History of the National Geographic Libraries

Hubbard Hall When young Gilbert H. Grosvenor first visited the National Geographic Society's headquarters in 1899, the future editor found a small rented half-room "littered with old magazines, newspapers, and a few books of records, which constituted the only visible property of the Society." From these meager resources evolved the automated Library that today serves the Society's widening activities for the diffusion of geographic knowledge. To commemorate the Society's centennial, the following is a history of this venerable facility.

Hubbard Hall. Although there were mentions as early as 1894 in the National Geographic Magazine of a Library collection, the first formal Library area was created in 1903 when the Society moved to its newly completed quarters, called Hubbard Hall, at 16th and M Streets in Washington, D.C. Deposited in the cornerstone of Hubbard Hall was a document that read, "The Library is the gift of Mrs. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who joins her children in establishing this memorial to her husband."

NGS Library, 1927 The Library was on the second floor, approached by a splendid double stairway of marble and later, in 1927, graced with the paintings of adventure and discovery by N.C. Wyeth. In the great room itself, dominated by a huge fireplace of carved Indiana limestone, glass-fronted bookcases lining the circumference held approximately a thousand books. The Library of that day served as an all-purpose reception area as well as a reading room for members.

Greely Polar Collection. The impetus for transforming the dual-purpose reception reading room into a formal Library probably came in March 1918 from General A.W. Greely, one of the National Geographic Society founders. He wrote to Editor Grosvenor, "Advancing age and changed conditions cause me to dispose of my geographic Library, [1,600 volumes] collected during the past 30 years. It is the largest private polar and subpolar collection known to me."

The very next day, Dr. Grosvenor accepted it; however the Greely collection, along with the remainder of the Society's Library, had to remain temporarily in boxes, since the reading room had been given over to Red Cross ladies who were rolling bandages as part of the war effort and storing them in the glass-fronted bookcases.

Kathleen Hargrave First Trained Librarian. On January 1, 1920, Librarian Kathleen Hargrave set about organizing a small research Library. By August she requested that a large world globe be placed in the reading room to assist Library users in locating books. The globe was necessary because she had set up a unique geographical classification scheme. Books were arranged "as nearly as possible in the positions of the countries on the map"—the polar regions in the far north and south of the room, and the hemispheres split on the room's east and west sides. "A trip around the reading room, " noted Miss Hargrave, "was a trip around the world." This distinctive classification system served as a hallmark of the Society's Library for more than half a century.

Going Public. While the Library had been open to members and visitors since 1903, Miss Hargrave's cataloging and reorganizing provided an occasion to open it officially to the public in November 1920. The varied clientele it attracted enthralled Miss Hargrave: "What a colorful and fascinating procession! Almost upon arrival from overseas were travelers with no other personal connections in America than their memberships in the National Geographic Society so that they had the Geographic family feeling of coming home." Early visitors included "aviators planning ocean and other long distance flights...artists looking for accurate background material for paintings...army and navy officers and United States consuls reading about the new countries to which they had been assigned." General Greely, Captain Bob Bartlett, Lincoln Ellsworth, Admiral Richard Byrd, and Alexander Graham Bell were familiar figures.

Changing of the Guard. Miss Hargrave resigned in December 1928. She left a book collection of 14,000 volumes and a staff of five. Among the remaining staff members was Esther A. Manion, who found herself promoted to librarian. Miss Manion guided the Library for the next 36 years.

Esther Manion NGS Library and WWII War Years. World War II saw the Library's familiar clientele of explorers and travelers largely replaced by military and government researchers seeking geographical information. "Most of the Library's efforts were spent in aiding the armed forces, the writers of survival manuals, and the compilers of travel guides for military personnel and strategists," Miss Manion noted. As many as 2,000 requests a year came for information related to the war effort; the Library maintained a separate vertical file for war clippings. Miss Manion saw profound changes. "World War II stimulated interest in foreign countries and the systematic study of all branches of geography," she wrote, but also "marked the end of the romantic era of exploration."

