Mary Lyon McClure (1870-1956)

“Miss McClure has devoted much of her time outside the library this year in studying Arabic and Sanskrit and has done a great deal of work on the old and new collections in these subjects.” (Harriet Prescott, Annual Report of the Cataloging Department, 1914-15, pp. 2-3.) Reading this, I was first very interested in the fact of the non-western cataloging, but soon I was musing about how Miss McClure’s tremendous effort in self-education had been taken advantage of by the University, unappreciated outside of this statement in the departmental annual report. My feeling of sympathy was exacerbated when I later found this statement from 1912: “Miss McClure has been advanced slowly on account of her deafness, which made it difficult for her to work with other people, but she has now become so familiar with our work and methods that her ability and her special knowledge of mathematics have made her increasingly valuable….She is especially interested in the early Latin dissertations and frequently spends her evenings reading obscure and difficult ones for the pleasure of becoming better acquainted with them…. During the years that she has been in the catalog Department she has been obliged to continue her tutoring at Vassar in order to earn a living salary. She is valuable enough to us now to be given a salary on which she can live, and I most heartily recommend this increase.” (Harriet Prescott, “Private Report to Librarian concerning recommendations for advanced salary, Catalog Department,” typed manuscript, 19 March 1912, p.3.) That sympathy led to something of an obsession to establish Miss McClure’s history and make it known, as a memorial to her, and to the large number of female library workers – not leaders – of her time.

MLM’s initials as cataloger in a Persian manuscript (X892.88 M892)

Mary Lyon McClure  was born in Harrisburg PA in 1870,the oldest of what would be five children. Her father, an attorney, moved his family to Bradford, a Pennsylvania town experiencing an oil boom, shortly after 1879. Miss McClure went to Vassar in 1892. She was 22, which was oldish. When she graduated in 1896, she worked as a tutor, and then in 1906-07 she began as an intern at the Columbia College library. The internship program had been started in 1900 as a way for the library to recruit new workers, as the library, especially the cataloging department, could not offer salaries that would attract library school graduates.

She lived in a Columbia-owned apartment at 400 West 118th Street at least from 1931; her sister Margaretta, an invalid, lived with her. In 1930 she established a Mary Lyon McClure fund at Vassar of $4639.69, which would pay her an annuity.

From the time cataloging was divided into subject specialties in 1911 until her retirement, Miss McClure’s main job was to catalog mathematics. She finished the recataloging of mathematics books (everything had to be recataloged in the 1910s and 20s, to turn the Dewey-era half cards into “modern” cataloging, an early retrospective conversion project). “Miss McClure has also prepared for the users of [The Mathematics collection] a typewritten list all subject headings in Mathematics used at Columbia, with the classification number of each subject indicated. This list has about 600 entries, including cross references, and the readers have found that, used in connection with the shelves, it serves admirably in place of a subject catalog. A temporary catalog of all unbound doctor’s theses in Mathematics has also been made and placed in this room. The theses are alphabeted and boxed, and are available on demand. The Mathematics Department has expressed great appreciation of the work which Miss McClure has done to make the Mathematics collections usable and available.” (Harriet Prescott, Annual Report of the Cataloging Department, 1918.)

This specialty did not entirely subsume her time, and so she engaged in a number of other tasks. As we have seen, she cataloged in Persian, and also Arabic. She cataloged dissertations, revised, recataloged and corner-marked for filing classic authors (1916-18); recataloged a large collection of the works of James Thomson the poet, early versions of the Bible and prayer book, and over 200 incunabula (1919); cataloged a group of Armenian books with the help of an Armenian student in 1920, Greek authors in 1921, and manuscripts in 1922; worked on Russian books with others from the late 1920s through the 1930s; and provided cataloging for a couple thousand Hebrew titles (with a language specialist) in the 1930s.

Towards the end of her thirty years at Columbia, Miss McClure was a senior and reliable cataloger. In 1936-38, she revised and corrected some 4,500 cross-references, and resolved problems with headings when Columbia tried to file 17,500 Vatican Library cards into the depository catalogue

In 1938, she was struck by an automobile, and retired in 1939 after over thirty years of service. Columbia granted her a much-needed pension on her retirement, for which she wrote a letter to the President of the University, Nicholas Murray Butler, in December of 1942:

“I have wished for some time to express to you and the Trustees my continual gratitude for the pension given me when I retired from library service. It has made a great difference to me – all the difference between a comfortable little apartment in one of Columbia’s houses and the ability to give my sister a home, and the alternative which would have been retirement to an old ladies’ home for both of us, and where we would have been miserable, I fear.”

Miss McClure died in 1956, at the age of 86, of a stroke, survived by her sister Margaretta and two of her three younger brothers. Altha  Terry (Vassar ’14 and also a member of the Columbia cataloging department), reported after her death to the Vassar alumnae association: “Despite almost total deafness, Miss McClure was a cataloger at Columbia University Libraries from 1906 to her retirement in 1939. In December 1938, she was severely injured when struck by an automobile and hospitalized for months. Although crippled from this accident, she was independent in getting about and enjoyed her apartment home with her sister in these later years.”


Sources:  Cataloging Department Annual Reports (1912-1939 & 1957), 1912 salary report from Columbia University Library Office Files Series I box 112, MLM folder in the Nicholas Murray Butler papers, all from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York; MLM’s alumnae file from Vassar Special Collections; census reports from; History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsylvania.  Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1890., pp. 373-4)

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