World Libraries

The Pioneers: Dorothy G. Collings (1911-1991)

Dorothy G. Collings
Dorthy G. Collings

Photograph courtesy of Department of Library and Information Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Kinston 7 Jamaica and is from their publication Record of Tributes to Doctor Dorothy Collings.
In the field of comparative librarianship, Dorothy G. Collings stands as a true pioneer. She planned, organized, and taught for many years the first course in comparative librarianship to be given at an American library school; she also created and ran a workshop in comparative librarianship for students who, having completed a year or more of study in an American library school, were about to return to their own countries; and she was founding director and professor in the Dept. of Library Studies of the University of the West Indies-to name but three other more important contributions to the field, in which she remained interested through the rest of her life, as evidenced by many discussions, over three decades, with the present writer. This account, while making no pretense at completeness, draws on these exchanges, which took place in New York, Paris, Kingston (Jamaica) and Sydney, and emphasizes her career in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. We also have an hour-long videotape interview (recorded the year before she died), in which she recalls and comments on some other experiences during this period, as well as responding to some general questions about the field. The booklet published (1997) after her death also provides insight into many other personal relations with colleagues and friends.

Dorothy Gwendolyn Williams was born in New Haven, CT, on 22 Sept. 1911, the second daughter of Arthur and Maud Williams, who had come to the United States from Jamaica and eventually settled in Madison-on-the-Sound, CT, where they were the proprietors of the Dolly Madison Hotel. Growing up in the southern New England, she became an avid tennis player (once confessing to being a "tennis nut") and followed the game throughout her life, after retirement often arranging her trips to London and Paris to coincide with the matches at Wimbledon and Roland Garros.

For the record let us set down her educational background. She received four degrees: B.A. from Hunter College, 1932; B.S.L.S. from Simmons College, 1933; M.A. from Columbia University, 1936; and Ph. D. from the Graduate Library School, University of Chicago, 1947, where she wrote her dissertation on "The treatment of the second Roosevelt Administration in three popular magazines."

From 1935 to 1948 she held positions at several U.S. institutions, including Fisk University, the library school at Atlanta University, and the New York Public Library. These early experiences do not suggest the involvement, for the rest other life, in international affairs (she was a passionate believer in the United Nations); perhaps her heritage as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants (she was always interested in and felt great empathy for Jamaica and the British West Indies) was a contributing factor. Just how she happened to take a position at UNESCO headquarters remains unknown (at least to the present writer); in any case, in 1948 she went to Paris as Chief of the Documentation Centre, Educational Clearinghouse. According to a relative's account, she was extremely popular and led an active social life; she met a tall, handsome man from New Zealand, William C. (Bill) Collings, and about a year later became his wife. UNESCO posted Dorothy and Bill to Cairo, where Dorothy became Chief, Regional Library and Clearinghouse, Arab States Fundamental Education Centre (ASFEC). During this period (1948-55) Dorothy made a number of trips to European, Middle Eastern and African countries on one type or another of assignment.

In 1956 Bill and Dorothy returned to the United States, and settled in New York City. For the rest of their lives they resided at 8 Peter Cooper Road on the East Side, even though in retirement they usually fled New York's cold winters. "You know," she once remarked, "I'm a big city girl."

Dorothy transferred from the UNESCO staff to that of the United Nations, becoming Chief, Educational Liaison Section, Office of Public Information (OPI), at UN Headquarters. Her duties there did not of course encompass direct involvement with libraries. When queried on how she began to teach comparative librarianship at Columbia University's School of Library Service, Dorothy replied that it was "an unexpected development." She was asked to speak to the school's students and faculty about her experiences overseas and, instead of giving a travelog, she decided to lay out some problems and situations for which she was unprepared when joining the UNESCO staff-despite training in three American library schools; against that background, she accepted Columbia's invitation to offer a course in comparative librarianship and proceeded to plan, develop and organize a Seminar in Comparative Librarianship-the first to be given in the United States. We know a considerable amount about the scope and contents of the course, thanks to an article, as well as to questions posed in the 1990 interview. In her words, the seminar "provides a comparative study of the library systems, problems and attempted solutions of countries in differing stages of library development, considered in the context of local economic, social and political factors, ...its scope generally comprises three main elements: (a) area studies of library development in particular countries and regions; (b) comparative study of selected problems (such as education for librarianship, the development of public library service on a national or regional basis, and the provision of materials for newly literate adults); and (c) international aspects of librarianship including the work of UNESCO, the Organization of American States and other international bodies, the role of national bodies and professional library associations in international co-operation, international access to publications, and other pertinent matters."

