Making Holdings Available to Users: A Long-Standing Tradition

Since August 2020, the RBML’s Public Services staff has taken up the heroic task of making our collections available to remote users all over the world. In 12 months, they have scanned over 80,000 pages. Yes, that’s eighty and three zeros. They have carried on a tradition once headed by the pioneering Director of the Photography Division, Dr. Mary A. Bennett.

Dr. Bennett in the darkroom, April 1944. Scan #4966. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Dr. Bennett received her BA, her MA, and the PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a degree in library science from Drexel Institute, now Drexel University. She was the Custodian of the Howard Furness Memorial Library in the University of Pennsylvania Library when she was invited to Columbia to offer advice about what equipment to acquire for the Photography Division. After what was supposed to be a consultation, Bennett was hired in 1938 to head the library’s division in “the rapidly developing field of microphotography.” Bennett, as she told CUL Director Carl M. White in 1944, had been interested in photography in the libraries as a student and actually wrote her dissertation on microfilm. In the course of her research, she learned the process herself: “So few libraries then had microfilm service that I used to borrow books and film them myself.” [1]

In the same memo, she noted that: “Historically microphotography at Columbia began late.” When Bennett came to Columbia in 1938, the Library was “doing only Photostats” or photocopies. By 1946, her Division provided service in microfilming, film negatives, contact prints, enlargement prints, enlargements from 35mm films, black-and-white and color lantern slides, reproduction of catalog cards, and other miscellaneous photographic jobs. In addition to managing an ever expanding division, Bennett was also the head of the Binding Division and taught courses in microphotography for the library at Columbia’s School of Library Service.

The 1946 Annual Report states that “[t]he growth in the work of the Photograph Division can be best expressed in the statistics of the work performed: in 1938-39, the income of the Division was $3,836.40; in 1945-46, it increased to $12,911.25.” However, as Bennett herself once stated:

No statistical report however rosy could show the usefulness of the Photograph Division to the libraries in making their holdings available to scholars all over the world. [2]

This statement still rings true to this day. The RBML Public Services staff continue to provide an invaluable service to everyone from students working on dissertations to researchers from around the world. We are awed, proud and grateful for their contributions to the RBML.


[1] Memo from September 20, 1944 to Dr.  Carl M. White, Director, Photograph Services, 1943-1945, Box 112, CUL Office Files, University Archives

[2] Photograph Division budget for 1945, Box 112, CUL Office Files, University Archives