World Libraries

The Pioneers: Asa Don Dickinson

Introduction: It was not planned this way, that the first two Pioneers would both be Americans. But as James Thurber wrote once, when he worked for the New Yorker magazine, a journal's breathing is comprised of the inhalation and exhalation of mail. What the post brings gives us our life. The mail brought, in our recent life, a fine study of Asa Dickinson, and no studies at all of other leaders we might have preferred to honor in this second issue. Readers may be assured that we intend to tell the stories of Pioneers in Third World librarianship who were not American, nor even British. Historic library leaders from the developing nations themselves will find their place in this series, as soon as we can inhale them from the post office. Contributions are invited from readers so that the series may breathe easily from now on. — G.A.M.

Asa Don Dickinson, an American librarian, served in the University of the Punjab for a year during 1915-1916. He was the third foreign librarian in British India, preceded by John MacFarlane, who served as the librarian of the Imperial Library, Calcutta, from 1903 to 1906; and William A. Borden, who was employed by the Baroda state in 1911. Dickinson's sojourn, however, was in several ways unlike that of his predecessors. Anis Khurshid views this difference as follows:

Some of the developments emanating from British rule were significantly different from the practice then existing in Great Britain itself. For example, the commission of Asa Don Dickinson in 1915 specifically required him to organize a library training class at Punjab University in Lahore. Such training did not exist at all in any British university at that time. The Calcutta University Commission Report (1917-19) stressed the need for the appointing of a trained librarian with the status and rank of a professor at Calcutta University; this practice was uncommon in British universities where preference was given to those with academic qualifications. [1]

All writings published in India and Pakistan repeat these facts without explaining why such events did take place. We shall try to look into these events only in relation to Dickinson. Was the British Indian Government involved in the "commission of Asa Don Dickinson" in any way? This is the key question.

The British tradition of placing the library under the charge of a scholar was very much in force at the University of the Punjab. Dr. A. C. Woolner, who was the principal of the University Oriental College (1903-1936), was also working as the honourary university librarian since 1903. [2] His status in the University can be judged from the fact that he later on became the vice-chancellor of the University (1928-1939). It was quite natural that Woolner was managing the library in the traditional British fashion. A change, however, took place in 1910, which laid the foundation of modern librarianship in Indo-Pakistan.

In 1910, Professor James C. R. Ewing, principal of Forman Christian College, Lahore (1888-1918), was appointed as the vice-chancellor of the University of the Punjab (1910-1917). Ewing, an American national, had been educated in the U.S. [3] His appointment was the beginning of the penetration of American influence in the academic aspects of the University of the Punjab. During 1913, Ewing submitted certain proposals to the Syndicate of the University for the improvement of the functioning of the University. One of his suggestions was to recruit "A trained librarian to thoroughly arrange the library and to train a class of young men for such work." The vice-chancellor's suggestions were approved by the Syndicate. [4]

It seems that Ewing prevailed over Woolner and got the position of a temporary university librarian advertised in the United States. The following paragraphs appear in the May 1915 proceedings of the Syndicate:

Appointment of a Temporary University Librarian

The Syndicate considered an application for the temporary post of University Librarian by Mr. Asa Don Dickinson of New York. The applicant, after graduating in the Law School of the Columbia University, New York, had received a year's training under Dr. Melvil Dewey in the New York State Library. Subsequently he had 10 years' varied experience in library work, including three years in the Brooklyn Public Library and three years in the Washington State College Library, where starting with a small uncatalogued collection he had a library of 30,000 volumes with a complete dictionary catalogue and the rest of the equipment expected in a modern library. Mr. Dickinson was now a member of the editorial staff of the well known publishing firm Doubleday, Page, and Co. His references included chief librarians of these libraries, principals of colleges, members of the firm Doubleday, Page and Co., and the American ambassador in London.

It was explained that a number of these gentlemen had been written to, but that replies could not be received until the vacation. The Syndicate decided that a Sub-Committee of the vice-chancellor, the registrar, and the Hon'able Mr. Justice Shadi Lal be appointed to examine Mr. Dickinson's testimonials when they arrived. In the meantime, the Syndicate approved of the appointment of Mr. Dickinson subject to the satisfaction of this subcommittee on receipt of these testimonials.

With reference to the courses of training which the librarian was to give, it was suggested that the colleges should be asked whether they would nominate individuals to undergo such a course of training. [5]

Dickinson's arrival and initial work is recorded in the proceedings of the Syndicate as follows:

Arrangements/or Overhauling the University Library
It was reported that Mr. Asa Don Dickinson had arrived and commenced work.
It was resolved to allot Rs. 12,000 from the Government of India recurring grant for the expenses involved in overhauling the University Library, including temporary extra staff, materials, and filling in of some important gaps in the collection, etc.
The following gentlemen were appointed to a Sub-Committee to advise the Syndicate in matters relating to the library, and to render such assistance as was feasible to the University Librarian in carrying out his schemes:
The Hon'able Mr. J. P. Thompson
Mr. Hemmy
The Registrar
It was decided that a report submitted by Mr. Dickinson to the vice-chancellor and registrar, should be circulated to the remaining members of this committee, and then to the other members of the Syndicate. [6]

It is evident that the developments which Khurshid referred to above took place only because of the influence of Ewing and Dickinson.

