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Ruth McBirney

An Autobiographical Sketch



Ruth Campbell McBirney (1918-1991), a native of Boise, pursued a career in librarianship for almost 40 years, working in New York, Paris, and in Boise, Idaho. Her career is summarized on an plaque in Albertsons Library's Ruth McBirney Room:


Ruth Campbell McBirney


As head librarian for twenty-three years (1954-1977), Ruth
 McBirney led Albertsons Library through a period of
 unprecedented growth and development.  A native of
Boise, she attended Boise Junior College and received
 degrees in music and library science from Whitman
 College and the University of Washington.  Her early
 library career took her to Columbia University in New
 York and the American Library in Paris before she
 returned home to Idaho to take the helm of the Boise
 Junior College library, a collection of 20,000 books housed
 in one wing of the Administration building.  By the time
 she retired, she had built a university library with 300,000
 volumes and created separate departments for maps,
 government documents, curriculum materials, archives,
 and rare books.  Miss McBirney was one of the many
 educators who dedicated their professional lives to this
 institution and transformed a small junior college into
 Boise State University.

Not long before her retirement, she wrote the following autobiographical sketch.  It was published in the January 1977 issue of the Idaho Librarian (volume 29, number 1, pp 68-71).


IL Profile: Ruth McBirney

I was born January 16, 1918 in Boise, Idaho, grew up in that city, and still live in the same house my father purchased in 1920. After graduating from Boise High School and spending one year at Boise Junior College (enrollment about 100) I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where I majored in French, and was active in music as soloist with the college glee club. I received an AB in 1939.

In spite of recurring dreams of a professional singing career, my more serious goal since my junior year in high school had been to go to library school and become a librarian. This was not the first profession considered. Probably because my father, one uncle and eight of my male cousins were engineers of one kind or another, I preferred construction. Trigonometry put an end to that idea. About that time the father of one of my friends was trying to steer her toward a library career. The brochures he provided, plus the friendly librarians in the public library (a favorite haunt since pre-school days), tipped the scales toward librarianship. Both of us became librarians and both started our professional careers in that same friendly public library. Our high school class was a good one for librarians. In addition to Charlotte Spangler and me, at least two others went on to get library degrees: Ruth Seydel and Martha Wilcox Allen.

In June 1940, armed with a BA in librarianship from the University of Washington, I started job-hunting. Library positions were neither plentiful nor lucrative that year. One opening at the University of Idaho in the catalog department paid about $900 per nine-month year. Much better was the new position created jointly by Boise Junior College and Boise Public Library. Each institution had agreed to pay one half of the salary ($1200 per year) for a librarian who would work half-time in each library. I was hired as a cataloger at Boise Junior College, and as a reference assistant at Boise Public Library. This was an excellent example of friendly cooperation in handling a mutual problem. The college library holdings (about 5000 volumes) were inadequate to meet the needs of its students who had to depend on the public library for help in research for term papers, outside readings, etc. The administrators felt that having one person work part-time in both libraries would promote better understanding and better service. For me it was an ideal introduction to a wide variety of library experience.

At the end of the second year the experiment and position were terminated due to dwindling enrollments and income caused by World War II. I considered enlisting in the WACS or WAVES but instead decided to try my luck in New York City; influenced by the delights of the New Yorker Magazine and weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and encouraged by Eunice von Ende, BPL librarian.

The big adventure began in September 1942, at the New York Public Library. After two or three hours of interviews with the great and near great of NYPL, I was hired as a searcher. My immediate supervisor was Ed Colburn, who later became chief of indexing services for the H.W. Wilson Co. Only a few desks away, and right beside the time sheets, was the desk of the Chief of the Preparations Division, L. Quincy Mumford. After a few weeks of "searching" (a stand-up job), I was transferred to the L.C. cataloging section. This had the advantage of being a sit-down job but it was less interesting.

Meanwhile I had enrolled in a music reference course at Columbia University taught by music librarian Richard S. Angell. In December he offered me a job which I eagerly accepted even though it meant a $10 per month cut in pay. This was balanced by the opportunity to work toward a master's degree in musicology (never completed) without paying Columbia's high tuition and student rates for opera and concert tickets. It also meant working with such musicologists as Paul Henry Lang, Douglas Moore, and others well-known in the music world. Many of the people I worked with or knew there were, or later became, famous in music or library worlds-Constance Winchell, Stephen McCarthy, and Maurice Tauber, to name only a few.

