Carolyn Ulrich, Library Luminary

Libraries Luminaries is a feature that aims to increase the visibility of and promote discussion about the founders and innovators within the field of library and information science. Today’s personality: Carolyn Farquhar Ulrich (1880-1969).

Imagine a woman described as “absolutely correct in taste and style” with a “cultivated voice” and “goodlooking appearance”. (Wiegand 137) One might assume this woman was a celebrity. In fact, it was a librarian: Carolyn Ulrich, the originator of Ulrich’s Periodicals Index. Ulrich’s excellence in regard to her person as reflected in this peer evaluation – an echo of Samuel Green’s ideal female library worker – correlates to her overarching achievements in the field of serials librarianship.

Education and career:

Little is known of Ulrich’s early and personal life. However, biographers do know that she was born in Oakland California on August 16, 1880. She attended high school in Brooklyn NY, where she exhibited a fondness for languages. This type of eclecticism, driven solely by an intellectual impulse, typifies the life of Ulrich. After graduating she applied and was accepted into the Pratt Institute’s art program, but stayed with this course of study for only for one year. According to Wiegand, Ulrich’s interest in librarianship was cultivated at the turn of the century. (136) Sans formal training, Ulrich became an assistant at the Brooklyn Public Library in 1906. She would remain in this position until 1912, when she was promoted to 1st assistant. Between 1912 and 1914 Ulrich completed courses in literature, Chinese, and Japanese art at Columbia and NYU. However, recognizing a New Woman-esque need for further education in her chosen profession, Ulrich joined the ALA in 1916 and matriculated into Pratt’s library certificate program in April of 1917. During her education, Ulrich was recognized for her aptitude in “executive work and organizing”. (Wiegand 137)

Upon her graduation in 1918, Ulrich became the Chief of the circulation department and branches of the Bridgeport Public Library in CT. The library’s 1919 annual report revealed increased circulation due to her organizational changes. Her job requirements also involved binding, an asset to her future career in periodicals. (Wiegand 137) During this time Ulrich also founded programs that resonate with the socio-historic era in which she moved; she developed traveling libraries for factory workers and Americanization classes for immigrants. From Bridgeport, Ulrich returned to New York City in 1920 to head NYPL’s circulation department. Two years later she was promoted to Chief of Periodicals, a position that she held until her retirement on April 30, 1946.

Carolyn Farquhar Ulrich (1880-1969)
Carolyn Ulrich. (Patterson 79)

Contributions to Library Science:

Ulrich’s legacy cannot be reduced to her education or the posts she held. Rather, one must examine her interaction with the profession. In 1920 she served as an assistant instructor and lecturer in several library schools. Active in the ALA, she attended many conferences and often gave speeches. One such occurred in 1926 on the “Future of Periodical Work” and was addressed to the ALA’s Periodical Roundtable. Ulrich would later chair this Roundtable between 1927 and ‘28; in the former year she spoke on the topic of “A Current Periodicals Room in A Metropolis”. Ulrich’s involvement with the ALA would continue to flourish. In 1931 she served as the Acting Chair of the ALA’s Periodicals Section and in 1935, three years after the first edition of Ulrich’s was published, she aptly served as the chair of the Joint Committee on the Standardization of Periodicals. This focus on connecting information seekers with periodical information would continue. In 1941 Ulrich addressed “Some Problems Presented by Current Development in the Periodicals Field” at the Boston ALA conference. (138) Many of Ulrich’s speeches were later published in scholarly journals. Although not known for her writings, she was a prolific author and wrote on many topics. At the height of her career in the early forties, Ulrich was also serving as the chair of the ALA’s Serials Section, the representative from the American Standards Association, and was the liaison between the ASA and ALA to the International Standards Association Committee on Documentation. (Wiegand 138) In 1947, Ulrich edited the fifth edition of her eponymous index, the “postwar edition”; this was to be the last version she contributed to. (138) Ulrich died on 22 November 1969 at the home she shared with Marion Cutter in Winter Park, FL. (Wiegand 138, AB Bookman’s Weekly) When her obituary appeared in AB Bookman’s Weekly, an large advertisement for the 13th edition of Ulrich’s was only a few pages away. See the ad here. (AB Bookman’s Weekly 120)

Carolyn Ulrich was a vibrant, intellectually rigorous woman. Her personal quest for knowledge has taken on many forms, as evinced by her lifelong interactions with Art and languages. Ulrich’s work in the field of library science still resonates within the communities thanks to her magnum opus, Ulrich’s Periodicals Index, with which “her name is forever bound”. (AB Bookman’s Weekly 122) This priceless periodical reference tool has taken on several incarnations in its path from Ulrich’s ink-and-paper brainchild to the contemporary electronic database Ulrichsweb.

  • AB Bookman’s Weekly 45 (January 19, 1970): 120, 122.
  • Patterson, C. D. “Origins of systematic serials control: remembering Carolyn Ulrich“. Reference Services Review 16, no. 1-2 (1988): 79-92. (Note: The image in this post came from the print copy of this article. The online version does not reproduce said image.)
  • Wiegand, Wayne A., ed. Supplement to the Dictionary of American Library Biography. 1990. Englewood, Col.: Libraries Unlimited. 136-138.
Further Reading:

3 Responses to “Carolyn Ulrich, Library Luminary”

  1. 1 [d]aniel February 18, 2008 at 5:49 am

    Note to anyone who might use this post as a starting point for biographical research: This sketch of Ulrich’s life and accomplishments does not delve deeply into Carolyn Ulrich’s pioneering work on standardizing periodicals with the Library of Congress, a very important facet of her career. I may post more on this topic later.

    Also, If anyone has better images of Ulrich, please pass them along. I’ve been thinking about writing to the many archives that possess parts of Ulrich’s papers, but would rather not have to. ;-)

  2. 2 Jerry Cantilero March 7, 2008 at 10:02 am

    May I have your insights regarding this issue:

    Are in favor of getting rid of the reference desk in the library, instead, replace it with an ONLINE REFERNCE Service?

    Here’s my email address:

  3. 3 Librari[d]an March 7, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    As someone who works a busy reference desk at an ARL, I think it is imperative to have a reference desk, even if the most asked question is “Where is the bathroom?” (The misconception that this question is the most asked at all reference desks comes from a study conducted at the Library of Congress, in 1993 by Marchionini et al.) At a library like mine, it would simply be imprudent to not have a desk. Reference questions are asked at every public access point, whether it be the stacks office, coffee shop(!), or circulation desk.

    I think it is much harder to exploit the “teachable moment” in a chat environ. Also, not every patron may have a computer to ask questions over chat (i.e. the digital divide).

    However, I would not shortchange the importance of chat and other types of digital reference: IM – which is slightly different than chat – and e-mail. Chat and IM reference meet the needs of patrons who are either unable or unwilling to use the physical library. This is important in the case of distance learning, where it might not be feasible for students to visit or call the library.

    Ideally, a library should offer as many types of reference as possible. Economic restrictions should not be a concern, as digital reference is fairly cheap for even the smallest library to support in some form. The best thing to do, if there is a staffing or budget concern, is to concentrate on your user-base as defined by your library’s mission statement. This will create hierarchies. For example, a library might give preference to in-person questions, followed by telephone, then IM. They also might give preference to faculty over staff, graduate students over undergrads, and current University affiliates over the public and alumni. An example of an exception to these type of hierarchies would be a private library that is a government documents depository being required, by law, to answer any question related to its government documents collection.

    I do not necessarily agree with this as an individual who wants to help everyone, but – alas – not all libraries are public.

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