A more concise description of the course (published in the School's Bulletin some years later, when she was no longer teaching it) reflects faithfully Dorothy's original concepts and emphases.

LS K8302, Comparative Librarianship 3 pts. Comparative study of the development and organization of libraries in other countries, including their problems in developing library services. The role of international organizations in library development.

Further details appeared in the course syllabus, which was published by the School and made available on request; her "Outline for the Study of a Foreign Library System" received even wider distribution when reprinted in Simsova and MacKee's Handbook of Comparative Librarianship (1st ed., 1970).

The course methodology was that of lecture/discussion, involving Dorothy's lectures, student reports followed by group discussion, film and videotapes, and guest lecturers (for some years the present writer regularly gave a lecture on library development in Latin America). In addition, each student was required to prepare a term paper. Unquestionably the unmatched resources (books, journals, grey literature, etc.) in the Library of the School of Library Service (in this field the most important in the country until the School's closing in 1990-91) facilitated the preparation of students' assignments.

Dorothy Collings gave the Seminar one evening a week during the spring semester from 1956 to 1971. (Later instructors included Elizabeth Nebahay, Robert Wedgeworth, and William V. Jackson, who offered the course for the last time at Columbia in 1990.)

The Seminar was aimed primarily at the School's overseas students (in the 1960s about 30 per year), but also at American students interested in library and information service in other countries. As the course was an elective, it is not surprising that enrollment usually ranged from 12 to 20. Dorothy never taught the course elsewhere with one exception: at the University of Denver library school in the summer of 1976.

Dorothy also began to offer a Workshop in Comparative Librarianship as an outgrowth of and complement to the Seminar, but with a somewhat different goal and distinct structure. It was intended for students from overseas who, after having studied for at least a year in American library schools, were about to return home and would have to adapt what they had learned to the needs and conditions of their own countries. They came to Columbia from various library schools in the U. S. and for the most part had not taken a course like the Seminar. The number of full participants was usually about a dozen, although several observers increased the numbers. The workshop was an intensive experience, lasting all day for two weeks.

For the group sessions (usually in the morning), Dorothy often drew on other faculty in the School and on practicing librarians in special subjects. Some afternoon sessions consisted of visits to libraries in New York by the entire group or of experiences tailor-made to match a student's background and needs in light of conditions in his homeland. Dorothy's skill and success in "turning-the-student-around-to-face-the-realities-at-home" soon became legendary.

A questionnaire sent out in advance helped to determine topics to be treated: "in-service staff training; problems in organizing special libraries; practical aspects of public and school library administration; adapting and constructing library tools; establishing national bibliographical controls; developing suitable materials for children and for newly literate adults; and aspects of international library cooperation."

The Workshop was first given in the June 1958 intersession and was repeated for a number of years. The Agency for International Development (AID) was the main sponsor, but this very successful program ended when outside funding dried up.

During much of the late 1950s and 1960s the interest in comparative librarianship was increasing in American library schools. Faculty were going overseas as advisors and Fulbright lecturers; the number of foreign students grew; some research was undertaken and a few conferences were held. It is difficult to assess Dorothy's role in and contributions to this development. As the creator of the first seminar, she was obviously the senior person, yet her status as a part-time faculty member at Columbia probably reduced the role she could play; still, through her syllabus and her growing reputation there seems little doubt that she did influence others. We can only speculate on the exchanges with such professors as Leon Carnovsky (Chicago), J. Periam Danton (UC/Berkeley), Josephine R. Fang (Simmons), Lester Asheim (North Carolina), Sr. Lauretta McCusker (Dominican), and Nasser Sharify (Pittsburgh and Pratt). The present writer was an auditor for several days at the 1960 Workshop and a guest lecturer in the Seminar for a number of years, and he has drawn on Dorothy's experience and advice for his own courses, first at Pittsburgh and later at other schools. Certainly she was well known and admired by many in the field, especially after the publication of her article "Comparative Librarianship" in v. 5 (1970) of Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science.

