National Agricultural Library
Dec. 1982-1983 – Acting Director
1983-1994 – Director
In 1982, the Library of Congress (LC) was asked to provide someone to participate in a Blue- Ribbon Panel to recommend solutions to the problems at the National Agricultural Library (NAL). Even if I knew very little about NAL, I agreed to be that person.
[In 1982] a review group, convened as the Blue- Ribbon Panel on the National Agricultural Library, planted the seed for the re-emergence of the concept of an agricultural information network. The Blue-Ribbon Panel, more formally known as the Interagency Panel on the National Agricultural Library, was comprised of leaders from the library and information fields and from the United States Department of Agriculture. In 1982, its members assessed the role of the NAL for the secretary of agriculture and strongly recommended that NAL “coordinate a national network of public and private agricultural libraries and information centers, including libraries of land grant colleges and universities, state supported colleges and universities, and other public and private sector organizations involved in agricultural information.”
Shortly after the completion of the report, the Director, Richard Farley, resigned. I do not know if the report and the resignation were connected.
Once again, the Department of Agriculture asked LC if they would send someone for 6 months as acting director, to give them time to hire a new director. The following was part of my outstanding rating I received May 12, 1982 from William J. Welsh, Deputed Librarian of Congress:
On loan, I vowed that I would not get involved emotionally with NAL and its problems; however, I soon found that this was impossible. I came across problems that were right up my alley and I wanted to solve them.
For all of my career, I have loved solving problems and became restless when they had been solved. At LC, I had become a bit restless for two reasons.
- I had been stymied by somethings over which I had no control. The library’s computer division considered that they had priorities higher than those for the Processing Department. For example, I wanted to merge all aspects of the cataloging process between the overseas offices with those on site and was not able to work on the challenge for the time being.
- While I considered myself as a supporter of unions in general, LC’s union
demanded negotiating over every little thing, e.g., a change in a cataloging rule – slowing many things down to a snail’s pace. NAL had no union, having voted it out recently.
At the Library of Congress, the Librarian was an appointment by the sitting President; however, different from other presidential appointments, it was an appointment for life or resignation.
Working for political appointees was new to me; however, I was lucky to never feel any political bias, having wonderful support for the Library. The drawback was the lack of continuity. I can’t remember all of them, but I did have 2 outstanding bosses – Orville Bently and Duane Acher – both Republicans.
I did, however, have a troubling situation with Dr. Bently’s Assistant. He insisted that I award a contract to one of his Oregon friends who lacked any qualifications for the job. He was insistent! Somewhat scared, I went to Dr. Bently and explained the problem – saying that it was against the law. He listened politely and I had no idea what was going to happen. I even considered that I could been fired. It was a great relief when I heard that the assistant was issued out of his office by the department police.
My best accomplishment in my eleven years was to select the best staff. After maneuvering around one troubling staff remember, I was able to select the best staff of any library anywhere.
- Pam Andre, Head of Automation (who replaced me as Director in 1994);
- Keith Russell, Head of Public Services. He inherited a wonder staff member, Maria Pisa. Keith became Director of University of Kansas Library.
- Sarah Thomas, Head of Technical Services. Sarah moved to the Library of Congress; Director, Cornell University Libraries; Head Librarian of Oxford University and finally Director of Harvard University Libraries.
At NAL I had about 230 employees and 15 million dollar budget. At LC, I had about 1800 employees with a budget of about 50 million.
One of the recommendations of the Blue-Ribbon Panel concerned networking with land-grant universities – in particular, with their libraries.
A land-grant university (also called land-grant college or land-grant institution) is an institution of higher education in the United States designated by a state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890.
Signed by Abraham Lincoln, the first Morrill Act began to fund educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to the states for them to sell, to raise funds, to establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering—although “without excluding other scientific and classical studies”—as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was, in contrast to the historic practice of higher education concentrating on a liberal arts curriculum.
Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tuskegee University.
