Remembering Library Company Volunteer Louise Beardwood
I don’t know if Louise Beardwood would have liked to be the subject of a blog post, but I suspect not. She was not one to call attention to herself or her accomplishments. Nonetheless, I am writing this because I want everyone to know how much Library Company of Philadelphia volunteer Louise meant to the Graphic Arts Department, and in particular, to me.
I first met Louise in 1993 when I embarked on my career at the Library Company and Louise had just begun her volunteer work helping then Curator of Prints Ken Finkel produce the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual. Ken left in 1996 and the Almanac project ended, but Louise stayed on as a volunteer for more than 25 years. In many regards, Louise was the perfect volunteer. Like clockwork, year-round Louise put in her hours every Thursday morning at the Library Company. She was not fussy about the projects assigned to her and worked diligently regardless of the task at hand. As her supervisor, I tried to find projects that were reasonably interesting. I devised projects that needed to be done, but were not likely to be completed with our current staffing level, and ones that could be worked on largely independently. The only other guidelines I followed for selecting projects for Louise was to avoid her having to write anything by hand. She had appallingly large (dare I say, sloppy?) handwriting. Louise was not the person I turned to for writing tiny accession numbers on the backs of collection items.
With a computer at hand, Louise, however, could be counted on to do a great job inventorying collections, including the contents of large Library Company of Philadelphia institutional history scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and photographs; the John R. Wells Photograph Collection of early 1950s photographs of historical Philadelphia buildings; and the hundreds of early twentieth-century Frank H. Taylor views of Philadelphia. For years, she worked her way through the Library Company’s alphabetized portrait print collection, listing and describing each print and including a short biographical sketch of the sitter. It was while summarizing a collection for a research file or writing a description of a specific item that Louise’s witty personality came through. When describing the Frank H. Taylor Collection, for example, Louise wrote in part:
Most have a title on the paper or a separately attached legend of a sentence or two. These descriptive legends are sometimes filled with wonderful details of people or activities connected with the image. If true, these tales enhance the historic value of the collection. If not, well, they are entertaining.
Louise’s voice shines through this text.
Frank H. Taylor. An Early Burlington Printery, photogravure mounted on cardboard, ca. 1922.
While Louise has left behind a more than two decades-long tangible legacy of work in the Graphic Arts Department, even more important to me are the memories of more than twenty five years of friendship. Every week as she filled out her time sheet of volunteer hours in my office, we would talk. Louise always inquired about my family, and in particular, she was actively interested in hearing about my son as he grew from infant to college student. I enjoyed hearing her unfiltered reviews of restaurants where she ate and plays and concerts she attended. Her social life was far busier than mine. We had a mutual love of books and reading and would recommend titles to each other. I soon learned that Louise did not share my enjoyment of murder mysteries, but we did have in common an interest in biographies and books on historical topics. I still have several of her typed (perhaps to spare me her handwriting?) title recommendations on my nightstand of book that I intend to track down.
In recent years, Louise’s declining health made it more difficult for her to do her weekly volunteer work. She would not always be able to make it through the whole morning, but she would stay for an hour or two to do her work and visit. Louise passed away at her home on September 6. I last spoke with her over the summer, a telephone conversation filled with talk about the Library Company, the staff in the Graphic Arts Department, and how everyone was coping with the pandemic. The year 2020 has been one that has robbed us all of so much, and for me, the loss of Louise Beardwood is a particularly sad milestone.
Louise Beardwood talking to Sarah Weatherwax and William Bucher at Library Company event, ca. 2010.
Sarah J. Weatherwax
Senior Curator of Graphic Arts