For this period Dorothy was an adjunct professor at the School of Library Service. Even so, she served as an unofficial advisor to several doctoral students from overseas. One mystery remains: Was she ever invited to join the faculty on a full time basis? Would she have accepted if asked? Certainly she possessed all the necessary academic qualifications and had had varied experience both in the U.S. and abroad. Dean Jack Dalton held her in high esteem and, with his own work in international librarianship, might have welcomed her as a permanent member of his faculty. In any case, her relationship with Columbia ended, as did that with the United Nations, when she accepted the call to become the founding director of a new library school at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

In 1971 Dorothy Collings began a new phase in her career, one that brought her back to her Caribbean roots and one for which her education, experience and personal skills had prepared her. As early as 1962 the growing need for librarians and information specialists in the English-speaking Caribbean had led to proposals for a library school to replace the short courses and workshops which had for two decades provided the only formal training in the area. The report prepared by J. Periam Danton as a UNESCO expert in 1968 had endorsed this idea, but for several years all attempts to secure outside funding from foundations or international agencies to aid in launching the enterprise had failed. Finally the government of Jamaica obtained support from the United Nations (through UNDP) for an initial three-year period, and Dorothy was asked to become the new school's founding director (actually the "school" was to be the Department of Library Studies within the Faculty of General Studies, University of West Indies [UWI], on the Mona campus in Kingston).

To be offered were a three-year undergraduate program and, starting two years later, a one-year postgraduate diploma. One needs to remember that UWI is a regional university with campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, and draws support for current operations not only from these countries but also about ten others.

Against this background Dorothy arrived as the first head of a new department; she faced a daunting list of tasks, including but not limited to the following: dealing with the university administration, planning the curriculum, recruiting faculty and staff, making provision for a sufficient number of scholarships, seeking additional funding from outside organizations, establishing relationships with interested constituencies, developing short courses and workshops, choosing professionals to serve as external examiners, and procuring equipment for training in library automation and information technology. Of necessity she had to cope with most of them simultaneously, while carrying a full load of teaching and tutorials.

One example illustrates her strategy in action. Before leaving New York she began work on what was, in her view, an essential component of the program: a library science library. (This conviction had probably been reinforced by the resources available to her and to her students at Columbia.) She made the rounds of a number of American and Canadian libraries and library schools seeking donations of monographs, runs of journals, reference works, and even examples of library forms, manuals, hand-outs, etc. She was quite successful in gathering such material and indeed felt that the journals files were "fairly strong." A further coup came when Air Jamaica agreed to transport everything to Kingston gratis, on a space available basis. However, when she proposed setting up a separate library, she ran into a stone wall: the University's firm policy against departmental collections. Rather than give up, she marshaled her arguments and pled the case with the vice chancellor, who ruled in her favor. In later years she recalled that another administrator had said of the episode: "We're going to have trouble with that woman—she's very determined."

The days were not long enough, but even with such hard work Dorothy lost neither her enthusiasm nor her graciousness. She devoted herself to the Department; she lived in a small hotel near the campus, so that she could be free of household responsibilities. Despite all the matters requiring her attention in those first months, she found time to prepare and present a paper on the new program for the international conference, "Libraries and the Challenge of Change," held in Kingston in April 1972. Similar accounts appeared in the publications of the Jamaica Library Association, UNESCO, and the Seminar on the Acquisitions of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM). Dorothy remained as head of the Department until the first class graduated in 1974, even establishing two prizes for first degree and postgraduate students (awards which continued), and then turned the reins over to her successor, Daphne Douglas.

