If you could choose the circumstances of your own death, would you do it?
I don’t just mean the date, time, and location, but also your mental and physical condition, the activity you would be engaged in, your cause of death, and even your sense of fulfillment. In this scenario, as you lay dying, you would have a chance to remember your personal and professional accomplishments, your thoughts and feelings during important events in your life, the knowledge you gained.
The counterbalance would be that you would always know the circumstances of your death. You would know what you needed to accomplish before your time ran out. You would know what you were going to learn and think and feel prior to the actual experience, meaning you would have no way to avoid the inevitable, so everything would take on the sheen of inevitability. Charlie Munger has said, “Tell me where I’m going to die so I won’t go there.“ Given the choice, I think I would prefer not to know.
But if I had to choose, I can’t imagine a better death than Sarah Vann’s. She died of natural causes on May 25, 2012 in Hawaii. She was 96.
I became a fan of Dr. Vann’s work soon after I began studying library history. As she wrote in her dissertation, which she completed at the Graduate Library School at Chicago in 1958, the first modern era of library science education started with Melvil Dewey and lasted until the publication, in 1923, of a report that Charles Williamson prepared for the Carnegie Corporation.
Andrew Carnegie’s belief in libraries is well known: the donations he made through the Carnegie Corporation helped create over 2,500 libraries around the world. Of course, these libraries were just buildings. There was no guarantee they would be staffed by people who could help communities get the most out of their new libraries.
In 1919, the year of Andrew Carnegie’s death, the Carnegie Corporation made its last library grant, which was kind of a shame, but it also hired Charles Williamson to create a study on library education, which was brilliant. That study helped lead to the accreditation process for American library schools, and it also led directly to the creation and proliferation of modern library education, most notably at the University of Chicago, which awarded the first Ph.D. in library science in 1930 and for many years set the standard for library education.
While Dr. Vann was working on her dissertation, she met Charles Williamson, and he wrote her two letters. In those letters, we learn that one hundred years ago, in 1912, Williamson had just been hired by the New York Public Library, which was working on a new grant from the Carnegie Corporation to set up its own library school. He helped provide assignments for the students and sometimes served as a lecturer. As he wrote to Dr. Vann, “I am afraid I always had a rather dim view of the nature and quality of the instruction in that school, including especially my own little part in it. Later I found that the School at the New York Public Library had the reputation of being one of the best in the country.”
Williamson, in 1912, was beginning to form a vision of the curriculum and standards being used by library schools today. In 1918, the Carnegie Corporation hired him to study its Americanization project. In 1919, it hired him to study library education. In 1921, he turned in that report. In 1923, that report was published.
Dr. Vann, through her research and their correspondence, is a direct link to Williamson. Many of Dr. Vann’s students are working in libraries today, and also educating library students. So that’s one hundred years, and the modern history of a profession, summarized in one or two or three lifetimes.
The major biography about Williamson is called The Greatest of Greatness, and his papers are archived at Columbia University, where he was the library director and dean of the library school from 1926 until 1943. I’m not sure where they are now, but Columbia’s archive does not include the two letters he wrote to Sarah Vann, dated May 23 and June 27, 1955, when she was a graduate student at Chicago. Long excerpts from those letters are included in The Williamson Reports: A Study, which Vann published in 1971.
A few years ago, I co-founded In the Library with the Lead Pipe. At the time we thought of it as a blog; the other members of its editorial board and I now think of it as a journal. I got to publish its first full-length article on October 8, 2008. That article ended up being a book review, though for several months leading up to our deadline, I had hoped instead to publish a study of the relationship between philanthropy and librarianship. A key element of that article was going to be my correspondence with Sarah Vann, which I saw as an homage to her correspondence with Charles Williamson.
I had been put in touch with a former student and colleague of Sarah Vann’s, someone who visited her frequently at the care home where she lived and who had recently collaborated with her on a project. I emailed a few questions to my contact, who passed them to Dr. Vann, but then things fell apart. Sarah Vann was in her nineties by this time, she was recovering from an illness, she hadn’t thought about this aspect of her research for decades, and she had given away her books so she didn’t have them as references. Though she had forgotten a lot, my contact informed me, Dr. Vann remembered that what Williamson appreciated about her was that she was willing to say that she didn’t know something if she didn’t.
Writing to me seemed difficult for Dr. Vann, so I asked my contact to interview her on my behalf. She responded that it might be better for me to write her a letter or call her. I was told that she was in good spirits, was extremely lucid, and had a strong voice.
I couldn’t make myself do it.
My grandmother had died six years earlier. We were very close. I called her every Sunday and flew to Alabama to visit her a few times each year. I wouldn’t have wanted someone she didn’t know to ask my grandmother a lot of questions about events she hadn’t thought about in decades. My grandmother would have tried to help, and she would have been flattered by the attention, but it would have been frustrating for her.
Regardless, I made the wrong decision about Sarah Vann. I should have called her or written her a letter. Even if she didn’t respond, I could have told her how much her work meant to me. I don’t think her life was any worse for my not having contacted her directly, though maybe she would have enjoyed our interaction. Maybe, when my time comes, it might have been one of those moments that I would have remembered.
This past August, thirty of Dr. Vann’s friends and former colleagues gathered at one of the University of Hawaii’s libraries to celebrate her life. She had requested a cocktail party rather than a memorial service, so the tributes that evening were accompanied by champagne and martinis.
Portions of this post were adapted from a keynote I delivered at Tenn-Share’s Fall Conference 2012