Beinecke Library 2019-2020 Annual Report

October 9, 2020

By Michael Morand

The Beinecke Library 2019-2020 Annual Report, including stories, statistics, and selected recent acquisitions, can be read and downloaded here:

In his opening letter for the report, Beinecke Library Director Edwin C. Schroeder writes:

The 2019–20 academic year was my ninth as director of the Beinecke Library and my thirtieth year with the Yale Library. While it is a truism that no two of those years were the same, it is especially true that 2019–20 was a year like no other, with extraordinary challenges of a scale greater than most of us have seen in our professional lives. 

Amid the challenges, one thing remained the same: The Beinecke Library staff pursued their work and fulfilled the library’s mission with enthusiasm, diligence, creativity, and good cheer. Like never before, my colleagues cared for our patrons and my colleagues cared for each other. Every statistic and story in this annual report is a testimony to their success and a tribute to their labor.

The first half of the year, and continuing through January, was not radically different from prior years. Attendance for exhibitions and events remained at a robust level, on par with the museums and other leading cultural attractions of campus and New Haven. Classroom usage remained vibrant, with thousands of Yale students engaging with primary source materials in courses from a very wide range of departments and schools. The reading room was busy, both with fellows, drawn from near and far, doing intensive research extending over many weeks or months and with many other students and scholars coming for one or a few days.

A special highlight of the fall and early winter was the Beinecke Library’s expanded partnership with campus colleagues at the Yale Center for British Art, for their exhibition Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, and the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Peabody Museum, for the gallery’s exhibition Place, Nations, Generations, Beings: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art. The Ruskin exhibition included 37 items from the library, and the Indigenous North American art exhibition included 16 items, with more to be rotated in at a future date. These major endeavors offer a template for even more collaborations by the library and museums in the future. The art gallery show, importantly, was curated by indigenous students—another model for all of the institutions to take inspiration from in the years ahead.

Then late January and February brought ominous portents and ever more incessant news bulletins. The full reality of the COVID-19 pandemic in our region and nation led to the closure of our physical facilities in mid-March along with the rest of campus and virtually every other similar institution in the land. As you will read in these pages, Beinecke Library staff rose to the occasion and made the most of working from home to deliver excellent service in an online-only environment. 

Curatorial staff supported, and often delivered, online instruction for classes. Access and digital services staff added tens of thousands of new images to our already robust digital library. Communications staff further strengthened our dynamic social media presence and added substantial new content to our website and YouTube channel to serve long-standing and new audiences alike. Facilities and security staff kept the facilities safe and prepared for eventual phased reopening. Technical services staff continued to work on cataloging. And scores of staff, some of whose regular roles were hard to replicate remotely, joined together for a new transcription project that promises to yield great dividends for researchers in the future.

The last month or so of this academic year brought new challenges, and new opportunities, following the murder of George Floyd and the impressive civil action by millions of Americans who came together to say that Black lives matter and to call for action against systemic racism.

With the Yale community and our neighbors, the Beinecke Library mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. We affirmed: Black lives matter.

Anti-Black racism, state violence, and systems of oppression are real across four centuries in America, over time and in this time. Progress is only possible when Black voices and stories are seen, heard, centered, and honored. As a library, we committed to act in solidarity and to struggle against white supremacy, racism, and prejudice. 

Our work flows, in part, from our collections. The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, named for a forceful leader for liberation and against racist violence, includes Grace Nail Johnson’s and his papers along with founding archives entrusted by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Gwendolyn Bennett, and many more. Its establishment made Yale Library special collections, beginning in 1941, a place where the voices and stories of Black American writers can be heard and  seen and shared across generations. The trust these writers placed in the library obligates us to do even more to honor their lives and legacies.

Scores of archives have joined the original collection over the decades to the present time, including papers of Lloyd Richards, Dorothy Porter Wesley, Toi Derricotte, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Beinecke Library continued in 2019–20 to expand the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection with historic and contemporary material. Black voices and stories are also being included and are increasing in other curatorial areas. Access has grown through research and teaching, exhibitions, the digital library, and social media. 

As a librarian, I give great importance to writers and to words. Library collections offer resources for learning, reflection, renewal, and advocacy. Their power is witnessed when works of Hughes, Johnson, and others are read, recited, and sung in the streets and shared online, on air, and in print. 

Words are essential. Without action, they are insufficient. Racism is systemic and institutionalized. My colleagues and I began this past academic year examining our work and practices more fully and more critically to determine what we can do, how we must change, and how we will hold ourselves accountable. We intensified our work to center Black voices in teaching and research, exhibitions, and digital media. That work will continue and it will grow.

I close this introduction with one final, personal note. The 2019–20 academic year was my penultimate year of service to Yale, as I have decided to retire in August 2021 at the conclusion of my second five-year term as director. I am excited to take on the challenges and opportunities for my final year as director in 2020–21. Most importantly, I am confident in the Beinecke Library’s ability to thrive in the years ahead, whatever the challenges, thanks to all that the library staff accomplished in 2019–20, a year truly like no other.