It was said in the beginning that Dickinson's work in India was in several ways different from that of his predecessors. MacFarlane worked in the Imperial Library only for about three years. Borden, a qualified librarian, established a library network in Baroda state. His work did not, however, influence to any significant level the events outside the princely state. We shall discuss several areas of prime professional concern where Dickinson's work had far reaching effect.

Status of the University Librarian

Dickinson was the first professionally trained individual to be appointed as the university librarian in any of the universities in British India. Indeed he was the first in most of the British Empire, including Great Britain itself.

In 1915, the pay scale of a British professor in India was Rs. 500-1,000 per month. [7] Dr. Woolner was most probably drawing the maximum salary in the scale. Dickinson, not as qualified as Woolner, was employed on a salary of Rs. 1,000 per month, [8] thus at par with the senior professors, a unique development which enabled him to do things a librarian with a lower status could not have managed to do.

In 1917 the Government of India appointed a Commission to look into the affairs of Calcutta University. This commission was chaired by Sir Michael Sadler, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, England. [9] The Sadler Report recommended among other things the "appointment of a trained librarian with the rank and status of a professor at Calcutta University."[ 10] It must be pointed out that university libraries in England with which Sadler was familiar and those in India used to have professors as honourary librarians as was the case at the University of the Punjab before Dickinson came. This idea could not have originated with Sadler whose own country started library education in 1918. This sudden shift in thinking to employ a trained university librarian with the rank of a professor must have been brought about by what had happened at the University of the Punjab. The actual change, however, did not come about soon. As a matter of fact, the situation even at the University of the Punjab reversed itself as soon as Dickinson left. After his departure, one of his students was appointed as an assistant librarian. This downgraded succession, however, was unavoidable because no trained librarian who could be appointed with the salary and rank of a professor was available at that time. Woolner again became the honourary librarian. The British tradition was thus revived.

It was not until 1925 that the University of Madras appointed S. R. Ranganathan as its first trained librarian. [11] The trend of appointing a trained university librarian which was begun by the University of the Punjab with Dickinson had already been set.

Beginning of Library Education at the University Level

Training in librarianship in India was started by W. A. Borden in 1911 in Baroda Central Library, for the employees of the state libraries. The training class at the University of the Punjab was not only the first of its kind in British India but also "in the East because the other formal library school founded in the East was around 1920 at Boon University in China."[ 12] It is interesting to note that the University of London was the first to start training in librarianship in Great Britain, in 1918. Dickinson in this area also proved to be a trendsetter. Punjab was followed by the University of Madras, which started a similar programme in 1931 on the initiative of S. R. Ranganathan. K. M. Asadullah, the most famous of Dickinson's students, started a training class with the approval of the Government of India in the Imperial Library, Calcutta, in 1935. [13]

Introduction of Modern Methods of Librarianship

Dickinson introduced the Dewey Decimal Classification, cataloguing rules, lists of subject headings, the dictionary card catalogue, open shelves, and the Newark charging system. These methods were used in the Punjab University Library and were taught to the first group of 30 librarians who propagated them wherever they went.

Dickinson also encouraged the development of practices to meet local needs. It was for the first time that efforts were made to expand certain Dewey numbers. He wrote in The Punjab Library Primer:

The Indian librarian will feel the need for further expansions of the "D. C." in some fields ...
The Punjab University Library has in manuscript the elaboration of 290 (Ethnic and other religions) and 495 (Eastern Asiatic Languages), which will probably appear in later editions and has worked out its own expansions of 891.2 (Sanskrit literature) and 954 (History of India),... as developed by Mr. Mukand Lal. [14]

These expansions of Dewey numbers seem to be the first done and adopted in British India.

Professional Literature

Two books on librarianship had been published in India before Dickinson came. The first, Library Administration, published in 1898, was written by MacFarlane. It did not discuss any Indian library problem though it was written in India. The second book, Hints on Library Administration, was published in 1913 by B. H. Mehta. [15] Both the books were of a general nature.

