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James Wyer

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 6 months ago

James Ingersoll Wyer

Accomplished Librarian, Pioneer of the Reference Textbook



Born in Red Wing, Minnesota on May 14, 1869, James Ingersoll Wyer (called Jamie by family throughout his life) was the eldest son of James Ingersoll and Rosabel E. Shear Wyer. Wyer attended high school in Concordia, Kansas and, upon graduation, worked in a bank started by his father for several years. In 1899, Wyer returned to Nebraska to continue his banking career. Wyer paid tribute to his family roots in 1911, when he published his first short run genealogical record, The Nantucket Wyers. Wyer’s half brother Malcolm Wyer also achieved a successful career in librarianship.


On May 3, 1894, Wyer married May Tyner with whom he fathered two children, William and Margaret. During the depressed economy of the late nineteenth century, foreclosures on local farms convinced Wyer to seek a path other than banking. In 1895, influenced by an uncle’s passion for books and a cousin’s connection to Melvil Dewey, the newlywed Wyer decided to pursue a career in librarianship. In preparation, he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. Education agreed with Wyer, and he continued on, earning his B.L.S., M.L.S. and Ph.D. At the New York State Library School in Albany, Wyer studied under notable library pioneers including Melvil Dewey, Walter Stanley Biscoe, Florence Woodworth and visiting lecturers John Cotton Dana, Charles Ammi Cutter, William H. Brett and Josephus N. Larned. Wyer also pursued less academic interests and hobbies throughout his life including limericks, puzzles, mazes and a special passion for stamp collecting.


In 1898, Wyer accepted a position at the University of Nebraska. There, Wyer set the tone for his fruitful career, taking active leadership active roles in several professional library associations and publishing a respected guidebook to government documents. In 1905, Wyer returned to Albany, New York finishing his education and holding positions of progressive responsibility in the state’s library and library school. Known to colleagues and students as J.I. or Dr. Wyer, he was admired for his administrative competence and teaching ability as well as his fun loving humor and loyal friendship.


After Wyer had been Director of the New York State Library for two years, a massive fire swept through the Library reducing the venerable collections to ashes in a single evening. In the following days, Wyer joined a small group of searchers who traversed the smoldering ruins in the hopes of salvaging irreplaceable materials. Few items survived. For almost two years the Library remained closed while Wyer worked tirelessly rebuilding the infrastructure and collections. Wyer’s efforts were impressive, and he was able to report exponential growth in holdings each year. When the Library reopened, Wyer turned his attention to other goals including the expansion of the statewide system of interlibrary loan. Quality public service was critical to Wyer and he demonstrated this commitment by creating Sundays hours and reducing hurdles to borrowing. During World War I, Wyer spearheaded an ALA campaign to raise funds to maintain libraries in army and navy camps, vessels and ports. The Great Depression crushed library budgets, and Wyer lamented the devastating impact, especially its impact on his ability to hire an adequate number of trained staff. When, in response to state economic difficulties, the New York State Library School at Albany was transferred to Columbia in 1926, Wyer supported the move and continued to remain active on the board of directors and alumni association.


Throughout his career, Wyer taught library courses and published prolifically. In 1930, Wyer authored the first textbook on reference practices, Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians. Designed to complement Isadore Mudge’s “Guide to Reference Books,” Wyer’s systematic text outlined a functional philosophy and methodology of reference practices, becoming the standard textbook for more than twenty years. “Most libraries,” Wyer (1930) posits, “especially the great ones, do not lack money with to buy books. It is easier to get ten dollars to buy books than one dollar for administration.” The text aims, then, to aid in proper training by providing a solid and thoughtful basis to nurture good reference service. From the critical evaluation of reference sources to appropriate furniture selection, Wyer presents all the traits and expertise that must be mastered to provide quality reference service to the inquirer. Among the behaviors that must be employed to tackle difficult questions, Wyer includes some that seem to indicate that the librarian must possess a natural gift: a propensity for “mind-reading.” Wyer enthused, “The aim of library mind reading, then is to know how to give people what they do not know they want!” Nonetheless, a careful study of the text would equip a trainee to do just that. Each chapter systematically walks the student through every part of the process and invites the student to develop their own skills by concluding with “Thought Questions” and a supplemental bibliography for further exploration. From perseverance to pleasantness, Wyer claims good reference librarians must strive to encompass twenty-seven key traits. Although the text was published nearly seventy-five years ago, Wyer’s advice still rings true. (See also: reference textbooks.)


Wyer’s wife May died in 1936. In 1938, Wyer ended his thirty-year tenure as Director of the New York State Library and retired to Salt Lake City, Utah. Wyer married a second time to Leah Ocher Roys (New York State Library School, class of 1923) on June 29, 1938. In Utah, Wyer pursued his hobbies, remained an active contributor to library journals, and returned to banking until an illness in 1950. At the age of 86 in October 1955, Wyer was hospitalized after he fell and broke his hip. Wyer never returned home after the injury and died in the hospital on November 1, 1955. He was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, New York.



View photographs of Wyer with librarian colleagues from the University of Illinois Library collections.