For a complete list see: https://nifa.usda.gov/about-nifa/how-we-work/partnerships/land-grant-colleges-universities#:~:text=Land-Grant%20Colleges%20and%20Universities%20with%20State%2C%20District%2C%20or,of%20Arizo%20…%20%2032%20more%20rows%20
United States Agricultural Information Network (USAIN)
NAL initiated the formulation of the United States Agricultural Information Network. (USAIN). Sarah E. Thomas’ article in Special Libraries, Spring 1989, discusses the genesis of its organization. Sarah did most of the work necessary for its establishment. Her abstract is given below.
“Informal networking has been a tradition in the agricultural Information community. In the last five years, however, the National Agricultural Library (NAL) has worked assiduously to bring a formal organization into being. NAL’s efforts have led to the formation of the United States Agricultural Information Network (USAIN), an association whose goal Is to provide a forum for discussion of agricultural Information Issues. Under the leadership of four librarians elected as first officers of the organization in 1988, a structure to achieve this goal Is being proposed for consideration by potential members.”
This cooperation has led to several cooperative projects. One, for example, each land-grant would be responsible for collecting, cataloging, preserving, and sharing its own publications. This would ensure that all extension and experiment publications would be available to all libraries – including world-wide.
The National Agricultural Library’s (NAL) most long-term activity is in conjunction with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). NAL is a member of the AGRIS/CARIS system. Established by FAO, this is a world-wide system for collecting, describing, and disseminating agricultural information. Membership is over 125 national and 18 international centers.
AGRIS is a cooperative agricultural information system whereby a participating center in each country is responsible for cataloging and indexing its own publications in a standard format and contributing the resulting bibliographic data to FAO.
NAL serves as the coordinator of the AGRIS system in the United States. As such, it produces a special monthly tape of U.S. imprints for input into the AGRIS database. NAL contributes about 50,000 records annually to the AGRIS database on all subjects relating to agriculture, including forestry. – Provided by Pam Andre
U.S./Central European Agricultural Library Roundtables
Pam Andre provided most of the following summary.
In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major U.S. foreign policy initiative was to support the emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. Because most of these countries had agriculturally related economies, USDA became closely involved in the rebuilding effort.
As part of the effort, NAL initiated a program to work with agricultural libraries to help provide an information infrastructure for the agricultural community. With a grant from USDA’s Office of International Cooperation and Development, NAL was able to initiate a program to work with agricultural libraries in central Europe. Our funds enabled NAL to fund per diem for foreign participants. Lack of sufficient funds required the participants pay their own transportation.
The effort began in the fall of 1991, when NAL hosted a 2-week workshop with representatives from six countries. In centered around Information Transfer in a Global Economy: Forging New Connections, November 12-20, 1991, Beltsville, MD, (hosted by the U.S. National Agricultural Library). This meeting focused on identifying the needs of the Central and Eastern European agricultural libraries.
The resounding success of this workshop was continued by future meetings, namely:
- Possibilities for Cooperation between the U.S. National Agricultural Library (NAL) and Central European Agricultural Libraries, October 4-9, 1992, Budapest, Hungary (hosted by Hungarian National Agricultural Library).
- Networking Agricultural Information: Next Steps, September 21-24, 1993, Radzikow, Poland (hosted by the Central Agricultural Library). This meeting focused on library networking systems.
- The Use of Integrated Library Systems to Access and Disseminate Agricultural Information, September 26-30, 1994, Nitra Slovak Republic (hosted by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information on Agriculture– Nitra). This meeting focused on the importance of automated library systems.
By 1991, participating institutions had expanded to include representation from Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, and Russia.
A fifth Roundtable was held in Prague, Czech Republic, in the fall of 1995.
Accomplishments of the Roundtable Initiative include:
- Joint Program for Cooperation signed by all participating institutions outlining areas of interest for cooperatively enhancing access to agricultural information.
- Presentation and demonstration of CD-ROM workstation and agricultural information products on CD-ROM to the Hungarian National Agricultural Library through a USDA/OICD-supported grant.
- Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture sponsorship of a CD-ROM training workshop in Budapest (mid-May 1993) for Central European librarians. NAL provided an instructor.
- Funding received to launch Surplus Book and Journal Program. Assistance from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; USDA/OICD; and USDA, Agricultural Research Service.
- Funds received from State Department and OICD for establishment of a CD-ROM-based agricultural information access capability in the Baltic Republic (installed August/September 1994).
