Robert Gitler and the Japan Library School: an Autobiographical Narrative

K. C. Harrison (Past President, The Library Association)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Harrison, K.C. (2000), "Robert Gitler and the Japan Library School: an Autobiographical Narrative", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 197-206.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Whether one knows Japan or not, this is a fascinating book for librarians to read. Robert Gitler, now 90 years old, had an unpromising start in life. Frances, his mother, had an arranged marriage with Abraham Gitler, a Russian immigrant who was about 20 years older than his wife. The pair had little in common apart from a love of the arts and music, and when Robert was aged about three, Frances left her husband in New York and entrained across the States to California. “So I never met my father”, writes Gitler, “I’ve had step‐fathers since then … but I never experienced a real biological father”.

In early life he lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, where he received his elementary schooling. His later education was at the University of California in Berkeley and there, to earn money, he worked as a page in the university library. There was a library school at Berkeley, begun by Sydney Mitchell in 1926, and it was Mitchell who one day said: “did you ever think of becoming a librarian, Robert?” Gitler had never thought about librarianship as a career so, like so many of us, he entered the profession almost by accident.

However, he went to library school, graduated in 1931, and went to work at San Jose State Teachers’ College. He was there for seven years but in 1938 he was encouraged to go for a Master’s degree, which he obtained at Columbia University, taught by such well‐known librarians as C.C. Williamson and Helen Haines. Williamson obtained for him a working scholarship, and with this he worked in the reference department of Columbia University library under the equally well‐known Isadore Mudge.

Gitler is the first to admit that he was fortunate in having such mentors. With this experience behind him he returned to San Jose, but not for long, since the second World War broke out and Gitler volunteered for the US Navy as a supply officer. Only a few pages of this book are devoted to his work in the Navy and in 1945 he was back at San Jose, but again not for long, as he was invited to become associate professor and director of the library school at the University of Washington in Seattle.

It was Gitler’s work and experience at Seattle that eventually led him to Japan, which is the raison d’être for this book. Robert Downs, dean of the library school of the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign, had been sent to Japan by the International Relations Division of ALA to report on the feasibility of starting a library school in that country.

Although Gitler had not seen a copy of the Downs report, ALA invited him to go to Japan to start a library school from scratch. This was a challenge which he accepted, although he had never previously visited Japan and did not speak the language. But having been assured that he would be well served by interpreters and translators, he went there in December 1950 and had to set up the school by April 1951. He was fortunate in being able to recruit a team of teachers who included Frances Neel Cheney, Bertha Frick, Hannah Hunt, Phyllis Jean Taylor and Edgar Larsen.

At first these members of the faculty did not know where they would be working, any more than Gitler did. He reconnoitred five universities for the school, and although he was torn between Kyoto University and Keio University, he chose the latter because of its Tokyo location. Keio wanted the school to be called the Keio Library School, but Gitler was adamant that it should be the Japan Library School, and he won the day. The rest of this fascinating book is devoted to the many other difficulties he faced and how he overcame them.

There was the question of admissions, the problems of producing textbooks in Japanese, the business of getting suitable interpreters and translators, coping with inadequate accommodation, arranging continued funding after the American occupation ended, and a hundred other considerations. That he did succeed is confirmed by the fact that in due course Keio conferred an honorary degree on him, and also that he later received the Order of the Rising Sun.

Returning to the USA after his great work in Japan, Gitler worked for ALA, then at Geneseo, then at Peabody in Nashville, and eventually at the University of San Francisco. He also revisited Japan several times, advising on the planning of a new library building for Sophia University in Tokyo. For a British librarian of my generation it was fascinating to see mention in these pages of so many American librarians well known to me, such as Charles C. Williamson, Robert Downs, David Clift, Dorothy Bevis, Frances Cheney, Verner Clapp and Ed Gleaves. Gitler also gives credits to the Japanese librarians Shigeo Watanabe and Takashi Ariyama.

To find out even more about Robert Gitler I consulted the ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (3rd ed.) but to my surprise there was no biographical article about him. Looking under Japan there was a mention of the Japan Library School being formed in 1951, but the Japanese author of the article failed to give credit to the work done by Gitler.

This book has been compiled from reminiscences recorded by Robert Gitler in 1994‐95, and it has been expertly edited by Michael Buckland, a former dean of the library school at Berkeley. British librarians sometimes find American books on librarianship tedious and difficult to read, but this is an exception to the rule, and it should be of special interest to library school personnel in Great Britain and elsewhere. One reservation I have is the over‐frequent use of that ugly word “gotten”. When will Americans realise that that word was introduced to the New World by the early pioneers and has long been obsolete everywhere except in the States?

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