Three years later, in 1977, Dorothy returned to Jamaica at the government's request to serve as coordinator for the preparation of a national plan for library, archival, and information services. In January she began work with the small staff of the National Council on Libraries, Archives and Documentation Services (NACOLADS) and immediately plunged into a study of the government's goals and strategies, so that the plan to be developed would reflect national policies as well as international standards and global issues. Ten working parties were set up to study specific needs and to make recommendations; Dorothy faithfully attended their meetings, advising and guiding in the preparation of their reports, which were then exchanged for discussion, criticism and revision before being brought together into a single, unified national plan. It was a tribute to her skill, drive, and organizational ability that the resulting publication, Plan for a National Documentation, Information and Library System for Jamaica, was immediately hailed as an important contribution to the literature of planning library and information services. Characteristically the coordinator took little credit, always maintaining that the document was not her work, but a plan developed by and for Jamaicans. Because of the assignment's time limitations (three months), Dorothy drove herself beyond the pace which even her strong constitution could sustain; after completing the job she had to spend a week in hospital and an additional three weeks recuperating.

The next dozen years were a period of real retirement for Dorothy and Bill, who by this time had sold his publishing business. They continued to make New York their home, but fled to warmer and sunnier climes for the winter. They went to Malta and to New Caledonia, but in the 1980s returned every winter to Australia, where they had acquired a pied--terre in Manly, at the entrance to Sydney's magnificent harbor and a short ferry ride from the city's downtown. As always, they made friends easily and led an active social life. Being an avid reader, Dorothy borrowed fiction and more serious books from the local public library and made contact with the library school at the University of New South Wales, then headed by Boyd Rayward, who had been on her staff in Jamaica. After several years, they sold their condominium for a very good price, intending to return to "Oz" when prices dropped - but this didn't happen! By then the long trip to and from Sydney was becoming somewhat difficult, even when broken by a stopover in London, Honolulu, or Singapore.

Although Dorothy was suffering from emphysema, in the summer of 1990 she enrolled in a creative writing course at Barnard College and lived temporarily in one of the student residences. At this time the present writer was teaching in the summer session at Columbia's School of Library Service, and we were able to have lunch and to visit every few days. When asked if she would do a videotape interview, she graciously consented and for an hour reminisced about her teaching at Columbia, commented on her two assignments in Jamaica, and gave her views on the role of international agencies in promoting library development. Bill had embarked on a visit to New Zealand and died there in July. Dorothy was devastated, but despite her grief decided to spend the winter of 1990-91 in Bermuda, as they had done together in the past. While there her emphysema worsened to the point where she was unable to remain. She returned to New York, received excellent care in her last weeks and even began to plan a trip to London for later that year. She suffered a heart attack and passed away peacefully on 6 March 1991.

Dorothy expressed the wish that there be no memorial service for her. A year later, however, the University of the West Indies arranged an "Evening of Tribute," which took place on 25 April 1992. Entering the Creative Arts Centre, one passed a large portrait of Dorothy - a reminder to each person of the special bond he or she had with her.

Following the recognition of her contributions to the two Caribbean institutions where she worked came about a dozen tributes from friends, colleagues, and former students; interspersed with them were a poetry reading, music, and a dance number. The program concluded with the presentation of the substantial bequest Dorothy had made to provide continuing support for the Department of Library Studies. A reception followed, providing an opportunity for friends and colleagues from several countries to celebrate Dorothy's life and recognize her achievements. The tributes given and others from persons unable to attend the affair were later issued as an attractive brochure entitled Record of Tributes to Doctor Dorothy Callings.

At the January 1993 meeting of the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) William V. Jackson gave a talk about Dorothy's life and work, followed by a showing of the videotape interview. This tape has also been shown in courses in international librarianship at the library schools of Dominican University, the College of St. Catherine, and Pratt Institute.

There is no complete bibliography of the publications of Dorothy Collings, but a search of Library Literature reveals more than 20 articles, reports, and reviews. She undoubtedly did a considerable amount of additional writing, but to find unpublished reports, proposals, course materials, etc. would require searching the archives of Atlanta University, UNESCO, the United Nations, Columbia University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Denver. Her doctoral dissertation is available on microfilm. Of her other publications, some early articles arose from her work at Atlanta University, others from her years at UNESCO and the UN. Four articles deal with the founding and early years of the Department of Library Studies at UWI, but there is considerable overlap in their presentation.

