Obituary: Gordon Williams

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The Independent Online
To have created a single, united catalogue of the world's greatest research library system is such an achievement as to give its architect permanent fame. Yet such was Gordon Williams's modesty that his death more than three months ago passed almost unnoticed by the outside world. His monument, the National Union Catalog, is to be found in every major library in the world, still in the massive bank of green folio volumes in which it originally appeared; it now awaits the electronic form that he foretold for it.

From 1959 to 1980 Williams was director of the Center for Research Libraries at Chicago, the home of the American Library Association (ALA), and it was in that capacity that he oversaw the realisation of a dream that went back to the beginning of the century. In 1901, in his annual report to Congress, its great librarian, Herbert Putnam, wrote: "It is fully recognised by the Library of Congress that next in importance to . . . its own resources comes the ability to supply information as to the resources of other libraries."

Towards this he added the hope "to receive a copy of every [catalogue] card printed by the New York Public Library" and all the other major reference libraries in the country. This had grown by 1926 to two million records, but it was of limited value: its use was restricted to Washington, and as one record for each book was deemed sufficient it gave no idea of the national availability of copies. A Rockefeller grant in 1927-32 redeemed the balance, quadrupling the number of records, but even by the 1950s a quarter of the requests for books failed because a copy could not be located.

By then the need was sufficiently urgent for the ALA to approach the Library of Congress with the proposal that copies of its members' cards should be incorporated comprehensively in what had come to be called the National Union Catalog (NUC). One hundred and three thousand records were added in 1956, trebling the next year. The next step was publication, and in 1961 a trial volume, covering the records of 500 libraries for 1952-55, was published. The reception it got showed the need for a complete catalogue, then estimated at 32 million records - an underestimate, as it proved.

The British Museum Library had already undertaken the publication of its complete catalogue, an operation made possible by the development of a novel camera which converted the printed slips pasted into the catalogue volumes, familiar to users of the Reading Room, into continuous and correctly alphabetised sequences of film. It appeared in 263 volumes between 1963 and 1968 and took the scholarly world by storm. It was to provide a precedent for solving the problems of publishing the NUC.

Vast though the British Museum catalogue was, NUC was three times larger. Further, its content came not from one but hundreds of different libraries, whose records, even of the same book, could differ radically. Finally, due to the length of time it must take to produce, provision had to be made for possible changes, known or unknown. Chief of these was the onset of computer-based cataloguing.

In the event, NUC was produced in printed form. It was accepted, on grounds of cost and, at the time, technical uncertainty, that whatever might happen in the US libraries, elsewhere would not be so advanced. It was well that the catalogue came out in book form, though not for the reason foreseen: in the event it was the non-US libraries, who subscribed for a surprisingly high proportion of the copies printed, that kept the project afloat.

The first volume came out in 1968; the rest followed at the rate of five a month every year up to the 754th and last. The whole cost of capitalising this vast venture fell on the English printing firm who had been responsible for the British Museum catalogue. Not a cent of US government or foundation money went to support the huge editorial and production costs involved, despite every solicitation.

That all this was brought to fruition was due to one man, Gordon Williams. Although officially it was the responsibility of a sub-committee of the ALA, made up of librarians, the translation of its decisions into action was his responsibility. It was an administrative problem of gigantic proportions; Williams dealt with it, calmly and without fuss, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. He gave whole-hearted and informed support to the publication and ensured that all the potential dangers of transatlantic collaboration were avoided. Rarely can so large an undertaking have been achieved with such efficiency and harmony. By the time he retired in 1980, it was virtually complete.

Williams was born in Oregon in 1914, and he remained by sympathy and choice a west-coast man. Times were hard in his youth, and school and later university (he went to Stanford) were only compassed by working in his spare time and vacations. Books were in his blood, and bookselling provided a livelihood.

The Second World War took him to active service in the Pacific; he became an expert navigator, and the tinnitus he suffered from in later life came from being too close to heavy naval artillery. He returned in 1945 to become vice-president of the international bookselling firm Brentano's in California, which involved managing their Los Angeles shop. He also spent some time in Sacramento, where his long-standing interest in the stage found an outlet; after hours, he spent his time producing and stage- managing plays.

In 1952 he became chief assistant librarian at the University of California at Los Angeles, joining the powerful team built up by Lawrence Clark Powell, already a legendary figure. This prepared him well for the move to Chicago in 1959. There the National Union Catalog was by no means his only concern. As Director of the still new Center for Research Libraries, he faced challenge in all directions. The special needs of university and other research libraries, notably those independent of academic affiliation, had only begun to arise as the full impact of the federal investment in higher education made itself felt.

The problems of sudden growth, from acquisition policy to buildings, above all the need to create a new cadre of properly trained staff, came to Williams. He was an early exponent of the need for a conservation policy, and a founder member of the International Institute of Conservation. In all this, he was largely responsible for the creation of a united front among libraries in America, and his influence, if unseen, was as marked in Britain.

But Williams was very much more than the librarians' librarian. Some flavour of his personality comes in his valedictory address in 1980 on "library co-operation" which, he said, suffered from its good name: "if it were regarded as just a bit sinful, librarians might indulge in it more than they do". Reflecting further on the impact of the expansion of higher learning, he added,

Among the still further consequences, aside from the undesirable ones, such as pollution and rapid destruction of the natural environment, multinational corporations, the atomic bomb, TV dinners, cellophane wrapped bread and electronic music, were an exponential increase in the number of new publications and in the need for more access to them.

All this he faced without compromise, but he got much enjoyment from life, and gave it too. Somehow he found time to write, too: a book, Ravens and Crows, appeared in 1966 and two years later he edited the first edition of Thomas Bewick's memorable letters to John Dovaston.

Williams retired to Napa in California, delighting his retirement by printing little books on a hand-press, notably his old friend Will Cheney's treatise On Pocket-knives. He also took a well-informed interest in the local product, and was a founder member of the board of directors of the Napa Valley Wine Library, a remarkable collection in an outstandingly handsome building, for which he took none of the credit he deserved.

Nicolas Barker

Gordon Roland Williams, librarian: born Ontario, Oregon 26 July 1914; married 1942 Jane Smith (one daughter); died Napa, California 15 September 1996.