- Funds awarded under Cochran Fellowship Program to support two library internships at the National Agricultural Library.
International Association of Agricultural Libraries and Documentalists (IAALD)
IAALD was established in 1995 and held it first meeting in Ghent. Its purpose was to promote, internationally and nationally, agricultural library science and documentation, as well as professional interest of agricultural librarians and documentalists, the term ‘Agriculture’ being interpreted in the widest sense, so as to include forestry, agricultural engineering, veterinary sciences, fisheries, food and nutrition, agricultural and food industries, etc. (Quarterly Bulletin of IAALD, 2 (1):1.)
I was its president from 1900-1995: having elected in 1985 in the 7th World Congress on Information for food in Ottawa, Canada; served as President at the 8th Congress, held in Budapest, Hungary; and ending my term in Melbourne, Australia at the 9th Congress.
Pamela Q. J. Andre, my successor as Director of the National Agricultural Library, served as its President from 2003-2015.
Egyptian National Agricultural Library (ENAL)
The U.S. Agency for International Development invested billions of dollars to the improvement of Egyptian agriculture.
The National Agricultural Research Project, NARP included an information component that called for the creation of an Egyptian National Agricultural Library (ENAL). This was to be a modem, electronic library facility that would function as a regional center for agricultural information. Through a formal agreement with the USDA unit for international cooperation and development, NAL became a major resource for this effort.
Building plans were developed under contract in the late 1980s. In 1990, NAL became involved in the implementation planning for the ENAL operation. NAL staff were consulted on such issues as organizational size and structure, systems procurement, collection development, training, and AGLINET membership.
A great deal of effort had been spent, when, suddenly, the work stopped. It later became known that there had been a scandal – the Egyptian library official and a staff member in the American Embassy had been illegally importing cars and selling them for enormous profits.
After my retirement, it all got sorted out. Pam Andre, new director of NAL, was able, investing a lot of expertise and time, in the establishment of the ENAL.
As a result of numerous requests from our colleagues in Latin America, plus the impetus of the recently signed NAFTA agreement, NAL and the InterAmerican Development Bank sponsored an InterAmerican Workshop on Agricultural Information in January 1994 (in cooperation with the Associates of NAL, Inc., United States Agricultural Information Network, USDA International Cooperation and Development, and AIBDA — (Inter-American Association of Agricultural Librarians and Documentalists).
The attendees included key leaders in the information community from a cross-section of the Americas, plus major international agricultural information organizations. The purpose of the meeting was to develop a regional plan for agricultural infrastructure development based on a draft outline by consultant Jane Kinney Meyers.
My retirement came at the end of the meeting, but the final report was completed and was entitled: “Regional Plan for the Establishment of an InterAmerican Agricultural Network: Report of the InterAmerican Planning Workshop for Information Transfer and Networking.” It represents a consensus on the identification of priority areas for access to agricultural information in the Americas.
NAL’s Special Collections houses rare books, manuscript collections, nursery and seed trade catalogs, photographs, and posters from the 1500s to the present. Materials cover a variety of agricultural subjects including horticulture, entomology, poultry sciences, natural history, and are not limited to domestic publications. As part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Special Collections at the National Agricultural Library is charged with arranging, describing, preserving, and making available rare materials significant to the history of agriculture and the USDA. A few of its collections are heighted below>
Thomas Jefferson Correspondence at NAL
The Thomas Jefferson Correspondence collection consists of eleven letters to Jefferson, from Jefferson, and about Jefferson (1786-1819) and a set of four letters (1915) between W. K. Bixby and Secretary of Agriculture D. F. Houston, regarding Jefferson letters that Bixby had found and sent to Houston. Houston later placed the Jefferson letters in the Department of Agriculture Library. The Jefferson letters contain information on agricultural topics. For example, subjects include nursery stock purchased by Jefferson, a request to Jefferson for an appointment to a federal agricultural office, letters from Jefferson transferring “millet seed” and “succory seed” to various acquaintances in the United States and Canada, and a letter to Jefferson from “Lord Sheffield” of the Board of Agriculture in London, England, commenting on Jefferson’s invention of a “mould board” for use in farming.
USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection
The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is one of the most unique collections in the Rare and Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library (NAL). As a historic botanical resource, it documents new fruit and nut varieties, and specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection spans the years 1886 to 1942. Most of the paintings were created between 1894 and 1916. The plant specimens represented by these artworks originated in 29 countries and 51 states and territories in the U.S. There are 7,497 watercolor paintings, 87 line drawings, and 79 wax models created by approximately 21 artists. See https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/usda_pomological_watercolor
Wilhelm Heinrich Prestele Grape Paintings at NAL
The Wilhelm Heinrich (William Henry) Prestele Papers span the years 1887-1891. The collection is 12 linear feet and occupies 8 oversized folio boxes. The collection was housed in storage at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Division of Pomology in Washington D.C., then transferred to the Arlington Farm in Virginia. Subsequently, it was moved to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, and finally placed in the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library.
I believe that this was the collection that was on the loading dock of the main ARS main building, waiting to be trashed. I received an urgent call and was able to rescue the collection.
Charles Valentine Riley
On the science front, he is credited with the first use of biological control (instead of chemicals) when he imported a beetle from Australia to eat scale that was destroying California’s citrus industry. Soon after, he was one of the first to notice that American grapes, Vitis labrusca were resistant to a yellow sap- sucking insect called Phylloxera which was devouring European vineyards. With J. E. Planchon, Riley grafted French grape stems on American V. labrusca root stock and shipped them to France. Together, they saved the French wine industry. For this, Riley was awarded the French Grand Gold Medal and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. https://badbeekeepingblog.com/2016/09/18/remembering-charles-valentine-riley/
NAL has the gold medal and is desk.
Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first economic botanist, Percy Leroy Ricker, began collecting catalogs in 1904. Ricker’s enthusiastic interest included many trips to secondhand bookstores and the attics of nursery companies in search of horticulturally related catalogs. The collection consists of over 250,000 American and foreign catalogs. The earliest catalogs date from the late 1700s, but the collection is strongest from the 1890s to the present. www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/speccoll/exhibits/show/nursery-and-seed-trade-catalog
Joe Howard, with the help of Sarah Thomas,
and Maria Pisa
Nearing retirement, I was approached with the suggestion that the semi-circle driveway in front of the building be named “Howard Drive”. I was opposed to giving a person’s name to anything because sometime in the future, people would wonder who that was and would want to reconsider renaming it. After consideration, I suggested that if they wanted to do anything, a tree could be planted in my honor. They liked the suggestion and Alan Fusonie, rare book librarian, obtained an oak sapling from the Wye Oak. This white oak (Quercus alba) was Maryland’s honorary state tree, which was located Wye Mills, Talbot County, Maryland. It has been toppled by high winds of a violent thunderstorm on June 6, 2002. Its height was 88 feet, and it measured over 31 feet in circumference. It stood for over 450 years. It was in private hands from 1665 until 1939 when the State of Maryland purchased the acres surrounding it to create the Wye Oak State Park.
All agencies were urged to hire the handicapped. We agreed for two opportunities. Unfortunately, in both cases there were disastrous ends.
- NAL didn’t have enough staff to warrant a cafeteria. All staff were thrilled however when a blind man opened a snack bar on the 14th He hired a seeing person to help him. It was an outstanding success until he had to close the snack bar because the seeing person was stealing from the cash register.
- We turned our mail room over to be run by handicapped. Our interlibrary loan people were receiving complaints from outside libraries who were not receiving their requests and, on investigation, found that the mail room had wrapped the books for mailing, and instead of mailing them, were unwrapping them and sending them back to the shelves.
Lacking a cafeteria, my wife Pat and I often provided lunch when it was not feasible to go to a nearby restaurant. We cooked lunch for many visitors.
I often sought donations from agricultural organizations but was not often successful. Sarah recalls that I was wowing the sugar lobbyists and telling them “I can be bought” as I solicited their donations. We were somewhat more successful in getting donations of time from retired USDA employees.
