In Appreciation of Peter Whidden on the Eve of His Retirement
John Mustain (left) and Peter Whidden (right) show off a treasure from the Rare Books Collection
“Peter’s work is exceptional”
-- Memo from Linda Long in 1994
Visitors to the basement of Green Library could easily overlook a series of small, blue arrows on the floor. They once directed colleagues toward a service elevator during a major move of materials from Green Library to the Stanford Auxiliary Library. They are the subtle reminders of the often unseen work that happens in an institution like ours: the thinking, logistics, measuring, planning, and communication that keeps things humming along smoothly and of which patrons and colleagues might not even be aware. While our colleague, Peter Holt Whidden, Rare Book Specialist in Special Collections, was not responsible for those particular arrows, he has left many similar signposts throughout the library and Special Collections when he retires on Aug. 31, 2021 after 31 years of service to Stanford Libraries.
One of the "guide arrows" in the basement of Green Library
How does one say farewell to a colleague who has been part of the life of the library for so long over the course of an exemplary career, 28 years of which were spent in Special Collections? Peter would probably appreciate a very simple thank you and let that be the end of it, but that would do a disservice to his importance to the department, to the Stanford community he has helped to serve, and to the Libraries more broadly. In his time at Stanford, Peter built an incredible expertise in the management of our book collections and, along the way, worked in the library’s Auxiliary Library and Stacks Division before coming to Special Collections, helped with a large-scale migration of materials from Green Library to SAL2, biked across the country, organized countless pieces of ephemera, found the perfect pencil sharpener, oversaw the organization of a collection of nearly 300,000 rare volumes, supported colleagues in Conservation and Cataloguing, bookplated thousands of volumes for the Rare Book Collections, and was always ready to help curators, colleagues, faculty, and students at every opportunity - all with good humor, patience, and an exceptional attention to detail.
The notoriously camera-shy Peter Whidden's staff photo
Peter joined Special Collections in 1993 as a member of the Public Services team and, in 1997, was hired by John Mustain, Emeritus Curator of Rare Books, into the position he currently occupies as Rare Books Specialist. In the intervening years, Peter shaped his role in ways that have benefitted the department immensely: keeping a steady influx of books organized and accessible, developing workflows and strategies for support with colleagues in cataloging and Conservation, tracking the growth of the collections, and a myriad of other duties that were added to the position over the years. As we look toward the future of the Rare Books Collection at Stanford, Peter’s decades of thoughtful organization will stand us in very good stead.
Among the many delights of working with Peter in the short time that he and I have been part of the Rare Books Division, I have been continually struck by his eye for something interesting hiding in the stacks. Whether a rare piece of fine press ephemera, an interesting binding or paste-down, an underdescribed object from the flat files, or some other outlier, Peter would find it and help us to celebrate the richness of our collections in doing so. A fine recent example was when he opened an innoccuous-looking but out-of-place microfilm box to find a 17th-century book bound in a leaf from a medieval liturgical manuscript. He was able to start the process of re-housing this object more appropriately and request an enhancement to the cataloging of the item.
Peter, you will be missed, and we will think of you whenever we walk the path they demarcate. Linda Long’s comment from 1994 remains as true today as it was when she wrote it: Peter’s work is, and has been, exceptional.
If you would like to share thoughts, memories, or best wishes for the future (or pictures!), please contribute to Peter’s Kudo Board at https://www.kudoboard.com/boards/cKU7SRWp
What follows are thoughts and reflections on Peter’s contributions provided by John Mustain, with whom Peter worked the longest in his time here at Stanford. This post concludes with a masterful set of verses by an anonymous poet celebrating Peter's career.
The Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, the libraries’ friends group celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1998, with a dinner at the Faculty Club. Peter, new in his job as Rare Books Specialist, went the extra yard to make this an especially memorable event. The Associates had donated 444 titles of nineteenth-century fiction to honor the event (each title in a glorious 19th-century binding) and when I asked Peter if there were any chance to have the volumes there at the celebratory dinner at the Faculty Club, he said it could be done, and proceeded to make it possible. We enlisted the help of our student assistant, Josue Hertado, who graciously agreed to work the evening of the event. We packed up all the volumes and then laded them into a van; then added bookcases, for display, and all of us headed up from the library to the Faculty Club. We arrived, unloaded, and set out all the books on the bookcases: what a display the books made! The members of the Associates were thrilled to see this very generous gift in person (and no wonder). It was a huge contribution to a wonderful evening.
