Reception Dec. 12: ‘Renaissance librarian’ Eileen Brady retires
By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – Not every librarian can say she met Peter Graves on the set of the “Mission: Impossible” TV show during the late 1960s in Hollywood or that she helped bring an infamous book thief to justice. But Washington State University’s Eileen Brady has done both – and much more.
In fact, after 31 years, there aren’t many mysteries or problems that Brady, Owen Science Library’s preservation manager and research librarian, can’t solve.
Need to know how to save water-damaged books and journals by freeze-drying? Brady figured that out in 1986, enlisting the late John Guido – head of Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections – WSU’s food services department and the College of Veterinary Medicine to help with the task.
Did Charles Darwin contend that animals and babies couldn’t feel pain in his landmark “On the Origin of Species?” Yes, he did, as Brady discovered for Vicki Croft, former head of the Animal Health Library and fellow retiree this year, who asked Brady to answer the question for a WSU student.
“When I think of Eileen’s strengths and achievements within WSU Libraries, these come to mind: her excellence as a reference librarian; her collegiality to her co-workers, particularly as a mentor to new librarians; and her user advocacy,” Croft said.
“I know of no other WSU librarian with her range of expertise and knowledge in subjects from the sciences, engineering and agriculture to the humanities and social sciences,” she said. “She is a Renaissance librarian, one who can ferret out answers to the most difficult questions.”
Brady’s versatility and can-do spirit will be celebrated at a retirement reception 2-4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, in Owen Science Library’s main lobby.
Omaha girl goes to Hollywood
Brady didn’t initially intend to work as a librarian. Attending Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in the early 1960s, she prepared for a career in medical technology. But she realized after taking courses for three years that she didn’t relish the prospect of sticking people with needles.
“I switched in my senior year to a history major,” she said. “It meant getting 21 upper-level credits in two semesters. I graduated in four years with a B.A. in history that I started in my senior year.”
She found that getting a job with a history degree was even harder than cramming four years’ worth of upper-level courses into one. But she had read a book by Hollywood director-producer Mervyn LeRoy about TV and movie research at a studio.
“I thought that would be very interesting and fun,” she said. “I went down to the Omaha Public Library, got out the telephone directories for Los Angeles, got the addresses for the studios and sent letters to the research departments at all of these studios.”
In 1965, Brady went to work for de Forest Research Inc., a private research company that handled TV scripts for “Star Trek,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Mission: Impossible,” “I Spy” and other shows. She and other researchers checked scripts for accuracy – dates, quotations, locations and more – using whatever resources were available in that pre-computer and -Internet era.
Sometimes, she got a call back from an irritated producer questioning her findings.
“‘What do you mean you can’t put a silencer on a revolver?’” Brady recalled from one such conversation. “I explained to the man why that doesn’t work, and he said, ‘Who would know that? Nobody would know that.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m a 21-year-old girl from Omaha, Nebraska, and I know that.’”
Are there cobras in the Philippines?
Brady’s stint with de Forest Research lasted only a year; illness forced her to take a leave of absence and return to Omaha. By the time she was well again, another researcher had taken her place.
“I liked that job; I really liked doing it,” Brady said. “I thought maybe I should go to library school so I could learn to do it better. So I applied to and was accepted at University of Southern California and went back to Los Angeles.”
In graduate school, she worked part-time at the Los Angeles Public Library as a librarian trainee. And while she wasn’t rubbing elbows with television producers anymore, the new post was far from boring.
She manned telephone reference calls on the night shift, starting at 9 p.m. and working until 1 a.m. During those shifts, anything could happen – and frequently did. A colleague was mugged outside the employee entrance to the library just as Brady started work one evening. Someone started a fire another night. Brady chased out an intruder trying to break in on another shift.
The public library gig also introduced Brady to a very different kind of patron.
“We got calls from all over the world,” she said. “I remember one time getting a call from Manila. Some sailors in a bar wanted to know if there were cobras in the Philippines. We had some very strange calls, a lot of them from bars.”