North Carolina State University – Land Grant University
Susan Nutter, director of its library, came to NAL with several of her staff for a day – for exchanging ideas. My wife Pat and I provided the lunch. During our discussions, I said “I have the best staff of any library in the nation”. Susan, in her thank you letter said that her staff had said “we want you to be able to say that about us.”
Joseph Swab was editor of NAL’s newsletter Agricultural Libraries Information Notes (ALIN). Also, he and Dan Starr were unofficially NAL’s photographers. Other than that, it was hard to track down what else he was doing the remainder of the day. He appeared to be busy.
Mr. and Mrs. X
Mr. X thought that he should have a promotion from GS-11 to GS-12. Keith and his staff recommended against it, and I supported their recommendation. Mrs. X used to follow patrons out of the building and ask them to write letters of praise for his file. It got to be such a problem that I moved his office to the second floor, forbade her coming to the second floor where management offices were, and banned any more letters since he had a file folder 12 inches thick.
For a while, Mr. X reported to Sarah and his wife would call Sarah at home at night and tell Sarah that Mr. X was too shy to ask for himself, but he deserved a raise. She also called my wife Pat. Mrs. X finally gave up.
Sam was my Deputy, and he didn’t have enough to do. In our discussions, I learned to value his advice. He talked a lot, but I enjoyed his sharing his vision with me. I learned a lot about where technology was going to take us. Thank God, Pam Andre was there to bring me back to reality.
Sarah provided the following statement.
And then there was the time that Sam Waters was being a broken record about something in one of our executive team meetings, and Joe turned to him and said “Sam, I want you to put a period at the end of that sentence and move on. I never forgot his directness.”
Thirty years later, at Harvard, when I was having an all-staff meeting at Harvard, there was a woman who persistently raised the question of adding staff to cataloging. I said: “Look, I’m going to tell you something I learned from my mentor many years ago: “put a period at the end of that sentence and move on.” Audible gasp from 100 people. “We’re not to be adding to Tech Services; we’re cataloging with fewer people because of innovations.” My questioner and I developed mutual respect, perhaps because I spoke plainly, and were friendly thereafter.
In my first interview with Wally, I couldn’t find out exactly what he was doing, and I told him that whatever is was, I didn’t need to have it done and that we needed to find something for him that needed to be done. Several days later, I got a call from the Association of Research Libraries saying that Wally had complained about me. After consulting with my boss, the Assistant Secretary for Education, I was advised that I could indeed reassign him. Wally refused and I suggested that he needed to find another job outside of NAL. Lo and behold, he agreed, and we set a date by which he would be gone. When that day approached, he asked for an extension to which I agreed.
During this time, Wally was having an affair and living with Mr. H D. Sarah says it best:
And then there was H D, sobbing in the card catalogs because another librarian had broken up his relationship with Wally. It was heartbreaking to see. This woman was a pathological liar. In fact, during my Oxford interview, they asked me if I had worked with any difficult people, and she came to mind. As I struggled to describe her, it just came out: she was a bitch. It seems unlikely that any candidate being interviewed by the top administrators of the university had ever experienced that language. I was shocked at myself, but I did get the job … Joe was a genius, getting so much done in such an environment.
Later, at a meeting of the Land Grant librarians at the American Library Association, she sat in the front row, interrupting my presentation with, in a loud whisper, many “bull shits” – which I ignored.
I’m not sure why, but we inherited Tom from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). I believe that his title at NAL was Executive Officer. He was wonderful and was able to find ways that I could do legally some of the things I wanted done. He also was able to keep me from doing things that I shouldn’t. He was wonderful. Low-keyed, quiet, and efficient. By the way, he used handkerchiefs that were gray. Believe me, one can’t buy handkerchiefs that gray!
We have had a number of interns from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Beijing Agricultural University. Pan Sichun, wrote to NAL asking if she could complete a three-month internship at the library after her study at Simons College in Boston finished. Sarah agreed to host her in Technical Services. Pan had written that her housing was already settled. After two weeks, however, it turned out that Pan needed to move. Sarah and her husband, Peter Hirtle, welcomed them to their basement rec room, where she lived quietly, but enjoyed visits from Sarah’s 3 year-old son, as she had left a young daughter in China. She refused Western food but made one Chinese meal stretch for a week. A great treat was when she made vast quantities of dumplings for the whole family. When she was leaving, Sarah asked if there was anything she could give her to take back, and she said: “a refrigerator.” But that wasn’t in the cards. Pan expressed her gratitude by inviting Joe, Pat, and Sarah for a memorable trip to China in 1986, where they spent time in Beijing, Nanjing, and Hangzhou.
