Ada Lovelace Day: Frances Williams Binkley « Quædam cuiusdam
Ada Lovelace Day: Frances Williams Binkley
Wednesday 24 March 2010 @ 10:23 pm

I pledged to do an Ada Lovelace Day posting last year, but things got busy and I missed it. This year is following the same pattern, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss it again, no matter how rough the resulting post has to be to get up before midnight.

Since the organizers of Ada Lovelace Day encourage participants to cast a wide net among women working in science and technology, I’m going to write about my grandmother Frances Williams Binkley (1899-1962). With her husband, Robert C. Binkley, she pioneered the use of microfilm for documentary reproduction in the 1930s.

Frances Williams Binkley

Frances was born and grew up in Idaho (though she passed her first birthday in the silver town of Sandon, BC, so she’s an honorary Canadian as well). Her father was a bookkeeper. Having done well in high school, and with an ambition to be a journalist, she went to Leland Stanford Junior University in Oct. 1919. She was in the same incoming class as John Steinbeck, whom she knew socially. She took economics and history, and spent a summer at the marine research station. She was drawn into her future husband’s social circle through her work as a receptionist at the Hoover War Library (where he was employed as a reference librarian while working on his dissertation) and her membership in the History Club, and they were married in 1924. As far as I know her first camera was a Christmas present from Bob in 1926.

When Bob finished his dissertation he accepted a job at Washington Square College of NYU, and the two of them drove across the country in a Model T in the summer of 1927. They lived in the West Village for the next two years, and seem to have enjoyed the cosmopolitan delights of Prohibition-era Manhattan to the fullest. They both wanted to be writers, and attempted during this period to break into print with stories and articles, with moderate success. Their breakthrough came in 1929 with the publication of their joint book “What is Right with Marriage,” a contribution to the lively 1920s debate on modern marriage. This led to a certain amount of publicity, and the opportunity to write book reviews for the Saturday Review.

Bob’s advocacy of research into the problem of perishable paper, however, pulled them in a new direction. He had started working on this at Stanford, where his dissertation work required the use of newspapers from the First World War that were already crumbling due to their acidic wood pulp paper. He published an article in Scientific American in 1928, which led to the opportunity to attend the World Bibliographic Congress in Italy. This was the first conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Bob and Frances accordingly spent the summer of 1929 in Rome. On their return, Bob was able to parlay his expertise in this area into an appointment as secretary of the newly-formed Joint Committee on Materials for Research. Within a year he was the chair. Now settled at Western Reserve University, he had funding and support to pursue various initiatives for the preservation and dissemination of historical materials. Frances was his partner in much of the work.

One of the first initiatives was a major microfilming project in early 1933. In preparation for a documentary history of America’s participation in the peace conference at Versailles, the Joint Committee funded the microfilming (on “filmslides” – the term “microfilm” wouldn’t be coined until a couple of years later) of the papers of John Foster Dulles at Columbia and of Colonel House at Yale. As far as I have found, this was only the second large-scale microfilm project in the North American library world (after the Library of Congress’s “Project A” in the late 1920s, which reproduced historical materials from European libraries relevant to American history). One aspect they wished to explore was the suitability of different films for reading by projection, as opposed to enlarging on paper. They had been experimenting for some time, involving Frances’s father William Irvin Williams in the work as well. Bob wrote to James Brown Scott in early January:

I shall, within the next few days, get some copying done at New Haven and in New York. Mrs. Binkley is my camera technologist and since we can secure her services for nothing, I am asking her to do the photographing. I have not purchased the photographic apparatus because a new model is to be out in the spring, one that would be much better for us and I can use my own personal equipment in the meantime. This means that the draft upon your funds will be very low at this stage, nothing more than travelling expenses to New Haven and New York for Mrs. Binkley and myself, and cost of films and developing.

As it turned out, Frances managed the copying in New York while Bob traveled to Yale. She wrote to Bob some time in January:

The film was on my desk the morning after I telegraphed — much quicker work than our first experience in getting film! Eastman here ask 6 1/2 cents — I couldn’t be bothered!

I have finished the copying & will go hard in the morning for a few re-takes & packing up. I shall leave some of the film (most of it, in fact) with the Fine Grain to mail home to me. Most of the work will be fine for projecting, but the illumination has not been good & there may be trouble with the enlargements.

Dulles microfilms

The work went well and the House and Dulles papers were done by the end of January. Bob wrote to a friend at WRU:

The family morale is standing at a high level. Frances and Mr. Williams are becoming the photographic technicians and learning a whole bag of tricks which I begin to think seriously we must teach to the Graduate students. Frances went down with me to Yale and New York and together we photographed about 10,000 pages at Yale (House Papers), and 3,000 at New York. (Dulles Papers.)

