This post is the third in a four-part series showcasing notable figures in the history of the Academy Library, as we celebrate our 175th anniversary. The first post focused on Dr. Samuel Smith Purple, and the second post featured Dr. Archibald Malloch.
By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian
After Frank Place (1880–1959) passed away in September 1959, The Academy Bookman, a publication of the Library’s Friends of the Rare Book Room, published an unsigned tribute to him and his 40 years of devoted service to the Academy Library. “Frank Place to many Fellows of the Academy was the Academy Library,” it notes. “Some have said that they often stopped in the Library first to see Frank Place, and then to use the resources of the Library.” Even now, more than 75 years after he retired, we regularly use some of the guides that Place originated to answer questions about the collections.
Place grew up in Cortland, New York, and made his way to New York City to earn a degree at the Pratt Institute Library School, from which he graduated in 1902. Three years later he joined the Library staff at the invitation of Librarian John Brownne, taking on the afternoon and evening shifts (the Library stayed open until 10:30 pm at that time), when all of the readers were Fellows or Members. Place was a keen observer and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and we have him to thank for much of what we know about how the Library looked and functioned while the Academy was still in its building on West 43rd Street and during the first two decades after we moved into our present building in 1926.
When Place took up his position, the Library contained about 35,000 volumes, thousands of pamphlets, domestic and foreign periodicals, and a steadily increasing number of Paris medical theses. A collection of what he called “old authors” or “classics,” or what we now refer to as rare books, was shelved in the C. (or Classics) case, and a small group of incunabula were housed in a specially purchased metal exhibition case. The Library’s subject card catalog was very new, having been started in 1901, and until 1917, when he received a typewriter, Place hand wrote the main entry cards for the author/title part of the card catalog himself.
Two of the most used guides to the Library’s collection are the Portrait Catalog of the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the Illustration Catalog. At a talk delivered to an audience of medical librarians, Place explains the portrait catalog’s origins:
“Away back in 1908 I discovered a small batch of portraits of former members of the Academy, steel engravings that nobody seemed to know anything about. It occurred to me that a file of portraits with an index of them in our catalogue was indicated. Why not add to the index such portraits as we came across in books and periodicals, was the next thought?”
By the time he made his remarks, Place estimated that the portrait catalog had grown to include over 8,000 printed or framed images and about 100,000 entries for images in published works, documenting at least 50,000 individuals, and it continued to grow for decades after his retirement. The success of the portrait catalog inspired Place to start the illustration catalog as well, and in the 1960s both the portrait catalog and the illustration appeared as published volumes, purchased by libraries around the country.
In that same talk, Place encouraged librarians to document their own institutions by taking pictures of spaces and staff and labeling them with names and dates. A box of his photographs, taken between 1925 and 1941, does just that.
The box contains snapshots of the West 43rd Street building, as well as of our current building and some of the staff. The photographs document the construction of the 1932 addition that added the rare book room and other spaces, as well as the construction of the Museum of the City of New York and the transformation of the conservatories in Central Park to the more familiar Conservatory Gardens just across the street.
Back in 2015, the Library staff used those early photographs as inspiration and recreated some of them, matching the locations of the new images as closely as possible to their earlier counterparts.
It is worth mentioning two of Place’s other notable achievements, one directly related to the Library and the other a bit less so. Place took great pleasure in collecting and trading bookplates with individuals and other libraries. He organized his bookplates alphabetically in three small two-ring binders, mounting each individual bookplate on recycled pamphlet covers. All three volumes can still be found on the shelves in the rare book room. A few years ago, our conservators, worried about the damage caused by acidic paper backing and the unstable structures, remounted all the bookplates and modernized the original binders. The results of their efforts can be seen here. He also spent many hours outdoors, and co-authored the New York Walk Book with Raymond H. Torrey and the physician and illustrator Robert Latou Dickinson, who spent years collaborating with the sculptor Abram Belskie in a Library office. When Place retired in 1945, his Library colleagues presented him with this charming caricature done by Belskie, showing the man in his element, leafing through one of his volumes of bookplates, with a bookworm peering over his shoulder.
“Frank Place 1880—1959.” Academy Bookman 12:2 (1959), pp. 3–4.
Place, Frank. “Records off the Record.” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 32.2 (1944): 214–16.
Place, Frank. “Reminiscences of the Library.” Academy Bookman 12:2 (1959), pp. 4–6.