Tomaž Bartol came from Slovenia for an internship. He was wonderful as well as a good friend. Pat and I, along with Dennis and Kay Monk visited him in Ljubljana. Pat & I keep in touch.
The following by Maria Pisa:
NAL welcomed library interns from around the world, and particularly so during Joe Howard’s tenure.
Gaining a global perspective on librarianship, networking and exchanging ideas, and developing, in some
cases, life-long friendships greatly benefitted the NAL staff.
The internship program was not without its challenges, however. Especially when it came to logistics:
finding suitable housing in proximity to stores, restaurants, public transportation and cultural activities
that interns could avail themselves of after hours. I learned this firsthand during my time working in the
NAL public affairs office and later in the Director’s office where I helped coordinate internships.
The University of Maryland College Park was about 5 miles down the road which could have been a
bonus for the interns, but public transportation was limited and virtually non-existent before and after
rush hour. Walking on Route 1 was not recommended. It bothered me no end that Washington DC and
Baltimore MD were so close but inaccessible for all practical purposes. NAL staff were very generous
with their time and did what they could, but I’m sure it made for some long evenings and weekends for
some of the interns.
Intern from Japan
NAL was privileged to host an intern from Japan, a recent library school graduate who wanted to gain
exposure to agricultural librarianship in the United States before returning home to work for an
agricultural library. He would be spending a year with us. I started the usual planning process reaching
out to various contacts to try to find suitable housing. As luck would have it, one of the NAL staff
stepped forward and offered to share her place. She had a lovely townhouse in an adjacent community
that had more options for transportation and walkable places. She would also be able to drive him to
and from work most days. She was smart, a lot of fun and had a good network of professional friends.
He would be in good hands. We were off to a good start. The day he arrived I invited him to lunch to get
better acquainted. My initial impressions were, understandably nervous, passable English and awkward
with a fork. We had a pleasant conversation, and I was interested to learn that in some libraries in
Japan, librarians were brought into the organization where they first gained experience in all aspects of
the library before a decision was taken as the where they would be placed. I wished we could find a way
around the bureaucracy to do that. I presented him with his initial schedule to review and discuss later.
It consisted of a couple of weeks of general orientation followed by extended training in each of the
divisions and finally working on an information product for publication. At the time Japan’s economy
and workforce were the envy of the world. Every training class I took emphasized that we needed to be
more like the Japanese. I guess I drank the Kool-Aid, maybe swallowed the whole pitcher. Our intern’s
office cubical was located down the hall from my office. Those first weeks I would catch glimpses of him
throughout the day racing up and down hallway, wiping his brow and looking rather frazzled but didn’t
think much of it. I thought that was what he expected. Until someone called me aside and said that they
thought I was killing him. Poor fellow, I had not factored in any down time. At that point it was too late,
general orientation was almost over. Things settled down once he escaped my “boot camp” as my
colleagues followed a more rational approach. Despite the rocky start, he was settling in very nicely. He
and his host/landlord got on well despite some communication mishaps. She recounted that one
Saturday she was heading out for the day when he commented that she was a very noisy person. She
was taken aback by his observation but didn’t say anything. I guess he was confused by her startled
expression because after she left, he decided to recheck the definition of noisy and to his horror saw
that what he meant to say was she was a busy person.
Toward the end of his stay and during one of our check-in sessions, I noticed him looking rather glum. I
asked if something was wrong, and he responded yes. Steeling myself I inquired. He informed me that
he was very upset at the prospect of leaving the country never having ridden in an American car. I told
him I thought we could fix that. Being a car challenged person, I’ve never paid much attention to makes
or models or who drives what. So, I decided to take a walk around the NAL parking lot in the hopes of
finding an American car amid all the Japanese ones and preferably one that was super cool. I did find
one but can’t remember what it was. Several inquiries later, problem solved!