After the dinner and speeches and celebrations, we took all of the books back to Special Collections, boxing them up anew and loading them and the bookcases back into the van. Many of the Associates commented how much they appreciated this effort and how much they enjoyed seeing the books that they had donated to Special Collections. This was all Peter’s doing and he made his mark early as a huge contributor to our efforts at outreach in Special Collections. I thought it a wonderful evening and wonderful birthday for our friends’ group but I thought it especially wonderful for Peter, as he had made so much of it possible, with his usual efficiency and modesty.
When Special Collections moved back into the Bing Wing after extensive renovations following the Loma Prieta earthquake, Peter and I, as the Book Division, were tasked with filling the collection cases in the Field reading room and in the Barchas Room. There were lists of what had been in the cases before the earthquake, but Peter and I both thought it would be better to start from scratch to re-fill the cases in the reading room; the Barchas Collection was about the same as it was at the time of the earthquake, so re-shelving Barchas seemed straightforward. As to the reading room cases, however, much had changed since the earthquake: new and very important titles had arrived, gifts had come in, and so on. It was time to re-assess what we most wanted in those cases: these cases reflect the great generosity of our donors as well as some of our most important items.
Peter’s diligence and organization made this large project (sixteen cases in the reading room) manageable and even enjoyable. We browsed the appropriate collections (shelved in SAL since soon after the earthquake), pulling titles to be shelved in the reading room. We had a space allowance for each case, and some collections had more than one case designated. After we pulled a good number of titles, Peter measured the volumes to ensure that they would fit and calculated how much room was left in each case (we did want to come very close to filling each) so we could fine-tune a final selection of some number of additional volumes, in order to have full cases.
Once the final number of titles for each case was decided upon, Peter orchestrated the logistics of the move across campus. Book trucks were collected, the books were loaded onto them, case by case, and then the trucks wrapped fully and safely with plastic and delivered to the SAL loading dock to be driven back to Green by our colleagues from the mailroom.
We had another logistical challenge: the Special Collections reading room was open for patrons, and we did not want to be shelving hundreds of books while people were doing research in the reading room. We decided that it would be best to shelve books after the reading room closed; Peter generously agreed to stay late until the job was done (an hour or more each day until the task was finished—it took a good number of days) and we called on our friends and colleagues in Conservation to help, which they graciously did: Maria Grandinette, Beth Ryan, and David Brock each pitched in for hours to help manage this job, which was, frankly, something of a labor of love: what a visual feast it was, shelving and watching these titles being shelved in their new location in the reading room cases. It was wonderfully rewarding and a fine way to celebrate the re-opening of what is now the Bing Wing of Green Library. It was no surprise to find Special Collections one of the busiest spots in the library as hundreds gathered to celebrate the re-opening and it was very rewarding to all involved in this major shift of books to see guests looking admiringly at the newly-filled cases in both the reading room and Barchas Room. Very rewarding.
The Barchas Room provided its own challenges and taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten: when it comes to space issues, shelving, and such, seek help from those who know. Fortunately, Peter was one such person, having worked in the library’s Stack Division some years before he joined Special Collections. I remembered very clearly that the Barchas Room had accommodated the vast majority of the Barchas collection before the earthquake; I had seen the cases myself, having been in the Barchas Room often. After the room was restored following Loma Prieta, shelving was installed efficiently but without consultation, and when the Barchas collection was delivered to Special Collections for shelving I plunged ahead with re-shelving, only to have a moment of panic when I realized about halfway through that even my untrained eye could tell that all the books were not going to fit. I knew that very few if any volumes had been added to the collection since the earthquake, so wondered what the problem was. A quick call to Peter (a call that should have been made earlier!) sorted it all out. Peter came and surveyed the room and after a moment told me that if we could shelve folios separately, he could make all of the books fit into the room. Somehow, in the packing up of the Barchas Room post-quake, all books, regular size and folios, had been shelved together, in call number order, with no regard to size. This worked fine for storage but returned to the library in this order, created a space problem. Setting the shelves to accommodate folios inevitably reduces the number of total shelves in cases that hold both folios and regular-sized books. With this simple assessment, Peter solved the problem and all the volumes were re-shelved easily; to this day there is still room for future additions to the Barchas Collection, folio or otherwise.
