MUDGE, Isadore Gilbert

(14 March 1875 – 16 May 1957)


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Mr. Paul Betz, Managing Editor

American National Biography

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Oxford University Press

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31 March 1999


Dr. John V. Richardson Jr., Professor

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Department of Information Studies

Graduate School of Education and Information Science

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MUDGE, Isadore Gilbert (14 Mar. 1875-16 May 1957), reference librarian, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest child of Alfred Mudge, a lawyer, and Mary Gilbert Ten Brook, daughter of Andrew Ten Brook, the one-time librarian of the University of Michigan. Mudge graduated from Brooklyn’s Adelphi Academy in 1893 and enrolled that fall in Cornell University, where her paternal step-grandfather, Charles K. Adams, was president. Earning her bachelor of philosophy degree in 1897, she was inspired by George Lincoln Burr, an archivist, medieval historian, and librarian, to pursue librarianship as a career. An excellent undergraduate student, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior.

The New York State Library School in Albany, New York accepted Mudge in the fall of 1897, and she was graduated with a Bachelor of Library Science degree with distinction in 1900, having studied with Dunkin Van Rensselaer Johnston, who systemized the teaching of reference work. Despite being an avowed easterner, she accepted the dual post of head reference librarian at the University of Illinois Library and instructor in the University of Illinois Library School, under the able direction of Katherine Lucinda Sharp. After working for three years there to develop the reference collection with the view to helping Illinois students become independent learners, she resigned to accept the position of Bryn Mawr’s head librarian in 1903. She worked there until 1908, when she left to pursue several tasks including such published projects, including two articles for Library Journal entitled "Some Reference Books, 1910" and same topic again in 1911; a Thackeray dictionary (1910); and a bibliography of philosopher Henri Bergson’s writings (1913). She also taught part-time as an instructor of reference and documents at Simmons College (1910-1912).

Mudge joined the library at Columbia University in 1911. Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia, became an early supporter of her efforts to build upon the University’s meager reference collection; in fact, Butler found her "incredibly resourceful in meeting his varied reference and bibliographic needs." Her work at Columbia became a platform for professional advocacy. Indeed, Mudge influenced other reference collections by arguing that any library needed several specific types of sources. Essential would be "the possession of certain basic works, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, an atlas, a biographical dictionary," but she also believed that a "book of quotations, handbook of statistics, a state or government manual, are needed everywhere."

By 1927 she began teaching "Bibliography and Bibliographic Methods" in Columbia’s newly merged School of Library Service as an associate professor. To encapsulate her thinking succinctly for students, she coined the phrase "material, mind, and method"—by which she meant reference librarians needed to know books, possess the mental characteristics of success (e.g., good memory, high intelligence, and strong perseverance), and methodically answer reference questions by clarification and classification by type of source. The Mudge method was undoubtedly articulated to her students in numerous reference classes but never widely disseminated; so it remained private knowledge until her disciple and student, Margaret Hutchins, published this idea in the January 1937 issue of the Library Quarterly.

Mudge’s landmark achievement is the Guide to Reference Books, a comprehensive bibliography of reference tools that she compiled for the American Library Association through four major revisions between 1917 (the third edition contained 1,790 titles in 235 pages) and 1936 (her sixth edition contained 3,873 titles in 504 pages). For many novices in this field, it served as an introductory textbook as well because of its valuable prefatory pages. According to John Waddell, her biographer, Mudge had "already conceived the idea of a textbook for beginning library students; before she had advanced sufficiently in her planning to approach A. L. A. . . . Miss [Alice B.] Kroeger at the next A. L. A. conference told Mudge of her plan and showed her a draft of the text for comment." Shortly after Kroeger’s untimely death in 1909, ALA asked Mudge to take over its compilation, which she did by compiling a needed two-year supplement to the second edition.

Reviewing Mudge’s career at Columbia, Constance M. Winchell, Mudge’s protégé, said: "Probably no other one person has contributed so much to raising the standards of reference collections and reference service in the libraries of this and other countries." In recognition of her outstanding efforts and as a role model for succeeding generations of librarians, the American Library Association established the Isadore Gilbert Mudge Citation in 1958 to be given to those librarians who make a "distinguished contribution to reference librarianship." Perhaps it is only slightly hyperbolic to say, as does Waddell, that Mudge was "the best known and most influential reference librarian in the history of American librarianship" when she retired in 1941. A semi—invalid toward the end of her life, she died in the College Manor Nursing Home, Lutherville, Maryland.

Some of Mudge's papers are extant in the Special Collections department of the Columbia University Library. For further information, see John N. Waddell’s "Career of Isadore Gilbert Mudge: A Chapter in the History of Reference Librarianship," (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1973) and "Learning Reference Work: The Paradigm," in John V. Richardson Jr.’s Knowledge—based Systems for General Reference Work: Applications, Problems, and Progress (1995).


John V. Richardson Jr.