‘An Excellent Beginning Has Been Made’

Librarian Dorothy Amann in a 1940 Rotunda yearbook photo, SMU Archives

Librarian Dorothy Amann in a 1940 Rotunda yearbook photo, SMU Archives

SMU was truly fortunate in its first librarian, Dorothy Amann, a remarkable woman who almost single-handedly oversaw the transformation of the library from a miscellaneous assortment of books to a useful working collection with some claims to distinction. She began her work in 1913, before the University opened, and she retired in 1949. Others in the library’s history may have served longer than her 36 years, but none has made a more lasting contribution to its welfare. Not only are most of the materials she acquired still part of the SMU collections, she also established high standards of service for the staff, a time-honored tradition. She had a real gift for identifying talent in others and encouraging its development. Many of the women she hired (and SMU’s librarians were exclusively women, and almost exclusively single women, in the early years) shared her commitment to the cause, and they embarked on their task with missionary zeal.

Dorothy Amann (1874-1967) was born in Mississippi and grew up in Smithville, Texas. As a child, Amann had considered becoming a doctor but, after her mother’s death, she proceeded to the Eastman College of Business in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her business career took her to various newspapers in the South, to the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce, and eventually to a law office in Midland, Texas, where, in 1913, she was contacted by Frank Reedy, bursar of SMU. “He just said he wanted me to come to Dallas and talk to him. I didn’t know what for, but there was a lot of hoorah in West Texas about a major college – Methodist at that – being started, and I was curious.”

SMU's first library in Dallas Hall, 1922, SMU Archives

SMU’s first library in Dallas Hall, 1922, SMU Archives

Amann’s curiosity, energy and unflagging good cheer made her the perfect person to direct SMU’s library in the early years. Although she was reading for the law in Midland, she must have been persuaded that taking a chance on a place like SMU offered more scope for a woman of her abilities and interests than an uncertain law practice in Midland. She was 39 and ready for a change, and so in October 1913, she joined Reedy, President Hyer and two accountants – the sum total of the SMU administration – at an office in the Methodist Publishing House in downtown Dallas, rolled up her sleeves and went to work.

In addition to various administrative duties under President Hyer, she also took part in the sorting of the packages of books that were arriving almost daily. “There had been coming to the University for two years before the opening many donations from people in Texas and neighboring states,” she wrote in 1935, “and these also had to be handled and gleaned for possible values.” Many of these books were given by Methodist ministers, or by the widows and families of ministers whose rounds on the earthly circuit were over.

By 1914, Amann and the rest of the University had moved to the construction site that was Dallas Hall, without utility service but with more space. “During the year preceding the opening, the University staff, as a whole, was busy with matters pertaining to organization of all kinds for reception of students,” Amann remembered later, “and so the work of details for library organization did not have the attention it deserved. Of course, all such work for [the] best library services should have been under way for many months before the students arrived.”

With a few student assistants in the fall of 1915, Amann culled the best of the donated books, ordered new materials and put out the first card catalogue in the spring of 1916. “An excellent beginning has been made toward the accumulation of a University library,” she wrote in the official SMU catalogue. “During this first year, 7,000 volumes were acquired, and this nucleus of books will be increased steadily and rapidly by the addition of works carefully selected with reference to their immediate usefulness to the several departments of the institution.”

Today the libraries hold four million volumes and celebrate 100 years of service to the University . It all began with Dorothy Amann.

Excerpted from a chapter by Russell L. Martin III ’78, ’86, director of DeGolyer Library, in From High on the Hilltop… Marshall Terry’s History of SMU, available from DeGolyer Library and major book retailers.

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