It is not unusual for procedures to change in a position over years but Peter implemented far more than his predecessors, partly in response to circumstances and changes in librarianship generally but largely because of his skills, organization, and vision. Familiarity with a wide range of technology became more and more important in his position over the years and Peter utilized a great deal of such to improve aspects of the job significantly. Gifts and donor information, for example, moved from manual files to online versions under Peter; FileMaker Pro was used for a wide range of tasks; manual notes of items sent to Conservation or used in exhibitions were collected in online lists and references to same were put into the online catalogue record, as appropriate. Access to a wide range of materials was improved in various ways; even such things as dry-mounted exhibition captions were organized logically into a database and boxed in a way to make retrieval easy. In addition to implementing a great many improvements through the use of online tools, Peter also served as an Expert Partner for years.
Space became a more pressing and daunting issue each year during Peter’s tenure, as the amount of material coming into Special Collections during Peter’s time was far greater than the amount that had come in under his predecessors. Peter took the initiative to plan and implement several shifts of materials within our SAL facility, gaining vital space with each shift. These improvements benefited the entire department in terms of improved access. Peter’s skills in resolving paging problems were legendary and much appreciated.
Peter made great contributions to the public services over his many years in the department, working the desk for half of the day for some years as a valued member of the Public Services staff. After becoming the Rare Book Specialist, he continued work on the desk, thereby continuing to contribute notably to the public service mission of the department, helping hundreds of patrons over the years, not just in answering their questions but in making suggestions of his own in an effort to help with their research. He has been consistently generous in sharing his extensive knowledge of the department, its holdings, and Stanford history. He was likewise very generous in taking on extra hours on the desk when asked, and in helping colleagues by taking their desk hours when needed.
Peter strengthened the department’s connections to several other divisions within the library, including Conservation, curatorial staff, Stack Division, and Technical Services. He worked tirelessly on more than one exhibition; his thoroughness has been noted and appreciated by many and his fine interactions with these other groups has been a boon to all concerned. Peter was also a large presence in departmental outreach, hosting and/or helping plan, page materials, and set up for numerous donor events, the Stanford Publishing Course open houses of years back, the annual Sarum Seminar session in Special Collections, many and varied class sessions, and visits to Stanford by various bibliophilic societies: he was definitely a great ambassador for the department.
Peter deserves to be known
For the exquisite care he has shown
In preserving the books
In the innermost nooks
Where incipient scholars are grown.
Few of you ever will know
How he managed collections that grow.
He would constantly shift
So each purchase or gift
Would always have somewhere to go.
This work takes both muscles and mind.
And I think that you never will find
An equal to he
Who is willing to be
Chained to the merciless grind.
I hope in my way I have shown
Why his service now needs to be known
By more than the few
Directly who knew
Where he started and how he has grown.
My serious purpose is done
But the better part now has begun.
Allow me to say
In my immature way
Something that’s slightly more fun.
He instinctively knew what to do
With tinies and folios too.
And it’s not a surprise
That he lifts with his thighs
That volume that’s bigger than you.
I’m hoping before he departs
You prove that you value the arts.
If you each page that book
For a minute long look
He may need to request some ox carts.
I think that you all can agree
A cart with two oxen would be
Traced to Leland and Jane,
Who all share a fine pedigree.
The P.O. for oxen and carts
Must be processed in separate parts.
The carts should be fine
But the oxen a crime
If coded with obsolete charts.
The carts can be built for a fee
From graphene or steel or a tree.
But oxen are not
So easily got
And no one will ship them for free.
Though I fear that they could be waylaid
My plans are for Peter’s Parade.
Scholars in gowns
And loudly dressed clowns,
Who cannot be named, I’m afraid.
Peter sits proud in his hat,
Behind him that book tall and fat.
We now have betold
A sight to behold:
Librarians shoveling scat
Completing this poetic play
There is one more advantage to say:
A good pair of oxen’s
Could cover the stench of the day.
August 15 – 16, 2021