Dickinson was very much interested in leaving something behind for the use of teachers, students and librarians. He wrote in his diary:

The end of the task of reorganization was only a matter of days. But June had not yet come and I had been engaged till June 30th... Why should we not get permission to ship to hills ... to spend the final three weeks of our service in a comfortable climate, writing a summary of my lectures-an elementary textbook of library science-for the guidance of our students and their successors, after we had sailed for home? My idea won the approval of the authorities as soon as it was broached. [16]

Thus, The Punjab Library Primer, a book of 242 pages, was born in Kashmir, with a preface dated "Gulmarg, July 1916." [17] It is the first textbook by a professional librarian and a teacher; it was written taking into consideration the needs of local librarians. This is also the first book that uses the term "library science" in India. [18] Comprehensive in coverage, it must have been used as a model by future writers.

Professional Library Associations

There were no professional library associations in India when Dickinson arrived. The literature refers to one Andhra Desa Library Association which "came into existence in 1914 and established several libraries through voluntary cooperation among the people themselves."[ 19] This, however, was not a professional association, but one of the "friends of libraries" organizations which tried to create public awareness to establish libraries.

Dickinson made sure that a professional association of trained librarians was established before he left the country. During 1916, he helped his students to form the Punjab Library Association, the first professional library association in Indo-Pakistan. He "hoped that recently organized Punjab Library Association will find ample work to do, together with the means and will to undertake it." In a brief survey of 25 "libraries of the Punjab," he wrote that "eleven librarians in the institutions mentioned above are members in good standing of the Punjab Library Association. "[20]

The seedling planted by Dickinson, however, did not grow as much as he had hoped. In a few years' time it became dormant. Then in 1929 the Punjab Library Association became active again with new vigour. This situation is summarized by S. R. Bhatia:

After his [Dickinson's] departure, the movement collapsed into what might well be described as a "defunct enthusiasm," and it remained moribund until October 1929 when some librarians in Lahore were inspired to form the Librarians Club. This small organization, admirably and daringly, took upon itself the heavy burden of holding the 7th session of the All-India Public Library Conference in December 1929. The Conference was presided over by the late Sir P. C. Ray and proved a great success, and the Punjab Library Association came to life again, organized a number of Punjab Library Conferences and Book Festivals and launched on a substantial and creditable work of publishing the Modern Librarian as the official organ to render valuable services to the cause of the profession by promoting the library movement. [21]

A periodical entitled Library Miscellany was started in 1913 by the Library Club, organized by W. A. Borden from Baroda. [22] Modern Librarian was the first journal to be published by a professional association.

Dickinson, while writing about the Punjab Library Association, desired that "there would be good reason for the existence of similar organizations in Baroda, at Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras." And in time his wish was fulfilled. Library associations were formed in Baroda 1924, Bengal 1925, Bombay 1921, and Madras 1928. His biggest dream, however, was to see a professional library association established at the national level: "And we may look confidently for a day not far distant when an Indian Library Association shall be launched upon a career of usefulness. "[23]

It is interesting to note that his dream was to be fulfilled by one of his students. In 1933 a conference of librarians was called in Calcutta on the initiative of Khalifa Mohammed Asadullah, the librarian of the Imperial Library (now the National Library of India). "On 13 September 1933 the draft constitution of the Indian Library Association was adopted and thus, amidst great enthusiasm and expectations, the Association came into being." Dickinson's contribution is highlighted by the fact that out of the four provisional office-bearers elected, the most important positions were taken by two of his associates. Dr. A. C. Woolner became the chairman and K. M. Asadullah the secretary of the I. L. A. [24]

It may be mentioned here that K. M. Asadullah remained the secretary general of the I. L. A. without any interruption until 1946 when he opted to serve Pakistan.

Conference of Librarians

During his stay in the Punjab, Dickinson must have felt that libraries in British India were totally neglected. After his return to the United States, his sense of mission persuaded him to write to Sir E. D. Maclagan, secretary to the Government of India, Department of Education, on 19 December 1916, to explore the possibility of "undertaking greater work in India." In a lengthy letter he mentioned the following:

On my way home I visited the Imperial and University libraries in Calcutta, and I hope you will not consider it impertinent if I say that as an expert librarian I was strongly impressed by the need for improvement in both institutions. From what I have seen and heard I think I can risk the assertion that there is not a single well-organized library in British India. ... you have scarcely anything in this country that could be called a library. For an aggregation of books is no more a library than a pile of bricks a house. [25]

Goaded by these frank and critical remarks, Maclagan decided to get details of Dickinson's work at the Punjab University and to ask their opinion on the holding of a librarians' conference at Lahore. [26] On 6 March 1917, Maclagan answered Dickinson's letter. In his reply he said:

I am desired to say that, while the Government of India would much appreciate a reorganization of their libraries, they regret that at the present time, when any expenditure which is not of an urgent and imperative nature has to be avoided, they are not in a position to offer you employment of this character. [27]

There is no doubt that after receiving information from the Punjab Government and sending a reply to Dickinson, Maclagan decided to go ahead with the idea of holding a conference of librarians, in all probability as a result of the letter written to him by Dickinson. It is reasonable to conclude that it was Dickinson who prompted Maclagan to think of ways and means of reorganizing libraries. The first step was to gather librarians and to sort out problems facing libraries.

