World Libraries

The Pioneers: Robert B. Downs

Robert B. Downs
Robert B. Downs
Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives
Born in Downsville, North Carolina, Robert B. Downs was educated at the University of North Carolina and the School of Library Service at Columbia University. Downs' first professional position was, like those of many contemporaries, at the New York Public Library. He soon moved into library administration, serving as the director of the library at Colby College, 1929-1931; University of North Carolina, 1931-1938; and New York University, 1938-1943; before going to Urbana, Illinois, where he lived for the rest of his life. He directed the University of Illinois Library and library school for 28 years, retiring in 1971.

Downs undertook his first major overseas assignment in 1948, when he served as advisor to the newly established National Diet Library in Japan. Two years later he returned to that country to help in establishing the Japan Library School at Keio University. On the 35th anniversary of the founding of the National Diet Library, the Japanese government awarded him the decoration of the second class, order of the sacred treasure. Downs obviously enjoyed the challenge of these assignments, and said in his autobiography, "In many ways, my missions to Japan were the most satisfying of any I have ever undertaken." He was probably responsible for several Japanese students coming to study at Illinois.

Downs made four trips to Latin America. The first was a 1952 mission, at the request of the Rockefeller Foundation, to assist the National Library and the National University (UNAM) in Mexico. UNAM's new campus was under construction, with a large library building (whose mosaic wall was later to be featured on post cards), and Downs made many recommendations which, had they been fully implemented, would have led to the establishment of a library system at UNAM. His second trip (1960) was really an outgrowth of his work in American library resources, because he visited a number of cities in South America to see which book dealers might best serve American research libraries when the Farmington Plan was expanded to include this region.

His third and fourth trips south of the border each involved a single country. In 1961 he was invited to speak at the Brazilian Library and Documentation Congress (the equivalent of an American Library Association annual conference) in Curitiba; he also spoke in several other cities and visited a number of libraries. Two years later, accompanied by Herbert Goldhor, he visited the InterAmerican Library School (EIBM) at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia, to explore the possibility of cooperation with the library school at Illinois. As a result of that visit, several EIBM graduates came to Urbana to study for the master's degree, and the library science librarian at Illinois went to Medellín for several months to assist in the development of the professional library there.

In 1955 Downs spent six months in Turkey, under a Ford Foundation grant, to establish a library school at the University of Ankara. He taught several courses and recruited a number of students for advanced study at Illinois. Today a large framed photograph of him hangs in the school's quarters as a reminder of his important role as founding director. He returned to Turkey in 1968, and again in 1971, at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), to assist in library collection development.

In 1963, again at the request of AID, Downs went to Afghanistan to organize a general library for the University of Kabul. On that occasion he and his wife, Elizabeth (whom he had met at the Columbia library school), made a round-the-world trip with stops in Libya, Kenya, India, Burma, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Following his retirement in 1971, Downs continued to travel, making his only other stop in Africa two years later to advise on the library situation at the University of Tunis. He especially regretted not visiting Egypt, in part because he had served as director for the doctoral dissertation of Mohamed El Hadi (now at the Sadat Institute). Two major projects involved Commonwealth countries: beginning in September, 1971, he spent a year in Britain on a Guggenheim fellowship, preparing a bibliographical guide to research resources in British libraries. (It was published in 1973, with a second edition in 1980.) A similar project took Downs to Australia and New Zealand in 1978, with a resulting book, Australian and New Zealand Library Resources.

In his autobiography, Downs commented that "the most conspicuous weakness of libraries in a great majority of [the newly developing] nations is an acute shortage of qualified librarians." Thus it is not surprising that in practically all of his overseas assignments he looked into questions of staffing, either directly or indirectly. He encouraged librarians in other countries to seek advanced training, and when possible recommended to foundations and government agencies that they provide fellowship assistance. He was always interested in students from overseas who went to Illinois, and he served as thesis adviser for several who received doctorates. One of his articles showed this abiding interest: "How to Start a Library School" (ALA Bulletin, 1958). Even today there is much good advice to be found there. Another article indicated his global perspective with regard to resources: "One Hundred Notable Libraries of the World" (published in the 1962 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana).

In many countries, thousands of readers are aware of Robert B. Downs not as a library administrator but as author of Books That Changed the World (1956; second edition 1978). Sales of this title have exceeded 500,000 copies; it has been translated into 14 languages. He also wrote other accounts of the influence of books in world history, but none became as well known as the first.

Downs remained interested in librarianship in other countries to the end of his life, as evidenced by a wide-ranging discussion over lunch in Urbana a few months before his death. His work with library schools showed the importance he gave to qualified personnel; his emphasis on collections showed him as ever "the dean of library resources." In both areas he served well the libraries of his own country and those of other nations.

About the Author

William V. Jackson, is Associate Editor for Third World Libraries. For biographical information see TWL 2-1.

© 1993 William V. Jackson


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