The phrase primitive art may still offend some people. To them, my apologies. But for those of us 'in the trenches' of research in the area, the term lost its pejorative meaning long ago, leaving only a wispy quaintness in its wake. But for me it also evokes the history of 'my' library and pays tribute to my library mentor, Allan Chapman.
The Museum of Primitive Art opened in 1957 in a townhouse on West Fifty-fourth Street. And up on the third floor sat the museum's new librarian, Allan Chapman, surrounded by 'fifty books and a lamp', as he often said -- adding wryly, 'The typewriter came later.' From that modest beginning the Library of the Museum of Primitive Art grew steadily, becoming by the time of its closing in 1975 the preeminent collection of African, native American and Pacific Island art and archeology. For much of this time it was Allan alone who saw to the acquisitions, cataloging and public reference in the library.
In 1969 Nelson Rockefeller offered the entire Museum of Primitive Art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which established a curatorial department for the care, study and exhibition of the works. Allan and the library moved uptown to the Met in 1976, shifting about in temporary quarters while the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing was under construction. The library moved into its present quarters in 1980 and opened to the public in 1982, shedding the primitive art moniker to be rechristened as The Robert Goldwater Library. [Goldwater (1907-1973) was the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art.] The department continued to be known as the Department of Primitive Art until 1990, when it changed to the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
It was also in 1980 that I started work at the then Department of Primitive Art Library, as a callow library assistant to Allan. I learned a lot from Allan, even though I didn't always appreciate the wisdom at the time. In many ways Allan chose to resist what he saw as faddish changes in library practice: The library continued to use ALA 1949* until his retirement in 1989. But his core beliefs, borne of his Progressive and commonsense Wisconsin upbringing no doubt and tempered by his adopted Brooklyn smarts, have proven timeless. Chief among these, his unwavering belief in the importance of the professional standing of librarians.
I assumed responsibility for the book collection on his retirement -- thirty-two years after Allan began the library. And here I was, only a year older than the library itself, and nearly the same age as Allan was when he began there.
Allan wouldn't have taken easily to the idea of a blog: I seem to recall he had great difficulty dealing with the mutli-button PBX telephone. ("Put the phone down, Allan!") But I expect he would have recognized instinctively its potential for reference and outreach.
- Read a remembrance of Allan Chapman (on page 7) [.pdf]
* A.L.A. cataloging rules for authors and titles. 2nd ed.