Bulging at the Seams. A Library student wrote in 1950, "My first impression upon entering the [National Geographic Society] Library was that it was the most picturesque book-laden, book-burdened room I had ever seen." The Library was adding more than 1,000 volumes annually to meet staff research needs. The pace quickened as the new president and editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor, broadened the Society's role to include book publishing and television. By 1957, the collection numbered 23,000 books and 159 drawers of clippings, overseen by a staff of 12. A year later, Mr. Grosvenor suggested that the Library build a collection of the Society's research and exploration reports so that they could be instantly available to scientists and to the staff.

NGS Library, 16th Street Building The First Big Move. In 1962, the Board of Trustees revised the bylaws to establish a new committee, "charged with responsibility for the acquisition and maintenance of a Library on geographic subjects, suitable for the Society's research, educational, and editorial needs." In response to the pressing needs caused by inadequate staffing and shelf space, the Library Committee took action and moved the Library to the first floor of the old Explorers Hall in the 16th Street Building. In December 1964, after more than 40 years in Hubbard Hall, the Library staff of 20 moved 43,000 books and racks of file cabinets to the home they would occupy for the next two decades.

Miss Manion Retires. With the move complete, Miss Manion relinquished her position in September 1965 to become Librarian Emerita. She spent the next seven years evaluating and cataloging books in the rare book room, identifying 157 items published before 1800; a Ptolemaic atlas printed in Ulum in 1486 was the Library's only incunabulum.

Virginia Carter Hills A New Librarian. Virginia Carter Hills was named to succeed Miss Manion. The Library's collection expanded explosively under Mrs. Hills' direction, growing at a rate of 3,500 books a year and passing the 60,000 volume mark in 1976. The influx strained the geographical classification system to the extent that it became difficult to expand and confusing to use.

Reorganization. Beginning in January 1981, the geographical classification system was abandoned and the Library of Congress classification system was adopted to conform with the standard used in most research libraries. Simultaneously, the Library started to weed its 71,000 volumes to ease the reclassification project. The Clipping Service began to convert its subject headings to machine readable format. Communications improved with the Library's first brochure, the Library's monthly newsletter, Gateway to Information, and regular orientations to the Library. Meanwhile plans for a new M Street building—including a new Library—were progressing, and Mrs. Hills spent much of her time with architects of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. She was intent on keeping the best of the old Library while building into the new one ample space for staff readers and visitors.

Susan Fifer Canby Change of Command. With the new Library planned for the most part, Mrs. Hills retired in April 1983. She managed the Library through a period of transition, positioning it for automation. During her tenure as librarian, the staff rose from 20 to 29 and the collection grew from 45,000 to 75,000 volumes. Susan Fifer Canby was promoted to Library Director.

Closed to the Public. Because of the construction underway on the M Street building, the Library was closed in 1983, except for staff use, for the first time since officially opening to the public in 1920. The map Library, which for 44 years had been part of the Cartographic Division, transferred administratively to the main Library in January 1984.

NG Library, Reference Room New Quarters/New Image. In August 1984, the long-scattered Library with its two miles of shelved books and magazines, thousands of maps, and two and a half miles of clipping folders was pulled together in its new facility in the refurbished 16th Street building. Public interest in the gracious new quarters showed that the Library still was a focal point of the Society. The Library hosted festive receptions for the members of the District of Columbia Library Association and local libraries who assisted the Society Library with reference and interlibrary loans. New brochures for the staff and the public were made available. The documentation of this reintroduction process won the Library its first John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award by the American Library Association.

Library automation Automation at Last. With the '80s came moves toward automation that radically changed the Library. The first step was the MINI MARC system, which allowed the Library to translate its catalog records into machine-readable format. Next came access to remote database services, such as Dialog, Wilsonline, Vu/Text, and DataTimes. The Library Committee supported the purchase of Northwestern University's integrated software (NOTIS), which enabled the Library to automate acquisitions, cataloging, circulation, and the public access catalog. The Library also became a member of OCLC in 1987. With 1987 came the customizing of the new online catalog ORBIS (Online Reference and Bibliographic Information System), the installation of terminals and printers, and the training of Library staff in the use of the software.

Automation's Impact. For the first time, using ORBIS, staff members gained access to the Library's collections from their offices. As a result, interlibrary loans of the National Geographic Society Library rose by 11% in 1987, and the Library's ability to create bibliographies soared by an average of 100% each year during the first seven years that remote databases replaced manual compilation. Most important the Library was positioned to network electronically with other libraries. In an era when no single Library can own or store everything, electronic networking is essential to support the Society's expanding commitment to diffuse geographic knowledge.