Of lab mice and men
Brady came to WSU Libraries in September 1983 after working with Coeur d’Alene and Spokane public libraries and continuing to do freelance research for motion pictures and television. Soon enough, she was making a name for herself as a tenacious researcher in multiple academic disciplines and as an advocate for students.
“My students in the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute at WSU need to access both technical and business information that is often difficult to find,” said institute director Howard Davis. “This is especially true when you are a novice.
“Enter the super-sleuths. Eileen and her partner in crime, Mary Gilles (business reference librarian), are incredible resources and love interacting with the students,” Davis said. “I get rave reviews from my students about the help Eileen and Mary have given them. In the process, they learn how to access information from the best.”
Brady also kept a cool head when the situation warranted it. She and Betty Galbraith, Owen science librarian and instruction coordinator, walked into Owen one morning to find the male employees “huddled behind the circulation desk,” Galbraith said. They told the women that students playing a prank had released lab mice into the library, and the men were trying to figure out who to call.
“Eileen and I just looked at each other. Eileen grabbed a cardboard box, we went over to where the mice were and we captured them,” Galbraith said. “Both of us grew up in the country. It was a case of city boys and country girls.”
Over time, library security figured more prominently in Brady’s responsibilities, an interest that started at the Los Angeles Public Library with its rough-and-tumble clientele.
In addition to library working groups for preservation and health and safety, Brady serves as board or committee member for such professional associations as the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection, National Fire Protection Association and Smithsonian’s National Conference on Cultural Property Protection. She also founded and edited a library journal called Focus on Security for 10 years.
But the Stephen Blumberg case epitomized what libraries around the world stood to lose if they weren’t vigilant about their holdings.
In 1988, WSU library staff discovered papers had disappeared from a rare collection. Then books turned up missing. By the end of the investigation by WSU police officer Steve Huntsberry, almost 400 books and 2,500 manuscripts – roughly worth $500,000 – were gone from WSU. Huntsberry learned that other universities reported similar losses.
Two years later, Blumberg was arrested in Ottumwa, Iowa, for stealing more than 23,600 rare books and other materials from 270 universities and museums in 45 states, two Canadian provinces and Washington, D.C. Their value was initially estimated at about $20 million, later changed to $5.3 million – the largest book theft in U.S. history. Blumberg was subsequently tried and convicted in 1991 and sentenced to six years in prison.
Brady, serving on the Faculty Senate Library Committee when the WSU thefts were uncovered, was at a committee meeting when Huntsberry reported on his investigation. Brady helped him answer questions he had about the materials and libraries in general.
“(Huntsberry) became very highly regarded by the Society of American Archivists because of what he had done,” Brady said. “Actually, he had written an article naming Blumberg as the probable thief months before the arrest.”
Huntsberry and Brady were invited to speak at Smithsonian’s National Conference on Cultural Property Protection in 1995. Huntsberry discussed the case; Brady gave a presentation on disclosing the identity of book thieves to other librarians to prevent future thefts. That same year, when Blumberg was up for parole, both testified at his hearing.
Brady explained why Blumberg’s theft was so devastating in a 2012 Washington State Magazine article: “‘The original material tells you a lot of things that you cannot get from a photocopy,’ she says, noting writing in the margins, ink and paper used. Even the smell and the feel of them tell you something…”
Back to television
So what does a librarian who has worked in Hollywood do when she retires? Why, publish the first volume of a massive television reference guide, of course.
When her alma mater Creighton University interviewed her for its alumni magazine in 1995, Brady described the scope of her project then: 57 pounds of 4×6 file cards detailing facts about TV series; 1,300 shows for the 1960s alone; and 18,000 hours of research. She estimates those figures have doubled since then.
“But I can’t answer any questions about current television whatsoever,” she said with a laugh.
Galbraith, like her WSU Libraries’ colleagues, might dispute that. Librarians don’t retire; they just get re-shelved, as one saying goes.
“We are really going to miss her being a walking encyclopedia of Owen collections and services,” Galbraith said. “Even with a bad citation, she can find anything.”