Obituary: Douglas Bryant
Wednesday 29 June 1994
DOUGLAS BRYANT's life was spent in service to libraries, notably, but by no means exclusively, at Harvard University.
In his profession he was a commanding figure, but never was command more gently applied or more willingly obeyed. Like a good general, he began no campaign until he was sure he had the resources to win it.
Douglas Bryant was born in Visalia, then a small town in eastern California. He was a precocious child who did well at school, and he was only 16 when he became a freshman at Stanford University. He was, in fact, too young to enjoy it, and wisely his mother suggested that he take a year out. Accordingly, in 1932-33 he went to Munich. It was a time when, he once said, he grew up several years in one. It was his first experience of Europe; he learnt German, a skill he turned to good effect; and he saw the first triumph of National Socialism, which gave him a dislike of tyranny. He returned to Stanford, from which he took his bachelor's degree in 1935.
He then moved to Michigan University to take his Masters degree. He was already fascinated by books and libraries, and also took a diploma in librarianship at Ann Arbor. He was determined to pay his own way and was fortunate enough to get a job as assistant curator in the William Clements Library at Ann Arbor, whose librarian, Randolph G. Adams, was far-sighted and enthusiastic, an inspiring boss. The contents, as well as the Librarian, of the Clements Library had a strong influence on the young Bryant.
In 1938 he went to Detroit Public Library as senior reference assistant, becoming Assistant Librarian of the Burton Historical Collection there. In 1942, he enlisted in the US Navy. He was commissioned and spent the rest of the war in the Bureau of Aeronautics. After the war was over, he was sent on an extraordinary mission to recover documents on the V1 rocket, buried in an Austrian lake. Back home, he became Assistant Librarian at the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1949, Bryant was appointed attache to the US Embassy in London with special responsibility for the United States Information Service libraries in Britain. There were branches in Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and elsewhere. He was largely responsible for creating the co-operative bond between British and American libraries, now an international network. In particular, he made a close and lasting friendship with FC Francis, then Principal Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum and later Director of the museum. He was thus in at the start of Frank Francis's great plan to print the entire catalogue of the British Museum, by photographing the catalogue's index cards and arranging them on pages. This was completed in the 1960s and was one of the largest contributions to scholarship in the humanities of the century.
The lesson was not lost on Bryant. When he returned in 1952 to become Assistant Librarian of Harvard University, he had a wide vision of the part that libraries could play within and far outside an academic community. His 27 years at Harvard saw outstanding growth. Successively Associate University Librarian (1955-64), University Librarian (1964-72), and Director of the University Library (1972-79), he did much to enable its growth and see that it was soundly supported by firm and unobstructive administration. Two of his former subordinates, William A. Jackson, first librarian of the Houghton Library, and Philip Hofer, in the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, became close friends and coadjutors.
Outside Harvard, Bryant did an enormous amount to foster co-operation between libraries in the US. He was a prominent member of the American Library Association, and was one of the founders of the American Council of Research Libraries (ACRL), becoming chairman of its board of directors in 1969-70. He was largely responsible for applying Francis's recipe to The National Union Catalog of the main research libraries of the United States, running to over 700 volumes. As consultant to the Ford Foundation from 1954, he was able to put its resources behind another Anglo-American venture, the Short-Title Catalogue of English Books printed before 1640, whose masterly revision was Bill Jackson's life work. The Ford Foundation enabled him to play a decisive role in the establishment of the Freie Universitat in Berlin, and thus to become again involved in libraries and their re-establishment in Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation sent him to Japan to do the same for Tokyo University, linking its libraries to the same modern American methods of shared cataloguing.
In all this large-scale activity, Bryant never lost sight of individual books. He admired and encouraged fine printing, for which he had a critical but appreciative eye. In his retirement he chaired a committee charged by Brown University with examining the role of the John Carter Brown Library. But with retirement, too, came a chance to re-establish the closer of all his international ties, that with Britain. There he had met his wife, Rene, then press officer at the US Embassy.
By now the British Library had been separated from the British Museum, and its need for American support, particularly for American books missing due to enemy action or deficiency of funds, was great. This suggested to Lord Eccles and the late Arthur A. Houghton the creation of the American Trust for the British Library in 1979. Bryant became a Trustee and its first Director, retiring in 1990. He threw himself into the task, raising millions of dollars to buy books and creating the campaign to microfilm US books and periodicals not otherwise available in Britain.
To say that Bryant lived for his work might suggest a boring life. Nothing is further from the truth. He had an endless curiosity about everything that came his way, the natural world, art and architecture. He loved writing as well as reading (and no good new book escaped him), and the King James Version of the Bible with which he grew up was always in his ears whenever he wrote anything, from an official report to the punctual correspondence that delighted its recipients. He bore the crosses of life, the twisted nerves that distorted his handsome face 25 years ago (he was fascinated to become the trial for pharmacological rather than surgical treatment), and recently more serious illness, with equanimity.
Latterly his only daughter Heather, who had followed him to Michigan, returned to Massachusetts. It was a great happiness in his old age to see twin grandchildren. The delight that they gave him was a well-deserved reward for all the amusement, courtesy, friendship and solid help that he gave to so many during his own long and richly productive life.
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