Into Our Second Century. The first new decade of the Society's second hundred years saw increased efforts to reintroduce geography into the American educational curriculum by training teachers and forming geographical alliances with state governments. Research focused on the Fresh Water Initiative and increased interest in the environment. The Society began development efforts to find partners and underwriters for new initiatives such as the Geography Bee, international editions of our magazines and books, partners for an international and then a national television channel.

The Library drew on its experience in electronic automation to support other divisions. It helped the Research Committee and the Indexing Division automate its records; guided the Map Collection through data conversion and reclassification programs, and a return to the Cartographic Division; and instructed the Society's staff in the use of internal databases and external consumer and research utilities such as CompuServe, DataTimes, and then FirstSearch, Lexis-Nexis, Factiva. The Indexing Division merged with the Library in 1995. The Library joined the Society's Enterprise Network, and introduced CD-ROM versions of the more popular shared references. By 1996, the Library converted from the mainframe NOTIS system to Voyager Endeavor, client-server technology, to enable Society staff to cross platforms to search the Library's catalog, the Index databases, and ultimately ARC, the Archives catalog, as well as the Map Library catalog.

NG Libraries logoUsing Netscape as its browser, the Library mounted a Home Page to the Libraries and Indexing to facilitate increased desktop access to inhouse and external databases as well as sources on the Web. By 1998, the Archives & Records Libraries joined the Library and Indexing and the Libraries rebranded themselves Libraries & Information Services, under the management of Susan Fifer Canby. In 2002 LIS began reporting to the CFO, rather than the NGM editor. With a staff of 26, LIS moved into high gear—introducing many filtered reports including the daily Business Intelligence Report, the daily NG in the News, the twice weekly Earth Currents, the weekly Mission and Travel reports. It began to leverage the Society's history when it introduced the NG Timeline, published High Adventure, and developed a Women Explorers Wiki. It also introduced electronic document management, which became Society-wide in 2007.

In 2005 Special Libraries Association recognized the Libraries as a Corporate Center of Excellence. In 2007 LIS began a weekly Environment Report. After years of chairing a cross divisional team that built the corporate intranet, LIS assumed responsibility for managing InsideNGS, which in 2007 was recognized as one of ten best corporate intranets by Nielson Norman. The same year, LIS also assumed responsibility for managing National Geographic Learning Systems, the Society's corporate university, which was recognized by Corporate Exchange for excellence.

Senior management asked LIS staff to chair a cross divisional team focusing on trends tracking. The team produced an internal website, quarterly trends reports and invited speakers from diverse groups including Pew Internet & American Life, DYG, and IDEO to discuss the latest societal and technological trends with staff.

In 2009, due to the broad accessibility of electronic news sources at National Geographic, LIS transformed the daily Business Intelligence Report and the quarterly Trends Report into a bi-monthly trends report linking to dozens of similar reports on the web. The Environment and Earth Current reports were re-combined and NG in the News became a more automated product using Google News and RSS feeds. Also during 2009, due to a reorganization of LIS and other divisions, the Inside NGS moved to the IS/IT department and corporate learning became decentralized throughout National Geographic. Earth Current continues to be distributed to 20,000 teachers around the world.

In 2010, after a 35-year career at National Geographic, Susan Fifer Canby retired and Barbara Penfold Ferry was appointed as Director, Libraries & Information Services. Also in 2010, as part of an effort to expand our audience and leverage our collections, LIS began to contribute to the National Geographic Magazine's NewsWatch blog (Library blog entries are available here). LIS also launched an updated version of its Collectors Corner social networking site at http://ngscollectors.ning.com/. This site allows for easy sharing of all things related to National Geographic history and collectibles.

If Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the pre-eminent architect of the NGS, were to return to the Library today he would discover effective integration of print and electronic resources, continuous training, and library users who work from home, at their desks, and in the field to tap into our resources. The Library remains open to the public, from 1:30 to 5:00 p.m. by appointment, and still is one of the world's premiere resources for "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge."