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Interview with Jean Wright


Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Monday, January 23, 2006, and the interview today in the Peabody Library is with Jean Wright, librarian at the Joint University Library at the time of the merger. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger, and with an overview of the Vanderbilt/Peabody situation at that time.

Jean Wright: Well, I'm going to start way back of what you're expecting, because I arrived in Nashville in 1936 for my father to teach at Vanderbilt. So I kind of grew up on that side of the street. I also eventually worked as a student at the Joint University Library when I attended Vanderbilt, took some classes at Peabody in some of my "related fields" things, took lifesaving classes over here at Peabody in the dorms -- in the -- there was a pool at Graduate Dorm -- I mean, not at Graduate Dorm, at (inaudible), the Social Religious building. So, I went to church across the street from the Peabody campus, where (inaudible) -- 21st and -- so that we would come over here and hike around on the Peabody campus at that point. So both places had been sort of part of my growing-up years. And I'll probably bring in more unrelated baggage than you really want. (laughter) However, I'm very aware of the fact that for years there was a relationship between Vanderbilt and Peabody that was sometimes strained. Not really competitive, because their focuses were so different. But I'm also aware of the fact that each had its own specialty, and they tended to either feel that the Vanderbilt people were social butterflies, or snobs, and then there would be a feeling, well, the Peabody people were all doing such practical, down-to-Earth things. And there was, I think, more duplication of offerings than there needed to be. And I also remember -- and I think that this really is probably a first for people you're interviewing -- my mother and father hosted a group of faculty people for dinner the night of the big dedication of the Joint University Libraries building. And I can remember, before that building was there, when we first came to Vanderbilt, when I was six, there was just a big old stairway there where Wesley Hall had burned. So I really think that that JUL -- and that concept -- was a big part of showing the merger -- it had to happen sometime, because they had each pursued their own means... I know Chancellor Kirkland had talked about sitting and talking to Dr.Payne, or somebody on the corner talking about such things as how they could cooperate. So I guess I feel like the merger eventually was going to happen. The very fact that Peabody moved over here, across the street from Vanderbilt, meant that good neighbors... maybe did or didn't make good fences, or walls... (laughter) I can see that with these very different approaches to education, and their goals, that -- I can understand Peabody doing a lot of what I think of as overlapping programs, but I think there definitely was a lot of overlap. And probably part of it was a matter of pride, because they wanted to do it their way. As I see the situation, (it was a merger problem?) -- I mean, why it came about... There wasn't the kind of enrollment they needed; the endowment was not large enough -- and that's not to say Vanderbilt always had all the money in the world either! (laughter) No school did. I can remember when they were building an engineering building that's now called Jacobs Hall, over at Vanderbilt, and they put up just concrete-block walls. Now, Peabody wouldn't have done that; Peabody always did things with absolute beauty, and -- kind of like the idea of, "Plant vines and go to Europe." It's going to be beautiful. And this campus shows that, all over the place. But it was maybe not as practical an approach to the world. They didn't have as big an endowment, and they had big goals -- which is fine; you need to have... but by the time of the merger, Vanderbilt was already needing more dorm space, and Peabody was not needing the dorm space they had, so they were renting some dorms. I am aware that, although the library was (inaudible) of a cooperative effort of Peabody and Vanderbilt -- with Scarritt simply as a user, not an owner -- I don't think Peabody had been able to make the kinds of contributions financially that they would have been -- would like to have made, I'm sure, if they could. There was more redundancy in offerings and collections than there needed to be. So that sounds very critical. (laughter) It is! The -- when it came to thinking about merging, there had been discussions at various other points, earlier than when it really came -- what should we say, when push came to shove. (laughter) Peabody, after attempts Vanderbilt felt they couldn't afford to do a merger earlier on, and Peabody wasn't willing to entertain the whole cutting down that it would have taken. So Peabody then explored trying to get cooperative efforts going on with some prestigious other universities that had sort of the same sorts of goals. (pause) (laughter) I hope they're not picking us up and taking us away. (laughter)

Dohrmann: (inaudible)

Wright: (inaudible)... that goes with one of those wonderful things, doesn't it? I think that Vanderbilt had not had to have a college of education, because they had the wonderful offerings over here. Vanderbilt didn't have to have geography, because they had Jewell Phelps and people over here like that. But Peabody perhaps didn't have to have the kind of department of history that they had, and I say that knowing some of my favorite people were on their history faculty. So the overlap was sort of difficult. When nobody picked up the idea from Peabody, but Tennessee State University decided they were interested, I think Vanderbilt had to get interested, and I think it is, like the Joint University Libraries -- they shared its child, and the parents had to get married to take care of the child, because that was a very interesting structure in itself -- was the whole JUL agreement. My husband was on a faculty library committee for many years -- he taught at Vanderbilt -- and he and Igor Kavass, who was also on it and was at that time the director of the law library, spent a lot of time the summer before the merger discussions -- not '79, but '78 -- going into the legalities of that arrangement. Partly because of some Scarritt hard times financially, and investigating what the implications were for all three institutions of (inaudible) the library. I can't really see that there was any viable alternative. And I think it's a good thing it worked out, but aware that the Peabody president and Chancellor Dunworth and Chancellor Heard and Emmett Fields, who was president of Vanderbilt at that time, worked awfully hard on the project. There was a great committee at Peabody; Ida Long Rogers, and people like that, working on what alternatives they had as they realized the difficulties that they were facing. Sam Fleming had put a lot of money into both projects at the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, and he was heavy in the planning. So I think that any number of people were involved in it, and I'm sure there were strong feelings among faculty on both sides, and I can understand that. The fact they had -- and I'm going to the central issues here -- (laughter)

Dohrmann: You saw that part; forget that part! (laughter)

Wright: No, no, no! (laughter) I think they -- as I said before -- had very different philosophy to how they approached their missions, and that, I think, skill, exists to some point. And it's probably good, to be (religious or honest?). But the Peabody campus was always so beautiful, and I can't imagine that a campus like that wouldn't be a source of great pride. But it was; (laughter) I have one degree from Vanderbilt and one from Peabody. And I'm currently the president of the Vanderbilt garden club, and was at the time of the merger. And we had our first meeting after the merger over in the Hill Student Center, and I had Dr. Windrow speak to us, and then the Vanderbilt garden club put its foot on the campus, per se... We'd invited everybody to join us, of course, Peabody people, and a lot of the Peabody ladies did. Ida Long was president of the Vanderbilt garden club at one point. We planted a tree where Dr. Windrow said he would like to have it, outside his office window. And I think that -- it died, but I think it was replaced with another (knock-wood,) for him. Big things that we also had to do with the merger were the athletic overlap interest, band overlap interest, and, as I've said, swapping courses. I took courses on both sides of the street, both while I was in Vanderbilt and then when I was in Peabody, at the library school. And I think maybe -- I'll just go right on to the reactions -- and these were -- they're kind of mixed up with the negatives, too. I think the reactions ranged from panic to relief to real concern and heartbreak over some of the wonderful people who've been gone as they had to pare down. And our neighborhood, where my husband and I lived, was really hit hard, because it was a neighborhood in which faculty members lived. And so we were seeing our children's friends' parents, and our friends, putting their houses on the market and seeking other place to be -- of those who were (chopped off?). And I was at church with one of them and his wife yesterday, saying I was going to be interviewed, and was he interested in being interviewed? He says, "It's not a happy time in my life." (laughter) But I think the result has been -- you know, strained -- I think we're getting there. One thing I remember -- at the time of the merger, Vanderbilt made a lot of attempts to reach out. At the actual moment that the merger became a fact, we were at American Library Association, in Dallas, wondering who we worked for, you know? (laughter) We'd go to meetings and say, "Well, our badge says Joint University Libraries; we have no idea where our next paycheck is coming from!" Although we pretty much felt we weren't going to get fired; but it was a whole big role to change in that organization. The next year, Vanderbilt, which has always had very strong alumni relations -- and partly it's fundraising, of course -- but at the American Library Association in New York the next year, many of the library schools always had breakfasts for their graduates. And Vanderbilt had a beautiful one for the Peabody graduates of that library school. Very few of us came. It was absolutely spurned, and I felt very bad about it myself, because I felt -- as a library school graduate, I wanted people to participate in it, and as a Vanderbilt person, I thought, "Gosh, we went to all of this trouble to give a party and nobody came!" I thought that was sort of sad. And I guess we come back with negatives, where -- the loss of the people, and suspicious approaches from each side of the street towards the other, of, "What are you intending to do with us?" and resentment. But I think some of the positive things -- well, I was going to say my last line, but I think that -- the fact they have Human Organization Development as a program -- and granted, they do not have the same level of courses, the same focus as some of the courses on the other side of the street -- and they need that sort of thing -- but it's nothing that I think could exist under the old Vanderbilt arrangement, as a separate institution. The whole Blair School, the music and the Blair School and that shift, has been another whole discussion, that I'm sure people have interviewed about and will, and... People like Shirley Watts, who is my dear, dear friend, and was head of the music library up here, planned the library thing when it went to Blair, and was always Peabody to the core. And that didn't mean she didn't like to go to Vanderbilt basketball games --

Dohrmann: (laughter)

