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Interview with Byrd Helguera


Molly Dohrmann: This Molly Dohrmann with the Peabody Oral History Project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Friday, April 14, 2006 and the interview today in the Peabody Library is with Byrd Helguera, former associate director of the Medical Center Library. To begin, please talk about your connection with Vanderbilt and Peabody at the time of the merger and give us an overview of the Vanderbilt-Peabody situation at that time.

Byrd Helguera: At the time of the merger I was associate director of the Medical Center Library. I was also chairman of the library faculty at that time which included chairing the library faculty council. There had been many negotiations about the future of Peabody and there was some question of what institution it would join with but we learned, I believe in July of 1979 that the merger would be with Vanderbilt and the status of the libraries at that time was that they were called the Joint University Libraries and Scarritt College was one of the libraries included and Peabody Library and Vanderbilt, including numbers of the professional libraries. The Medical Center Library was attached heavily to the Medical Center itself but also responded and cooperated with Vanderbilt University with the Joint University Libraries at that time. I guess the status of the librarians at that time was a major consideration.

Dohrmann: Can you talk at all about the history of the relationship between Peabody and Vanderbilt prior to the 1979 merger?

Helguera: I think most of that you already have, and I did mention briefly in that situation but I think in my case the most important part was the cooperation between the three library systems. The Scarritt College, Peabody and Vanderbilt to form the Joint University Libraries which had been formed under Dr. Kuhlman back in the 20's and the funding came sort of by, how shall I put it? Ability to pay. So that Vanderbilt was paying a large part of it, Peabody a significant part and I think Scarritt was pretty much not paying anything much at that point. I may be wrong on that. But the question arose, of the status of the libraries themselves since the Joint University Libraries was a separate corporation and then subsequently under the status of the librarians. Librarian had been listed as a faculty title in the faculty handbook. I think it was called the Faculty Register back then and sort of minimal description of what constituted the position, and mine included. For some time, for about three years before the merger, the librarians had formed a library faculty because we felt that the role of librarian really needed to be more apparent and we had many people who were doing some very faculty-like work. So we formed a library faculty and the first task we undertook was to decide to classify the librarians and we did that on the basis of each individual librarian's professional accomplishments. Each librarian prepared a dossier from a special set of questions. All of this should be I hope on file somewhere in the library system and we elected a council, as head of the organization.

Dohrmann: I was going to also ask you about your time at Peabody way prior, because you came in '66 is that right?

Helguera: I started working in the Peabody Library in early '63 in Circulation as head of Circulation. I did not have my professional degree at that time. I later got an AAW Fellowship and at the same time I was expecting my first child so I had to wait until the following January to begin my library school course. I finished that and that was '65 that I started that as my son was born in September of '64. I finished my degree in December of '65 and in January of '66 I went to take my position at the Medical Center Library and I began as circulation librarian. When Eleanor Steinke left I became associate director although at that point I was on leave. This was in 1969. I was on leave for a year to accompany my husband in South America on a research fellowship. I came back in '70 and assumed full-time responsibility as associate director and remained associate director until I retired. But I do want to get further on.

Dohrmann: Did you want to go ahead and talk about that, that you had the (inaudible)?

Helguera: Yes. I am going to give you copies of these pages from the Annual Report for 1879-80, Medical Center Library of Vanderbilt University. But the first paragraph describes the fact that "since early 1975, the professional librarians had been organized into the library faculty. The last meeting of the library faculty as such, library faculty assembly was held on July 12, 1979. Thereafter, though not formally dissolved, a library faculty was not recognized by the university administration. There is one subsequent meeting of the entire professional staff on 31 October, 1979 to discuss a task force document on the status of librarians. The library council established in the same constitution by which the library faculty came into formal being in 1975 continued to meet regularly throughout the year. Since, as an elected body representative of the professional librarians it had already been associated with the VUL administration in addressing the status of librarians." I was elected chair for the coming year at the meeting on 3rd July 1979. We appointed a task force to create a joint library council VUL administration. The task force came out of the library council and the VUL administration to identify the issues involved and the question of librarian status under the new organization which was now Vanderbilt University Library and to draft recommendations for improving what was considered an undesirable state of affairs. Appointments to that task force were to be made by the director of the VUL and the chair of the library council. One of our members of the Medical Center Library staff, Peggy Westlake, was appointed to the task force and became chair of that task force. On August 8th the Council sent a letter to the President of the University to make it known to the University administration that the librarians were not satisfied with their new status and their action is being taken. They sent the Office of Personnel Services to talk to the librarians about their status. They were proposing that librarians be made exempt staff without any faculty standing whatsoever. The question was, how to classify the librarians within the exempt situation and the director of the library, Mr. Grisham, was given the order that by Monday, I think he had maybe three days, to come up with classification for all the positions in the library, all professional professions. Since he had no time he simply took the classifications that had been assigned to the individual librarians in those positions and we had one person in particular with a couple of Master's degrees, a Bachelors and on her way to a doctorate in one of our positions which was unlikely ever to be held by a person with those qualifications in the future. Of course that position received the highest possible classification for the position and it stayed in that classification in all subsequent hirings that I knew of. That is how the classification system began. I hope by now it has been straightened out a little more. We had a meeting with the deputy provost who at that time was Glen Clanton. When was that?

