When You Serve, You Receive: My Road to the Schlesinger Library

Joan Challinor, photo by Willow Gerber
Joan Challinor, Member, Schlesinger Library Council

There are many ways to be drawn into an organization: “We just need a little help”; “The rest of the Board will love you”; “Your skills are exactly the ones we’ve been looking for”; and finally, “There’s no work involved, we just need your name.” Any of these statements can lead to years of stress and time expended without measure. My involvement with the Schlesinger Library was no different—it began during a research morning at the Library of Congress.

In 1981, I was finishing my dissertation for a PhD from American University and was writing busily when I heard a “psst.” I paid no attention, but a louder “psst” followed. Looking up to see who had the chutzpah to disturb the scholarly silence, I saw an acquaintance, Katie Louchheim, newly retired from the State Department. She motioned for me to come speak with her. Like everyone else in Washington, I obeyed her request—or, rather, her order.

“Joan,” she began, her manner indicating purposefulness, “I want you to help me with a small reception I’m giving for the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.”

Unsophisticated as I was, I knew real trouble when it appeared on the horizon. “Sorry, Katie,” I said. “I don’t know your library [emphasis on your], and besides, I have no time, and besides, I didn’t go to Radcliffe.”

Heedless of my reply, Katie marched on. “There’s no work involved for you, I’m doing it all.” She turned to go. “I just need a backup. Thank you, I’ll give them your name.” By this point she was out the door.

I sighed. I was not the only person to become entangled in Katie’s web, but no work was called for—or so I thought. I returned to my dissertation and also began to inform myself about the Schlesinger for my own interest. I quickly learned about this superb library and recognized it for what it is: the premier research library on women’s history in the United States. I was intrigued and filled with admiration.

Two days later, I received a telephone call from Katie, who was coughing and gasping. “Joan,” she croaked, “I’m sick, very sick. You have to take over.” Click went her phone.

I called her back to no avail—no one picked up her phone. I called the library and spoke for the first time to Pat King, its distinguished director, destined to become one of my very dearest friends. When Pat recovered from the shock of hearing that the (major) event was being prepared and run by someone she’d never heard of, she was stunned. She pulled herself together. “I’m sure you can do it,” she said. “We’ll give you all the help you need.” I couldn’t see how the helping hand was going to stretch from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Washington, DC.

The work was indeed more than I had bargained for. The invitations, printed in DC, had to be mailed from Cambridge, so very late one evening, during the one major snowstorm of the year, my accommodating husband, David, and I drove very slowly to Union Station, where we put the boxes of invitations on a train.

The event was held at the beautiful, Harvard-owned Dumbarton Oaks. The full committee from Radcliffe, led by Susan (Sue) Storey Lyman ’49, HRPBA ’50, EdM ’63, came down from Cambridge. I was so impressed with Sue’s verve, competence, and friendliness that I forgave Katie for the weeks of work. “Stand next to me in the receiving line,” Sue said. Now prepared to follow all orders, I did. As Radcliffe alumnae arrived at the reception, they greeted me with disbelief: “Joan, is that you? I didn’t know you were an alum.” “Joan? Joan?” and then, in a low mumble, “Good to see you.” Only one person dared ask, “Joan, what are you doing here?”

At the end of the reception, Sue said to me with her arm over my shoulder, “There’s no way we can thank you for what you did, but I can invite you to serve on the library’s advisory committee. There, that’s all settled.”

I found myself on the advisory committee of a library that I had only recently heard of, at a college I had not attended. I couldn’t have known that in time I would become chair of the committee. But that’s another story.

Thanks to Katie, her illness, Sue, the event, the wonderful people at the library, and the interesting, important, and timely activities of the Schlesinger, my respect for this premier institution has grown over the more than 30 years I have served. Best of all, Radcliffe accepted me.

One highlight for me was the four-day conference in 1994 titled “Women, Information, and the Future: Collecting and Sharing Resources Worldwide,” an event that made friends for the library in every corner of the world. The proceedings opened with an address by Wangari Maathai, of Kenya, who was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004—the first African woman to win that prize.

My gratitude to the library for allowing me to serve is unending. As I have found again and again in my life, when you serve, you receive far more than you give. So in the end I have to say, “Thank you, Katie,” for enlisting me in the ranks of those who admire and are dedicated to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

A Note on Joan Challinor

I met Joan Challinor in 2005, shortly after I joined the library staff. She made a special visit to the Schlesinger to meet me—or at least that’s the story she proclaimed as she filled my very large office with her very generous spirit. We had lunch in the Cronkhite Dining Room and discussed many interests that Joan had somehow discovered we held in common. She was the first member of the Library Council I met, and since that very first meeting, I have proudly considered her my friend.

Joan has served on several advisory committees and worked with or supported numerous organizations, many of which are related to libraries and education. She joined the Schlesinger Library Advisory Committee in 1980, served as chair from 1986 through 2001, and was appointed to the Schlesinger Library Council at its founding, in 2003. President Bill Clinton appointed her to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) in 1995, and she was reappointed in 2000. For her work as chairperson of the Bicentenniel of the Treaty of Paris, she received the Medal of the City of Paris from Mayor Jacques Chirac in 1983.

Joan earned a PhD in history from American University with a dissertation that focused on Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams. She has written numerous essays and edited two books—Kin and Communities: Families in America (with Allan J. Lichtman, Smithsonian, 1979,) and Arms at Rest: Peacemaking and Peacekeeping in American History (with Robert L. Beisner, Greenwood Press, 1987). She worked on a project for a documentary film about Thomas Paine. In 1985, she received the American University Distinguished Alumni Award. She has lectured on a wide range of topics, including “Are Libraries as We Know Them Endangered Species in the Internet Era?”

Joan is one of the library’s most committed volunteers and among our most generous supporters, having established or made significant contributions to more than nine endowed funds that support various library endeavors, from manuscript and book acquisitions to the preservation of rare documents. We are tremendously grateful for her continued interest, advice, and generosity.

—Marilyn Dunn
Executive Director and Radcliffe Institute Librarian