Wright: -- but I think that aspect of what they can do -- Peabody had furnished a lot of the band for the athletic events. And also we certainly have a stronger music program available for both sides of the street. At one time, Peabody had the conservatory approach and had already cut down from that before the merger, so music had already had to cut its programs. I think that one very positive thing is, the beauty of the Peabody campus has been preserved. Because there was a lot of damage to buildings... I was in the Jessup Hall for a year -- the library administration was over there -- and I'm very aware of the condition the building was in. And then when these buildings get redone... Mayborn was so beautiful. Now, Peabody did that beforehand, but I think that the buildings are in better condition than they would have been able to be. Dr. Windrow and I discussed the fact -- as he and I were talking one day -- about, "Those Vanderbilt students are making a path across our mall." And I said to him, "Dr. Windrow, those Peabody students are making a path across library lawn." And so we decided we would cease fire (laughter) towards each other. But the distance -- I keep thinking about the students -- the miles they travel. And I'm watching the Commons go up over there, and my friend Ava Sellers lives right across the street from it, and she says she just can't figure, nor can I, that the distances involved -- as I came across the bridge, I thought, "This is something that couldn't have happened if the two schools had not become one." I don't think they'd ever have done it. I think the programs they've developed are wonderful. And I guess one of the things that I really feel is, they -- had they continued to exist separately -- would not have been, for either one, as fine an institution as it has become now. I think it's a wonderful combination. But I'm prejudiced.

Dohrmann: (laughter)

Wright: What would you -- I had one other -- it says, "Do you have other stories about Peabody and the merger?"

Dohrmann: Yes... yes.

Wright: At the time that we were all sort of wondering what in the world was going to happen about the merger, and when we came -- at the library, per se; I'm bringing this just strictly down to the library. There was a lot of concern, both with people who were still running very separately, over here, as a library. Really we were doing more for them after we began our online cataloging than we had been before, but the amount of cataloguing and acquisitions done centrally has varied over the years, and the amount of control centrally has varied, and the whole library organization varies a lot. But I can remember that with this concern, the person who was head of the book catalog department at that time -- and I was head of the serial catalog department -- would walk up and down the room every once in a while, the whole way through, and meet, and say, "What do you think; when are we going to hear what's happening?" (laughter) But it did work out. And I don't know what else you would like.

Dohrmann: I would just like, maybe, you to talk a little bit more about JUL, and then how that changed in '79. And you have already touched on that, or maybe even discussed it, but if you would talk about it a little bit more...

Wright: OK. Well, you know, I just happened to pick something up, and I think -- let me say this -- I've worked first -- more than you really want to know -- I worked first as an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt at JUL. I had tried to get a job before that, when I was in high school. I wanted to get a job shelving books at the library at Vanderbilt, but Dr. Kuhlman said that they only hired people who were registered at school, because they had to keep the jobs, the part-time student jobs, for them. So I went and shelved books at the public library. But I went straight through Vanderbilt, working there, then -- my first husband (inaudible) law school, so I started taking a library science degree -- working full-time, and taking a course at a time. Then they changed the requirements for the degree, from a BS in LS to a Master's in library science. Peabody has always been very good about finding very impressive names for their degrees. Things like "Doctorate of Educational Leadership," and somebody said, "And if you just say you have a doctorate, nobody ever asks what it is." Which is, you know, kind of interesting from the PhD point of view. But I worked -- I'd started to drop out of library school, because I wasn't going to have time and money to finish it -- before we were through with it -- and Dr. Kuhlman and Henry Lee Swint got me a scholarship to library school, and I edited the library school newspaper that year, over there. But then I went to work briefly at the public library and the state library, but I came back to work part-time at the Joint University Library in -- well, at Vanderbilt. At 1961, when we had come back from the Naval Academy tour of duty. And I have been there, part-time or full-time, just about ever since. For hundreds of years, it seems like. (laughter) And I actually retired from full-time work over ten years ago, and got off the payroll for one month, so I could collect my... little stipends, of all my built-up leave, and all... And came back to work ten hours a week, where I'm working on government documents. But my library work has been -- I have had offices in various places, including in the basement of the computer center. I have had crews over here at the Peabody Library doing the reclassification and the bar-coding of books, and planning the moving of material, and what should be reclassified when we centralized doing the acquisitions for Peabody. We had to take over all of the fundraising -- I mean the bill-paying -- and the checking in of the periodicals and all, and binding. So I've had a lot of involvement with the Peabody side of the library, as well as the Vanderbilt side and the automation side. Which has been wonderful. But I feel like so many of the things I have been involved in are things that couldn't have happened if they were completely separate. So, I happened to pick this up -- you may have seen it, but this was in my things. And I'm not giving it up to you, but what it is, is a publication of (views?), of Peabody views. And it's such a cute logo -- I can't tell what it's -- I'm glad I'm not cataloging it. (laughter) And this happens to be an issue from 1978. And it has an article about the Joint University Library; it has a wonderful article from Dr. Dunworth about, "The Librarian is a Super-Teacher" it has a write-up of the JUL Education Library comprehensive collection and what's included in it. And I just thought what we were talking about -- the overlapping aspects of it and the library -- I hope there's another copy of this on file somewhere. If there isn't, get a copy of my copy.

Dohrmann: Right. (laughter) Well, Jean, thank you very much. Thank you.


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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.