Dohrmann: Was it in '79?

Helguera: Yes. This was in the first of May 1980 at 11:30 in the morning. The deputy provost was to be there to discuss personnel matters. At the meeting there was some discussion of problems attendant on the absorption into the university's personnel structure of the library staff. The deputy provost asked that the VUL director appoint a committee drawn from the library and from elsewhere in the university to address these problems. At the VUL division directors meeting on 10 September 1980 the VUL director announced that a proposed charge to the committee that the deputy provost had asked him to appoint and then sent for approval to the provost's office in May, 1980. No response had yet reached him and no appointments were made. Another aspect was that at this meeting on 2 April 1980 previously the council was informed of an action proposed to the University' faculty senate by the provost's office to drop the title librarian from the non-tenured appointment section of the faculty manual and move it to the section titled "Other Academic Titles". The council chairman was authorized to appear before the senate committee charged with a consideration of that proposal to ask that no change be recommended until a response to the task force document had reached the council. I was the chair of the council at that point. She met with that committee (External Affairs Committee as faculty senate) on the same afternoon and the committee made a preliminary report favoring the council position to the senate on 3rd April 1980. At the last minute of the faculty senate was scheduled for May 1, 1980. At its meeting on the 1st May 1980, the faculty senate unanimously endorsed the recommendation of the External Affairs committee that no change be made in the faculty manual with regard to librarian status. As of June 30th, 1980 there still had been no administration response to the task force document. At that time you may remember there was a President of the university, President Fields and we never heard from him. To the best of knowledge to the day I retired President Fields being long gone by that time. What other questions did you have? That's my hobby horse.

Dohrmann: Thank you very much. Do you have other specific memories about the financial situation at Peabody and any alternatives there were to merging with Vanderbilt that were seriously considered or?

Helguera: There was some talk of merging with TSU I believe and possibly another institution which was not in the city if I remember correctly. That bothers me and I was as you know a Peabody graduate so I was somewhat concerned but I was more concerned with the status of librarians.

Dohrmann: Can you talk a little bit more about the reaction of librarians once the merger was announced.

Helguera: Confusion. There was some anger because we felt that we had really begun to organize ourselves in a very professional way and had gotten things and we were just ready to start, in fact I think we had all the dossiers put together and had finished classifying them just about the time the merger occurred. That is my recollection. There may have been a couple outstanding, I am not sure. But I do know that classifications had been assigned to most of us by that time. And this was our own personal classifications, not a positions classification.

Dohrmann: What do you think have been or were the times that were major negatives of the merger?

Helguera: I think most of it was a longstanding rivalry between Peabody and Vanderbilt. There had been many areas of cooperation, especially for the football's teams advantage and for the band because of the music school. There was also a master of arts and teaching program. I believe that was the name of it which was a joint thing and administered by Professor Burbank who was adjunct in the History Department if I remember correctly. The libraries, since they were a separate corporation, worked together. Funding was piecemeal here and there for everybody. Some of ours came from the medical school. Some came to the nursing school, some of the hospital, etc. And it had to all go through two budget situations, one through the Joint University Libraries, one through the medical school. We weren't quite sure all that would shake up. People felt very confused and concerned.

Dohrmann: What do you think have been the most positive outcomes of the merger?

Helguera: I think the status of Peabody and whole academic world has improved tremendously. We are now listed as 5th by U.S. News and World Report in special education. Several of its programs are very highly regarded whereas while they were certainly always very respectable and distinguished, Peabody was not known as well and had not reached that status. I think the fact that Vanderbilt had another school added to its own status.

Dohrmann: Do you have memories of specific personal stories of the time of the merger? And I also wanted to ask you about stories you may have about Peabody traditions that should especially be remembered?