In December 1946, after four years in the Music Library and a taste of all the various aspects of music library work, including about nine months as acting head of the department, I began to think of moving on. In spite of the cultural advantages of life in New York, I was too much of a Westerner, I thought, to stay there much longer. A visit to the library school placement office turned up openings in Missouri and California; but after reading about the position on the top of the pile, nothing else sounded interesting. The American Library in Paris! A new American staff was being hired. The director and librarian had already been selected, but they were still looking for a reference librarian. I was hired two head-spinning days later, after interviews with the Director, the New York-based Executive Secretary, and the Board of Directors. That French major had paid off!

On February 5, 1947 we sailed on the Queen Elizabeth I which had only recently been returned to civilian service. After a rough passage and a brief stop-over in London, we arrived in Paris on February 14th. We were greeted by a shivering staff in a building that had had little or no heat since the early days of the war. Temperatures inside were not much above freezing and everyone was muffled in coats, scarves and gloves. Chilblains were common and the American staff soon had them too. The library was housed in a three-story brick and stone house, about one hundred years old, and every room had a fireplace. The Director, Dr. Ian Forbes Fraser, had spent the previous winter in Paris as head of the GI University and knew where to find coal. Soon there were fires in all of the key fireplaces, and eventually the ancient furnace was repaired and put back in operation.

What had started out as a one year adventure expanded to almost seven fascinating years. After two years as a reference librarian, I became librarian when the young man hired for that position returned to the States. During those years the library grew and expanded its services. It was, and is, a private corporation (established in 1919 by ALA) which is funded by gifts and endowments. In 1950 the U.S. government started a new program to improve dissemination of information about American culture to areas which might resist the more official work of the USIS. The American Library in Paris was given continuing contracts to establish and maintain regional branches. This was done at a fraction of the cost of the USIS libraries. Branches were established in Roubaix (near Lille), Rennes and Nantes in Brittany, Toulouse and Montpellier in the south, Grenoble in the east, and later in St. Etienne in central France after my return to the States.

My last project before returning to the U.S. in November 1953 was to plan the remodeling and arrangement of new quarters for the library on the Champs Elysees. Our neighbor on the rue de Teheran, a large colonial bank, wanted our building for expansion purposes and agreed to finance the purchase and remodeling of the building of our choice in some other location. This turned out to be the burned out shell of another 19th century house which had served most recently as a night club near Etoile. Our next door neighbor was the USIS Library which at that time was directed by Harold Lancour. My last official action in Paris was participation in the opening ceremonies for the new quarters, during which I was decorated by the French government with the "Palmes Academiques".

The return to the States was anticlimactic, to say the least. My range for job hunting was limited by family responsibilities. Before I really started looking however, Boise Junior College President, Eugene B. Chaffee, called to ask if I could fill in for Librarian Mary D. Bedford who had suffered a heart attack. On February 4, 1954 I returned to BJC for one semester as acting librarian.

In the twenty-three years that have elapsed since that first temporary appointment, many things have happened.  BJC is now Boise State University. Enrollments which were below 1000 are now over 10,000. The book and bound periodicals collection has grown from about 17,000 volumes to over 200,000. In 1964 the library was moved from cramped quarters in the Administration building to its own two story building, initially occupying only one floor of the 40,000 square foot building. In 1971 a four story, 100,000 square foot addition was completed. The library now occupies about 100,000 square feet of the combined structures, and the staff is looking forward to the time when the new School of Education building will liberate more space for the library. The staff has grown from  two professional librarians and a few hours of student help to thirteen professionals, twenty-seven para-professionals and clerks, and about 39,000 hours of student help. Services have expanded from taking care of the relatively simple needs of lower division students and faculty, to trying to meet the research demands of graduate students and faculty and the requirements of much broader curricular offerings. While books and traditional printed materials remain the prominent part of the library's holdings, other types of materials are included in its resources. Phonograph records and tapes have long been an integral part of the collection, joined more recently by film strips, film loops, slides, multimedia kits, etc.

BJC-BSU has been an exciting, occasionally frustrating, place to work. But now, having accomplished more than I ever dreamed of doing in 1940, I am "retiring" to start on a new course of activities. I hope my successor will enjoy the job as much as I have.

My first experience with the Idaho Library Association was at the 1954 biennial meeting in the then new Idaho which was State College Library hosted by Eli Oboler and Alice McClain. In the ensuing years I held various offices, including secretary, vice-president, and president of the Association, chairman of the College Division, Idaho representative to PNBC's Executive Board, and various committee appointments. One of these committees, an early-day Legislative Committee, produced the first draft of the first legislation to enable library districts to be formed. Without a professional State Librarian, it was the Association which lobbied for better funding for the State Library than the $23,000 biennial budget of the mid 1950's allowed.

The Association and Idaho libraries have come a long way in the past twenty years.

Go to an online exhibit about Ruth McBirney's years in France

Go to an online finding aid for Ruth McBirney's papers

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