That the Government of India was unable to offer employment to Dickinson is a different matter. But it was on 29 May 1917 that a circular letter inviting comments of the provincial governments on the scope of the proposed conference and inquiring if they would be willing to nominate representatives to attend the meetings of the conference went out of the office of the secretary to the Government of India, Department of Education. [28] The conference was eventually held at Lahore from 4 to 8 January 1918. The recommendations of this conference had a tremendous influence on the future development of libraries in India.

It is evident that Dickinson laid the foundations of modern librarianship in India. His contribution, a coordinated one covering essential components of the profession, is unmatched.

Dickinson was born in 1876-a year in which the foundations of modern librarianship in the United States were laid. He died on 14 November 1960 after a long and distinguished professional and scholarly career.


1. Anis Khurshid, "Library Education in South Asia," Libri 20 (1970): 59.

2. Ghulam Husain, Tarikh University Oriental College, Lahore, History of the University Oriental College, Lahore (Lahore: 1962), p. 150.

3. Webster's Biographical Dictionary (Springfield, Mass: G.&C. Merriam, 1971), p. 497.

4. "Memorandum of the Government of India Grants by the Vice-Chancellor," in Proceedings of the Syndicate of the Punjab University at a Meeting Held in the Senate Hall, Lahore, on Friday, the 30th May 1913, pp. 130-131, 150-152.

5. Proceedings of the Syndicate of the Punjab University at a Meeting Held in the Senate Hall, Lahore, on Friday, the 21st May 1915, pp. 177-178.

6. Proceedings of the Syndicate of the Punjab University al a Meeting Held in the Senate Hall, Lahore, on Friday, the 22nd October 1915, p. 231.

7. The Indian Year Book 1915: A Statistical and Historical Annual of the Indian Empire .... ed. Stanley Reed. Bombay: Bennett, Coleman & Co., p. 370.

8. Letter dated 19 December 1916 from A. D. Dickinson to the Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Education, in Proceedings of the Department of Education, July 1917, pp. 43-44

9. Jogesh Misra, History of Libraries and Librarianship in Modern India since 1850 (Delhi: Atma Ram, 1979), p. 136.

10. Khurshid, "Library Education in South Asia," p. 59.

11. R. N. Sharma, "Contributions of S. R. Ranganathan to Librarianship," in Indian Librarianship: Perspectives and Prospects, ed. R. N. Sharma (New Delhi: Kalyani Publishers, 1981), pp. 274-276.

12. Abdul Moid, "Library Education in Pakistan," Journal of the Pakistan Library Association 2 (April 1968): 83.

13. G. B. Ghosh and B. N. Banerjee, Trends of Information Service in India (Calcutta: The World Press, 1974), pp. 202-204.

14. Asa Don Dickinson, The Punjab Library Primer (Lahore: University of the Punjab, 1916), pp. 34-35.

15. Misra, History of Libraries and Librarianship..., pp. 46-47.

16. Asa Don Dickinson, "Punjab University Library Training Class of 1915-1916: Extracts from the Diary," Journal of the Pakistan Library Association 2 (April 1968): 72.

17. Dickinson, The Punjab Library Primer.

18. Ibid., p. 6.

19. P. N. Kaula. "Library Movement in India," in Library Movement in India..., ed. P. N. Kaula (Delhi: Delhi Library Association, 1958), p. 60.

20. Dickinson, The Punjab Library Primer, pp. 217, 228.

21. S. R. Bhatia, "Contribution of the Punjab to the Indian Library Movement," in Library Science Today, ed. P. N. Kaula (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1965), p. 379.

22. Dickinson, The Punjab Library Primer, p. 217.

23. Loc. cit.

24. S. R. Bhatia, "The Indian Library Association: Yesterday and Today," in Indian Librarianship, ed. R. N. Sharma, pp. 226-227.

25. Letter dated 19 December 1916, from A. D. Dickinson to the Secretary to the Government of India, pp. 43-44.

26. Punjab, Home Department, Annual Index to the Home Department Proceedings for the Year 1917, p. 350.

27. Letter No. 161 dated 6 March 1917, from Sir. E. D. Maclagan, Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Education, to Mr. A. D. Dickinson, in Proceedings of the Department of Education, July 1917, p. 44.

28. Letter No. 381 dated 29 May 1917, from ... Sir E. D. Maclagan, Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Education, to the Chief Secretaries and Chief Commissioners of Provinces, in Punjab, Home Department, Proceedings, September 1917.

© 1990 Mumtaz Ali Anwar


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