Once upon a time, and it was before my time, so this was in the days when most of our books were on stone tablets, the Newberry officially did not WANT people coming in to do just any research. This was not a long-lived policy, just a matter of half a dozen or so years when you had to bring your Ph.D. with you if you wanted a Reader’s Card. I have not done a lot of research into this anomaly, so I don’t know whose wonderful idea it was, or the process that went into saying, “Hey, THAT was a mistake!”
By the time I came in to get my first Reader’s Card, there was a welcome desk in the lobby, an attempt to correct the old policy. This took a lot of years and a lot of effort (one of the things they did to make the Newberry seem friendly was start holding a Book Fair) and they did NOT put a WHOLE lot of money into it: the welcome table was tucked back into a corner, roughly where the Bookshop and the Welcome Center meet. A very friendly volunteer sat there, waiting to smile at you and tell you what you needed to do to get a card.
The Newberry didn’t know it, but the process underwent a major change in 1987, when a man named Ed Bailey sat at the Security Kiosk in the lobby for the first time. This was not the kiosk you see now, but a large wooden fort with electrically-controlled brass gates which would (or would not, depending on how our infrastructure was cooperating) open at a touch from the guard’s hand. Somehow, when Ed was controlling the button, you had a feeling that the gates WOULD open for you.
Ed’s was the first face most people saw on walking into the Newberry. (You had to come in the front doors because the glass ones off the parking lot were always kept locked. How times change.) For a generation, that face was the one that looked at you and let you know you were in the right place. There might be a little paperwork to do first, but you were going to find what you needed at the Newberry.
Ed was an imposing presence: his suit was a reprimand to the rest of us, and his voice was deep and comfortable. He could deal not only with people who wanted to know what kind of place this was and what did a person do here AND the researchers who had been here for years and just wanted to talk about learning that the man they THOUGHT was their great-great-uncle was really their great-great-great-grandfather. He could congratulate and commiserate and advise. (He also had a way of repeating back to a person exactly what they had just said, making it sound as if he was agreeing with everything they said while not committing the Newberry to an endorsement.)
After a number of years in the lofty perch of the kiosk, Ed was shifted to the welcome desk, which now sat right next to the kiosk so Ed’s could still be the first face a newcomer saw. He was so commanding and yet soothing that we used to borrow him, at the end of July, to sit in the Collectibles circle at the Book Fair to nod encouragement to timid customers afraid of expensive books and to cast stern eyes to the careless passersby who would pick up a five hundred dollar book and take it into the lobby to look at it in the light.
Ed’s really was the Face of the Newberry. Service to the public was his goal: he wished, in a 2009 interview, that he was bilingual, so he could be even more help to more people. Postcards and letters from across the world came to him from Newberry alumni who had moved on, or gone home, and missed stopping to pass the time of day with him. (Remind me to tell you about the Book Fair volunteer who spent an hour at his desk discussing the cultural basis of African-American religion. In fact, remind me to tell you, sometime, about the Book Fair volunteer who would stand and talk to him for an hour every time she came around.)
In 2013, Ed suffered a stroke which left him with a modest speech impediment (although his doctors in Rehab asked him if he’d give talks to encourage other patients) and he left the Newberry for retirement. Last week, he moved on to the next plane of existence. When Newberryans follow, as they eventually must, I hope for us all that Ed is waiting at the Welcome Desk. He’ll get us in.