Before heading back to Japan, our intern decided to travel cross county to experience a bit more of the
USA. We received a postcard from him with two observations. First, about the Midwest, “there were
many Christian people there”. One of the Administrative assistants on the “Second Floor” (Office of the
Director) who prided herself on her Christian virtues took great offense to this and couldn’t understand
why he thought we were all heathens. His second observation, about California, was that there were a
lot of Asian people there. I do not know if he had another chance to ride in an American car.
NAL was a great place to work. I would know since I spent over 25 years there (yikes!) in various
positions. But its location in Beltsville, Maryland, 15 miles from Washington, was not the choicest.
Granted I had come to NAL from USDA headquarters in Washington DC, directly across the street from
the National Mall so that is a hard act to follow.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s Beltsville was a sleepy suburb out in the middle of nowhere really. It was a
study in contrasts. Dominated by the Agricultural Research Center and the Route 1 corridor with its fast-
food restaurants and all manner of companies that manufactured all sorts of items. If one needed, for
example, custom-made plastic sleeves to house notecards from the Charles Valentine Riley entomology
collection (which we did) then Beltsville was your place.
Oddly, amid all the fast-food restaurants was a gem of a little place directly across the street from the
Library. It was locally owned and served lovely meals at a reasonable price. When I first joined NAL as a
reference librarian, the entire staff was a generation older than I. They were quite knowledgeable in
their respective disciplines and not at all shy about commenting on the competence, or lack thereof, of
NAL leadership. One of the more vocal of the librarians was a statuesque woman with a booming voice,
always impeccably dressed, with a complementary broach. Her hair was coiffed into a beautiful French
twist. Her presence was very intimidating at first until I found out her bark was worse than her bite. The
first time I was invited to go to lunch with them, they took me to the little restaurant across the street. I
watched with fascination as these very proper ladies placed their cocktail orders. Turns out Ms. booming
voice librarian was very fond of Manhattans and would enjoy one, maybe two with her meal. It was easy
to get into the spirit of things. I should also add here that the colorful couple (with the menacing wife) to
whom Joe and Sarah refer also frequented said restaurant until one day they got into an argument and
had a food fight. They were permanently banned from the restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant closed and
there went our fine dining.
In May of 2023, Sarah Thomas and her husband, Peter Hirtle came to Collington for lunch. It was a wonderful reunion. At lunch, Peter reminded me of the time that I was found at Blockbuster Movie Rentals asking for X-rated movies.
The story goes this way.
There was a time when the US was on speaking terms with Russia, that NAL got a grant from the State Department to bring my Russian counterpart, Mr. Posnikoff, along with his interpreter Vera, to NAL for a couple of weeks for an exchange of ideas. It soon became clear that Mr. Posnikoff had little interest in libraries; however, we treated him as if he should.
We invited both to stay with us in Annapolis. This allowed them to save their considerable per diem – which they both used for shopping.
On their arrival in the US, I took them to the store at the Russian Embassy on Tunlaw Road, NW. Among his purchases was a TV.
The next morning, I asked him how he had slept, and he replied that “not very well, I was afraid that someone might break in and steal my TV.“
Every day, at lunch break, he would say “Joseph, Joseph, let’s shop, let’s shop. One day we were at a small mall where we had already shopped in every store but one – an auto parts store. He went in and came out with windshield washers. He volunteered that in Russia, windshield washers, if not taken off every night, would be stolen. He said that was also the same for car batteries.
One evening, with his small English vocabulary, he said that he wanted to buy exotic movies. Vera corrected him to say we wanted erotic movies – like Misty Beethoven and Debbie does Dallas. The next day, we went to Blockbusters movie rental place. I got in line and in the quietest voice that I could muster, I asked if they carried X-rated movies. When they replied “no”, people in line after me, told me where I could buy them. He settled for movies that required parental guidance.
On the day of their departure, the Russian Embassy sent a car to Annapolis to pick them up – in a Volkswagen Bug! I couldn’t watch. I peeked when they left – the TV was tied to the top and everything else seemed to fit – even the windshield washers!