After this first phase, they ordered a custom camera from Yale University Library’s photographic technician Ludwig (to be paid for by the Carnegie Endowment), and carried on to the second phase of the work. They were now confident that their work was a model others would follow, and started working on documentation of their techniques. Bob wrote to Scott in April:

I believe the filmslide technique gives us an opportunity to do this job with unprecedented thoroughness and efficiency, and to make of it an example of new methods. We can set up a system which will make most work of this type look like palaeographic copying alongside of photostats. As you know, I am studying the technical side for the Joint Committee, and Mrs. Binkley is writing a handbook or scholars’ guide. As long as she is working on that handbook this Peace Conference project gets her services for nothing because it is her guinea pig.

They applied these technologies in their home life as well. In August Frances composed a three-page acquisitions policy for their home library, which included copying certain categories of materials using the photographic equipment in the house. Among the surviving rolls of film are copies of the 19th-century papers of Frances’s Williams and Wheatley ancestors, for example.

After the success of this project, Bob was able to create a position on the payroll of the Joint Committee to do the work that Frances had been doing for just expenses. Having stretched the rules of nepotism about as far as they would go, Frances felt she could not take a salaried position from a committee that her husband chaired, so she dropped out of the day-to-day work. She continued to collaborate with Bob and develop her own expertise in photography. She published a couple of articles in trade journals on documentary photography, and contributed a chapter on “Copying Books and Manuscripts” to the 1937 Leica manual.

She also developed an interest in portrait photography. When she and Bob were living in New York City again while he taught for a year at Columbia in 1937-38, she studied photography with Rabinovitch. On their return to Cleveland she started to build a reputation as a portrait photographer. She won prizes in local competitions and had several clients.

Robert C. Binkley

Her life was thrown into confusion by Bob’s sudden death in April, 1940. With two young sons and her retired parents dependent on her, she needed to find work. She was disappointed that her contacts in the library and academic world did not enable her to find a position where she could continue the work for which Bob was much better known than she was. She took a B.Sc. in Library Science in 1940-41 (WRU waived the tuition in honor of Bob), and landed a job as Social Science Librarian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She worked there for the rest of her life. During this time she did her masters in history, using local history techniques that Bob had championed. Money was always tight, though, and she gave up photography, putting her energies into gardening instead. My father remembers driving with her to Denver to sell her Leica.

In collaboration with Bob, Frances contributed to the development of a new discipline in the area of documentary photography. She was content, it seems, to work in Bob’s shadow; there’s no indication of any resentment towards him, and they seem to have worked as full partners in their joint projects. She was, however, too self-effacing to become well known in the profession. John Steinbeck mentioned her and Bob in a letter to a friend in 1929: he evidently didn’t care for Bob, but felt that Frances was much smarter than people gave her credit for. Once she was on her own she built a new career, saw her two sons through to their Ph.D.s, and led her library through twenty years of growth.

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 7 responses to “Ada Lovelace Day: Frances Williams Binkley”

  •   Randy Reichardt wrote:

    Just finished reading this fascinating account of your grandmother’s life and work. Thanks for sharing it, Peter.

    What’s the program used to embed the book and allow the reader to “turn the pages”?

  •   Peter Binkley wrote:

    That’s an embedded Internet Archive book. If you go to the “read online” version of any IA book (which uses the Flipbook system), there’s option that gives you the embeddable link, like embedding a YouTube video. There’s a little more info on the syntax at the OpenLibrary site: (like how to get it to open to a particular page).

  •   Bryan Loar wrote:

    What an interesting story. Thank you for sharing an important piece of history in the development of documentary reproduction.

  •   Randy Reichardt wrote:

    Thanks for that additional information, Peter. I’ll have to check that out.

  •   Herb Behrens wrote:

    I am a volunteer at the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, Ca. I would be interested in any more information you have about John Steinbeck and Frances Binkley, particularly the 1929 letter to a friend.

    Thank you, Herb Behrens

  •   Janet Ramage Binkley wrote:

    It was quite typical for women of Frances’s generation (& the next one) to do a good bit of their academic or artistic / creative husband’s work without public ackowledgment. I have always suspected that Frances was the primary writer for the Binkleys’ two sociological books, on marriage and on drinking.


  •   Mary Jane Eckert wrote:

    Thank you for the wonderful account of your grandmother’s life. Her picture is also very beautiful, a treasure to see. (Her father, William Irvin Williams, was my grandmother’s brother, and so the account had a special meaning for me).

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