A 1938 Family Letter

This is a letter from Robert C. Binkley to his family in California. It was written toward the end of the 1937-38 academic year, when he was a visiting professor at Columbia. His office (assuming Fayerweather Hall has not been renumbered) still belongs to a history professor. The letter is his contribution to the “circulate”, which seems to mean a family circular newsletter.

The letter is remarkable for its touching on almost all of Binkley’s fields of activity in two pages. Like the lecture he describes, it tries “to bring all threads together”: teaching, research in 19th-century European history, near-print publication, microfilm, amateur scholarship, academic politics, W.P.A. projects for white-collar workers, the Historical Records Survey, the Joint Committee on Materials for Research, preservation of crumbling newspapers, local history, union catalogues and copyright. It shows his playful and optimistic spirit, and his practicality and sociability, and above all his capacity to set great forward-thinking projects in motion, which was so suitable to the New Deal era.

One interesting detail is the mention of legal support for copyright issues: “for the Carnegie Corporation has arranged to have Elihu Root’s firm give that advice wherever it will serve the interests of microcopying development.” The firm of Root, Clark, Buckner & Ballantine, had given advice to the Joint Committee during the negotiation of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1935, and Binkley had recently called upon them again as he sought to press the ADI to test the boundaries of copyright. This had led to contention at the meeting of the American Documentation Institute’s board the previous November. All of this had the covert support of the Carnegie Corporation. This effort included a committee “to study the ways and means of improving international copyright protection”, on which Binkley and Lydenberg and others in their circle served (Farkas-Conn, 1990, pp. 82-83). This confrontational attitude was a change in Binkley’s approach to copyright and relations with publishers (Hirtle, 2006, pp. 38-39), and it is interesting to see him breezily clearing copyright on a 25 million page medical library in the course of an impromptu conversation. (Of course, the reality might have been more complex than a family letter would show.)

This period was the high water mark of Binkley’s approach: the WPA’s workforce peaked at 3 million in 1938, and would soon start to wind down as wartime spending rose. When he wrote this letter, Binkley had a little under two years to live.

IIIF Manifest

615 Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University
13 May, 1938

Dear folks:

This is the simple account of a day or two, which is much like other days.

Yesterday I met classes for the last time till September. I had worked very hard on my lecture, for it was necessary to bring all threads together in an hour. At the end of the session there was very encouraging applause, and then one of the students gave me a little book with a most gratifying letter of appreciation. Then up to the office at 11:00 to confer with a student on his M.A. thesis, a conference that lasted till 1:00; then came <home?> for lunch, and back to meet another student with his M.A. thesis – a poor timid little fellow who should never have been in graduate school. His work was only half done, and whether he can complete it or not I have much doubt.

There are always surprises coming to the office. This time it was a woman from New Jersey who had written some church histories and wanted publication subsidies. I tried to sell her the ideas which our Joint Committee on Materials for Research propagates, namely that printing publication is not appropriate for books that are to fill a small edition need – that some of these other techniques are preferable. Meanwhile, in this line, an interesting development took place. A student had come to my office with a letter from the dean giving him permission to submit his thesis in photo-offset. I got in touch at once with Edwards Brothers in Ann Arbor to make sure that they would do a very good and very inexpensive job. A long distance call from Ann Arbor came in on details. For a long time I have tried to maneuver the university into accepting this method, but there is great resistance to it. Word came through this morning that the Dean had been under fire for giving consent, but it was too late for him to draw back. The fact of the matter is that students pay up to $800 or $1200 for thesis publication, the Columbia University Press makes money out of the situation, and the library gets 75 free volumes. I think this man will get his job done for $275.00 instead of 800 or 1000.

Then a phone call from Luther Evans, who is national director of the W. P. A. Historical Records Survey. I dated him for dinner with Frances and Miss Barry,1 secretary of my Joint Committee, and then turned to meet my seminar.

It was the last session of the seminar. The students have done well. I plan to hectograph their term papers, which have really uncovered new information about early 19th century history. The session was spent in a discussion of liberalism in the early 19th century, – the period in which all of them had been working. After the seminar one of the best of the students lingered to ask advice about a job. Should she take an appointment in a high class private school? She hates the social stratum represented by the school, but I told her I didn’t think she would be spoiled by it. Meanwhile she can get her degree and prepare for college work.

Then down town to meet Evans, for a session lasting till 11:00 on the strategy to be used in getting the most out of W.P.A. projects in the white collar field. The new appropriation calls for 250,000,000 dollars in that field. The policies we have stood for – that the best work for these people is in the field of improving materials for research – has been gaining headway in Washington and elsewhere. The offices upon which we pressed our advice two years ago are now coming to us for counsel. And in spite of all the work done, the program for them to follow is still unclear even in my own mind, though its broad principles are clear. We decided a number of subsidiary questions, and then I came to the office this morning to clear up the mail.

With the mail out of the way, there began the session of strategic thinking. Two things stand out as firsts in importance: microcopying and indexing newspapers, making union catalogues. Lydenberg, Director of the New York Public Library and I have made a move to get $10,000 to prepare strategy on union cataloguing of libraries. My guess is that there is about five million dollars worth of work to do there, and then we will be able to know with a simple inquiry whether any book is in the United States and where it is. On indexing of newspapers and microcopying them for preservation I had launched a scheme in February which is still not in the definite stage. It will call for $30,000 from the Rockefeller foundations. The idea is to have excellent copying equipment and pass it from community to community, letting each city copy its newspapers, paying only for the film, and having relief labor do the work. At the same time they can index the newspapers with relief labor. But the manual of instructions for indexing is still not written.

Meanwhile another enterprise drifted into the office – a woman from India wants to microcopy a medical library of 25 million pages, take it to India and serve all medical science in India on film. She called me up during the day to ask that I serve on her advisory board, and get a statement from a firm of lawyers that the project was all right in respect of copyright law. I agreed with some hesitation to the advisory board – for what other people may do with your name is sometimes pretty awful, and got her copyright clearance for the project, for the Carnegie Corporation has arranged to have Elihu Root’s firm give that advice wherever it will serve the interests of microcopying development.

Then I arranged all my notes and papers in neat piles, that do not mean anything except that the same size papers are on top of each other. But at least the top of my desk and table looks neater than it has looked for a long time.

Let this letter be my contribution to the circulate. Since I had the experience of getting into a plane here at 5:00 p.m. and getting out at San Francisco at 9:00 a.m. the family in California seems so near to me – just around the corner, in fact.2

Love to all,


Cited works

Hirtle, Peter B. “Research, Libraries, and Fair Use: The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1935.Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA 53, no. 3–4 (Spring–Summer 2006): 545–601.

Farkas-Conn, Irene Sekely. From Documentation to Information Science: The Beginnings and Early Development of the American Documentation Institute-American Society for Information Science. Contributions in Librarianship and Information Science 67. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

  1. Adeline Barry later married the philanthropist Kenneth Davee, who endowed a chair in history in her name at Case Western Reserve University.

  2. My father remembers that RCB flew to California at the time of the death of his father, a few weeks before this letter.