Washington, DC Chapter

Categorized | Member Spotlight

Ruth Fine and the Bureau of Budget Library – Uncovering Special Library History

By Rick Kowalski, DC/SLA Communications Secretary

A professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently uncovered the history of a little known federal library and subsequently the story of its influential head librarian, Ruth Fine.

Mordecai Lee, Professor of Urban Planning at UWM, came across Fine’s story while investigating the history of the Bureau of the Budget library, which served the executive office of the United States from the 1920s to the 1970s. (This government agency eventually became the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)). The library no longer exists, but Fine’s accomplishments and her role in special library history are notable.

In Information Is Power: Women as Information Providers to the President’s Budgeting Men; A History of the Bureau of the Budget Library, 1940-1970 (Public Voices Vol. XIV No. 2, p. 86), Lee credits Fine with giving her library a definitive mission (and sticking to it), being proactive in delivering reader services, and growing the collection from 10,000 volumes to nearly 130,000 in the course of her career. Lee also notes her involvement in many of DC’s professional library associations, including our chapter of SLA. In fact, Ruth Fine was president of DC/SLA from 1952-1953 and led other chapter committees throughout her career.

According to Lee:

“Fine’s career represented three important hallmarks. First, she led the rebirth of a permanent and invaluable information support center for an elite presidential agency. She had molded an institution that has outlived her. That is a demonstration of the success of her work. Second, her long and successful career also represented an historical era, the opening during FDR’s presidency of federal careers to Jewish professionals, who up until then had been largely excluded due to invisible restrictions and quotas, given the overt anti-Semitism which was socially acceptable in the 1930s. Third, Fine represented the era when women professionals often had to sacrifice marriage and family in order to have a career in their chosen profession. It was – cringingly – the era of the spinster librarian. Despite such adversity, she succeeded and overcame institutional, religious, and gender obstacles. Her accomplishments indicate skills as a librarian, as a public manager, and as a leader in her profession.”

Further, her legacy has lasted to this day:

“Without any immediate family (still “Miss” at her death) and having outlived most of her contemporaries, no obituary or death notice appeared in the Washington Post. Her will demonstrated how central government librarianship had been to her: it had been her whole life. Fine’s estate designated substantial donations to three library groups. She donated $200,000 to her alma mater, the University of Michigan’s School of Information, to endow a scholarship in the name of her parents. The scholarship was intended to promote the student’s commitment to public service. Fine also donated $264,000 to the SLA for a scholarship fund and a similar amount to the District of Columbia Library Association for no-interest loans to low-income graduate students seeking library careers in the Washington area. The funds continue to grant awards to this day (2014).”

I encourage you to read the full article. It’s not often that we get a chance to reflect on special library history. The article provides a glimpse of a different era in our profession’s history, and it pays tribute to the importance of Ruth Fine’s dedication and leadership.

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