Helguera: I was only here for that one part of a year, just before my son was born. The one person I remember, well I remember several library people, but Professor Copeland who was head of this library for many years and was a very diminutive man and a very bright man but extremely loved by everyone I think. We had known him elsewhere because he was a University of North Carolina graduate and we were there for quite a while. He graduated in the History Department and we knew him from History Department gatherings there. And he was still director of the library when I came. Nathanielle O. Russell was the head of reference. She was another outstanding person. Oh my goodness. I am trying to remember the name of that very nice lady who was head of cataloging. I can't remember. And I was doing circulation. And then we had the Peabody Collection of books for children here in this basement area. Ann Stewart was head of that for a long time. I believe she came though after I had left that position upstairs in circulation. What else do I remember about Peabody? Well, they always had the hanging of the ivy, the hanging of the greens in the, what was it called? What is now the Wyatt Center? The Social and Religious building. And almost all of us had lunch over in the cafeteria at the other end of the campus and sit around and chat for a while and exchange ideas. I suppose (inaudible) faculty: Dr. Frase or Mr. Frase, I am not sure what his degree was. Mr. John Frase was in the Art Department. He was a person under whom I worked, earliest. I took a course with him. And the geographer. What was his name? He was a very good geographer and we liked the course. Most of my courses of course were in the Library School and the life and soul of the Library School was Fanny Cheney and I really was very devoted to her I think. Everybody was. I took a couple of courses under her. What under members of, several of my classes was Clarise DeQuasie, do you know?

Dohrmann: I don't know her but we have that wonderful Pavarotti collection.

Helguera: Oh yes, in those days of course Clarise lived in Mt. Juliet most of her life and she was a big Charlie Daniels fan and she had, according to what she told me, she happened one day to be just flicking the dial trying to find on her television set trying to find something and she came across Pavarotti and after that she began her devotion to Pavarotti. But in Library School she was also unique. She usually rode her motorcycle in Mt. Juliet, and she suffered a broken arm at one point and I think maybe a broken leg in another. I remember one day she was late coming to class because she had had a flat on the interstate and it was a very icy day and she had to stop on the interstate and change a tire. She was always one of our outstanding library science students and librarians. We all miss Clarise. Oh, the ginkgo trees.

Dohrmann: OK talk a little bit about that.

Helguera: The leaves of course were always lovely, but the fruit was terrible. And of course the lawn up to the Religious building was very reminiscent for me since I had spent some time at the University of Virginia and walking up on these ginkgo fruits is really pretty rotten. At the time of the merger I do remember that the Peabody faculty, I think my Stan Laskerstill, he was another library faculty member. Numbers of people. Ed Gleaves, I think, had he moved on by that time?

Dohrmann: No, not by the merger.

Helguera: He left, the library school stayed intact for a little while after the merger. People, many of them, were out with big signs saying "Don't drink" what's his name? Dunworth's Kool-Aid. And reminiscent of the James Jones (inaudible) The faculty on the Peabody campus were very upset. Some of them had received, especially in the special education and that sort of thing, were not too upset I guess. They stayed in their positions. But people like, the (inaudible) were duplicated on both campuses. It was pretty hard on them and there were some pretty distinguished people. Most of them got some compensation for the fact that their positions were no longer around. And the history people. And English and people in the humanities. And some psychologists. There was some question about several psychology positions. On the Peabody campus people were not happy. On the Vanderbilt campus, well, it involved a lot of reorganization and change. Positions were not affected and most of them were not unhappy about the change; in fact I think they welcomed having a College of Education.

Dohrmann: I just wanted to ask you one more question about Peabody and traditions. What can you tell us about the Peabody iris? Is that something?

Helguera: I remember the iris garden behind the cafeteria and was it called the Student Activities Building? Which was very beautiful in the spring. Always.

Dohrmann: Do you have any other stories you want to share with us?

Helguera: I felt that the director of libraries at that time, Frank Grisham, handled the situation as well as anybody possibly could have and he was between the devil and the deep blue sea. But he was always a very diplomatic, caring person and I think he probably got very tired of me. And Mark Hodges who was head/director of the Medical Center Library. And as you know just died, worked with us I think as closely as he could on the situation. He was very supportive in the whole situation. And I think just as upset as I was about the status of librarians although he was not affected by it. He was the one person on the staff who was not affected by it.

Dohrmann: Well thank you very much.

Helguera: You are quite welcome.


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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.