Standing as one other most important contributions is the ten page article entitled "Comparative Librarianship" prepared for the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. In it she defines the term, relates it to work in other comparative fields and comments that study, teaching, and research in comparative librarianship may be "motivated by and structured to further pragmatic goals," among them:

(1) to provide guidelines for a proposed new library program in one's own country or in a foreign country; (2) to contribute to the critical analysis and solution of widely-found library problems, viewed in their respective contexts; (3) to stimulate and assist judicious consideration and possible adaptation of promising practices and solutions to library problems from one area to another while guarding against indiscriminate emulation; (4) to provide background information for use in foreign library work assignments, study visits, consultation, or aid programs; (5) to facilitate exchanges of library materials or information, particularly among different countries; (6) to strengthen the scholarly content and practical relevance of library education and training, both for national and foreign students, through the consideration of library development and problems in differing cultural contexts; and (7) to contribute to the advancement of international understanding and more extensive and effective cooperation in library planning and development.

Although this piece reflects the field in the late 1960s, its basic premises and approaches remain valid, and today students still read it with enjoyment and profit.

One other last contributions was a review essay of two works. On one she shrewdly observed, "most of these essays state very well what has happened, but much less often why or why not in some other way." On the other she demonstrated her ability to analyze a work in objective and unbiased fashion while retaining an opinion different from that of the author. She stated, "this reviewer disagrees profoundly with some of the author's premises and conclusions. Nevertheless, this controversial study expresses clearly an important viewpoint and hence merits careful reading and consideration..."

What of Dorothy Collings the person? The preceding paragraphs have only hinted that here was a woman of great intelligence, much energy, and infinite charm and savoir-faire. She possessed enthusiasm and dedication.

By all accounts Dorothy was an excellent teacher. She was always well prepared and had planned her classes with care. One former student recalled, "I can still hear that deep, husky voice and see the half-closed eyes as she sought to articulate a point in slow, earnest and almost measured tones." From time to time she might inject a humorous note, although she was neither casual nor cavalier. In administrative dealings she was likely to call upon her diplomatic skills, but underneath there was firm resolve and strength of steel, especially if the issue was one on which she had strong conviction. On professional matters she could always make a shrewd analysis of a situation or a sharp remark, but she did not suffer fools gladly. She knew many of those who were active in the international library scene and her comments on their abilities - particularly on their roles as advisors and consultants - could be devastating. She named names and called a spade a spade, but never with malice.

Socially Dorothy's gregarious nature made itself felt; she made friends easily and was devoted and loyal to them. She was a great conversationalist, on matters light and serious. Bill and Dorothy entertained at home at 8 Peter Cooper Road and were ever the gracious host and hostess. In later years they tended to take their friends to favorite restaurants, and Dorothy enjoyed meeting people for lunch at B. Altman or the Princeton Club.

Dorothy touched the hearts and minds of many persons all over the world. She is remembered with admiration and affection, even by those who, in the past decade, have come to know her only through the magic of television.


Collings, Dorothy G. An Interview with Dorothy G. Callings, [videorecording] [New York, School of Library Service, Columbia University, 1990] II cassette, approx. 67 minutes.

_____. "Library Education in the Commonwealth Caribbean." In Ingram, K.E. and Jefferson, Albertina A. Libraries and the Challenge of Change; Papers of the International Library Conference held in Kingston, Jamaica, 24-29 April 1972. [London] Pub. for the Jamaica Library Association and the Jamaica Library Service [by] Mansell, 1975, pp. 128-135.

_____. "Training Overseas Students in American Library Schools." UNESCO Bulletin for Libraries, XIII (Aug.-Sept. 1959), 180-183.

Record of Tributes to Doctor Dorothy Callings. [Kingston] Department of Library and Information Studies, University of the West Indies, 1997. 44 p.

About the Author

William V. Jackson is Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Unversity of Texas at Austin, is also Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University

© 2001 William Vernon Jackson


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