Traits and Trait Actions of Wyer's Ideal Reference Libraian




University of Minnesota 1895-1896

New York State Library School in Albany, B.L.S. 1898, M.L.S. 1905

New York State College, Ph.D.,1919

New York State College for Teachers, Honorary Degree of Pedagogy, 1919


Work History

Assistant Cashier, First National Bank of Red Lake Falls, Minnesota 1887-1889

Secretary to the Board of Directors, Assistant Cashier, Director, First National Bank of Concordia, Kansas 1889-1895

Assistant, Minneapolis Public Library 1896

Assistant, New York State Library 1897-1898

Acting Librarian, University of Nebraska 1898-1899

Librarian, University of Nebraska 1899-1905

Assistant Professor of Bibliography, University of Nebraska 1899-1902

Lecturer on U.S. Government Documents, University of Minnesota, summers 1903, 1904

Lecturer on U.S. Government Documents, University of Wisconsin, 1904

Professor of Bibliography, University of Nebraska 1902-1905

Organizer and Assistant to the Librarian, Louisville Free Public Library 1905

Reference Librarian, New York State Library 1906

Vice-director, New York State Library School 1906-1908

Director, New York State Library School 1908-1926

Lecturer on Bibliography and Government Publications, Columbia, summers 1928, 1930

Lecturer on Bibliography and Government Publications, University of Chicago, summer 1931

Director, New York State Library 1908 -1938; Retired 1938

Walker Bank and Trust, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1943-1949


Professional Associations

Vice President, Nebraska Library Association 1898-1899

President, Nebraska Library Association 1899-1901

Second Vice President, Library School Association 1899-1900

President, Nebraska Public Library Commission, 1901-1905

Trustee, City Library of Lincoln Nebraska 1902-1905

Vice President, New York Library Association 1906-1907

Secretary, American Library Association (ALA) 1902-1909

Vice President, American Library Association (ALA) 1909-1910

President, American Library Association (ALA) 1910-1911

President, National Association of State Libraries 1913-1914

President, New York Library Association 1913-1914

President, Association of American Library Schools 1915

Chairman, ALA Library War Service Committee 1917-1920

Member, Board of Directors, New York State Library School Association 1926-1927

President, New York State Library School Association 1926-1947

Member, Bibliographic Society of America

Member, American Philatelic Society

President, Descret Stamp Club (Salt Lake City, Utah)

Member, Collection Club (New York)


A Selection of Publications

Wyer, J.I. (1900). A Classification of the Literature of Agriculture. in "Bibliographical Contributions from the Library of the University of Nebraska.". Lincoln, Nebraska.


------ (1906). United States Government Documents. New York State Library. Bulletin 102. Library School 21. Albany.


------ (1911). The Nantucket Wyers. Jamaica, New York: Marion Press.


------ (1915). Government Documents (State and City). Chicago: American Library Association Publishing Board.


------ (1922). U. S. Government Documents (Federal, State and City). Chicago: American Library Association.


------ (1923). The Soul of the Library. New York: The New York Public Library.


------ (1928). The College and University Library. in "Manual of Library Economy, IV". Chicago: American Library Association.


------ (1930). Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association.



Dr. James Wyer, A Librarian, Dies. (1955, November 4). New York Times, p. 30.


Lancour, H., Daily, J. E., Kent, A. (Eds.) (1978). Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. New York, Basel: Marcel Dekker Inc.


New York State Library Register 1887 - 1926. (1959). James I. Wyer Memorial Edition. (no. 3209.1). New York: New York State Library School Association, Inc.


Old Papers Escaped Flames in Capitol. (1911, March 31). New York Times, p. 3.


Paulson, P. J. (1978). Wyer, James Ingersoll (1869-1955). in Dictionary of American Library Biography. (pp. 576- 579). Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.


Richardson Jr., J. V. (2002). Reference Transaction Work: The 1930s; James Wyer (1930). in Lynden, F. C. (Ed.), Advances in Librarianship. (vol. 26; pp. 182-183). New York: Academic Press.


Rider, F. (1956). James Wyer. Library Journal, 81, 612.


Who Was Who in America. (1960, 2nd ed.). Chicago: The A. N. Marquis Company.


Williamson, C. C. & Jewett, A. L. (Eds.). (1943). Who’s Who in Library Service. (2nd ed.). New York : The H. W. Wilson company.


Primary Sources

In addition to Wyer’s numerous publications, primary source material can be found in Wyer’s papers and addresses, (1907-1910, 1911, 1912-13, 1914-17, 1918-1922, 1922-27, 1928) held by the New York State Library. The Bulletin of the ALA also published Wyer’s committee member and officer statements in the relevant years of the Papers and Proceedings of Annual Conferences. Biographical material and personal reminisces can be found in the James I. Wyer Memorial Edition of the New York State Library Register 1887 – 1926.


Carolyn A. Schmitt

Fall 2006

Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 12:13 pm on Oct 27, 2006

Probably don't need to repeat the name in the entry.

Anonymous said

at 3:25 pm on Nov 7, 2006

impressive start. Be sure to spell check; I noted one error. Also, list of publications seems rather extensive.

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