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Maud Sullivan Made El Paso Public Library a Cultural Center
Article first published in Vol. 28, 2010.
By Raul Bardales Jr., Eileen Marzullo, Heather Coons and Ruth Vise
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Erudition need not be dull,” so stated librarian Maud Durlin Sullivan, whose dedication and service for almost 30 years gave the El Paso Public Library a national reputation. Speaking to the Woman’s Club in October 1936, Sullivan said, “One of the greatest privileges we have in this country is freedom to read good books.”
Maud Durlin was born Dec. 7, 1872, in Ripon, Wis., to Fayette Durlin and Annie Root Durlin. Like her siblings and neighborhood children, she was home schooled by her father, an Episcopal rector, and by the occasional tutor. The elder Durlin owned an extensive collection of leather-bound first-edition books on which Maud “cut her teeth.”
Image caption: This photograph of Maud Durlin (Sullivan) at age 20 shows her in her first formal ball gown of pink satin. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Library)
The Durlin family moved to Madison, where her father had accepted a rectorship. Maud first experienced formal education by attending Kemper Hall, an Episcopal school, and here she first pursued art and music.
Durlin moved to New York to attend the School of Design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “One of the subjects I took up was heraldry, and I found it fascinating,” she recalled.
Completing her studies and returning to Wisconsin, Durlin opened an art studio in Madison. While on vacation, she was asked to assist the State Historical Library. With her knowledge of design and heraldry, Durlin provided patrons with family trees and accompanying coats of arms. “It’s a peculiar thing how we unconsciously prepare ourselves for our life work, in everything we do,” she once told the El Paso Herald-Post.
Knowing that a career in books was more promising than a career in art, Durlin returned to New York to study at the Pratt Library School. After graduation, she served as head librarian at the Oshkosh Public Library in Wisconsin.
In August 1908, Durlin moved to El Paso to succeed Clara Mulliken as librarian for the El Paso Public Library. While working, she met a witty Irishman by the name of John Kevin Sullivan and in 1912, the couple married at St. Clement’s Church.
According to an article by her good friend Betty Mary Goetting in Password , the El Paso County Historical Society’s journal, Maud’s marriage at age 40 to the Harvard-educated mining engineer was “amazingly romantic.” To be with her husband, she resigned from the library and moved to the Mogollon Mountains in New Mexico, located deep in the Gila National Wilderness.
For five years, this sophisticated, refined woman made a tent her home. Goetting described the interior of Sullivan’s tent house as quite charming, but no less rugged, with books mingled amongst sunlit wildflowers and china coffee cups and the front flaps of the tent drawn back to reveal the “majestic mountains.” The marriage would last until her husband’s death in 1943.
In 1917, the couple returned to El Paso, and Sullivan began her second tenure with the public library. Over the next 25 years she would transform it to one of the best in the nation, all on a paltry budget. Sullivan increased the number of books and pamphlets available at the library from 17,453 in 1919 to 112,290 in 1940. Thanks to her experience in the mountains and her husband’s work, Sullivan collected mining reference materials that drew engineers from throughout the Southwest.
Sullivan built up an impressive collection of public documents published by the U. S. Government and free to any library. Goetting wrote that Sullivan classified them just like any other library source, and they were easily available in the basement document room. Because of her innovative use of these pamphlets, Sullivan gave a talk to the American Library Association on the use of public documents. Aware of El Paso’s relationship with Mexico and the large Spanish-speaking population in the city, she learned the language and collected more than 2,000 books in Spanish, picking each book herself. Knowing Spanish brought her and El Paso international recognition.
Sullivan also began the library’s comprehensive Southwest Collection, containing a wide variety of materials on the history and culture of the border region. The materials include original manuscripts, like J. Frank Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. Besides books, other materials include drawings, maps, clippings, periodicals, monographs and photographs.
Never losing her love of art, Sullivan made the library a cultural center. Mary A. Sarber, herself a librarian, wrote that Sullivan brought art exhibits to the library through agreements with New York galleries and acquired an impressive collection of art books, prints and musical scores.
Not only did Sullivan fill the library with some of the best collections in the country, but she made it feel like home. With flowers in spring and evergreens in winter, the lobby was inviting, with displays of books, prints and paintings.
Maud Sullivan encouraged local and regional aspiring artists such as Freemont Ellis, Peter Hurd, Tom Lea and José Cisneros. In his tribute to Sullivan presented to the University of California School of Library Service, Lea stated that Sullivan’s “kindness encouraged and stimulated” him. With her sparkling “merry eyes” and “extraordinary grace,” Sullivan sponsored Lea’s first public exhibition at the library while he was still in high school. When he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, he realized that few of his peers were as fortunate to have perused the extensive selection of books on painting as he had in the El Paso library.
She introduced Lea to Carl Hertzog, typographer and book designer, and the two together would produce “the finest books printed in and about the Southwest,” according to Sarber. Sullivan also staged the first exhibit of Cisneros’ work, and he illustrated many books that Hertzog designed. In 1935 because of her efforts in building the art collection, the El Paso library received the Carnegie Art Reference Set consisting of 1,400 prints and 127 art books, worth thousands of dollars, according to Goetting. It was one of two Texas libraries to receive the honor and one of only 30 in the nation. From 1923 to 1925, Sullivan served as president of the Texas Library Association, the first El Pasoan to do so. Founding the association’s bulletin, she served as editor for three years. In 1925, the Library of Congress recognized the El Paso library as one of the country’s best.
That same year, Sullivan used her knowledge of Spanish to study libraries in Mexico City. In May 1928, she represented the Carnegie Foundation of International Peace in conducting tours of major U.S. libraries for six Mexican librarians. Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation in 1932, she went to Puerto Rico to survey their libraries and to teach them to develop small libraries efficiently. The Carnegie Corporation in May 1935 sent Sullivan to the International Congress of Libraries and Bibliography in Spain, where she addressed the Congress in Spanish. Sullivan also traveled to Rome during this time and visited the Vatican Library, including the Barbarini collection, giving her “one of the greatest of the intellectual thrills … in Europe,” according to an El Paso Herald-Post article. Language was no barrier during Sullivan’s travels, as she spoke French as well as English and Spanish.
Kurt Goetting, Sullivan’s godson, recalled in an interview with a student writer that she was “a tall woman who was quiet and direct when you talked with her.” Not surprisingly, Sullivan liked everything done correctly the first time, said Goetting. His mother, Betty Mary Goetting, and Sullivan became great friends, sharing a love of books and motivating children as well as working for women’s rights. Sullivan often spoke on a wide range of topics at functions and clubs, including the El Paso chapter of the American Association of Engineers. She belonged to the Auxiliary to the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers and was a charter and life member of the Archaeological Society which she singlehandedly kept going during the Depression. The Society honored her posthumously in 1974. She was an honorary member of the Woman’s Club and its auxiliary Art Department.
On Dec. 28, 1943, just eight months after the death of her beloved husband, Sullivan died from complications she developed after breaking her ankle. The library closed for two days in her honor. El Paso Herald-Post editor Edward M. Pooley wrote, “The library was outstanding because she made it so. It was her library and for it she poured out her love, her energy and her life.”
The Maud Sullivan room at the library is still used for important gatherings. She believed that any question that arose could be answered by information contained in the public library. Sullivan told the Herald-Post in 1937, “They [librarians] don’t have to know the answers. The secret is to know where the answers may be found.”