access to books that might have provocative themes is chilling. It must be an agonizing time for librarians and teachers (and students and parents) alike.

  8. Jim Willis says:

    Wonderful reminder that the importance of libraries lies in the well-crafted ideas and inspiration of the writers found in the stacks, and not in the ink-on-paper construction of them. That said, I can’t really recall being so enraptured reading a book online as I am with the print versions. Still, like you, I spend time reminding other journalists that the mission is the information itself; not the way it is conveyed.

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