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Biography of Phyllis Allen Richmond

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sciences
Wordcount: 2560 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Biographical Sketches of Information Science and Library Science Leaders:

Phyllis Allen Richmond


Dr. Phyllis Allen Richmond passed away at age 76 in October of 1997 from complications with Alzheimer’s. She left behind an unparalleled legacy in the theory and practice in classification and laid the groundwork for future scholars to build upon and expand (Williamson, 1999).

Dr. Richmond was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1921, but her early childhood was spent primarily in Rochester, New York (La Barre, 2004). Unfortunately, there exists little documentation of her early childhood and schooling. In young adulthood, she would decide to attend Case Western Reserve University, specifically for Mather College, after learning that she held familial ties with one Elijah Porter Barrows, who had been a professor at the university (La Barre, 2004). This initial dive into scholarship would ultimately light a fire within Dr. Richmond, driving her to pursue higher education.


 Dr. Richmond’s education began at Case Western Reserve University, where she received a Bachelor’s degree of Art in History in 1942 (Williamson, 1999). During her scholarship at CWRU, Richmond wrote “Problems Connected with the Development of the Telescope, 1609-1687”, an essay that earned the Alumnae Association prize and demonstrated her diverse knowledge within the field of history (La Barre, 2004). Following this, she also served a graduate semester at Bryn Mawr before completing her Master’s degree in History (Williamson, 1999). In 1949, she graduated with her Ph. D. from University of Pennsylvania, focusing on history and philosophy of science (La Barre, 2004).

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 It wasn’t until 1952 that Dr. Richmond would begin her studies in librarianship (La Barre, 2004). She would again return to Case Western Reserve University to enroll in classes, and would develop a great connection with the classification discipline (La Barre, 2004). In 1956, she received her M. S. L. S. degree, and chose to end her education to ultimately begin her career of librarianship (Williamson, 1999).


Throughout her education, Dr. Richmond took breaks to further her career. The first was after her graduate semester at Bryn Mawr, beginning in 1943. From 1943 to 1945, Dr. Richmond was a curator of history for the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, a natural step up from her Bachelor of Arts in History (Williamson, 1999).

In 1949, Dr. Richmond received her Ph. D. in history and philosophy of science, which she immediately followed with a position as a research assistant at Johns Hopkins University. It wasn’t until 1952 that Dr. Richmond would enter the field of library science. In 1956, she graduated with her M. S. L. S., though she had already begun her career in librarianship a year prior with a position as a serials cataloger at the University of Rochester (Williamson, 1999).

From 1961, Dr. Richmond served as supervisor for the River Campus Science Libraries, later becoming an information systems specialist there in 1966. This position was one that the University of Rochester created specifically for Dr. Richmond, due to her work in exploring library automation. In the role of information systems specialist, Dr. Richmond oversaw the automation of the University of Rochester Libraries, and it was here that she became distinctly aware of the differing needs of users and funding agencies involved with library automation, as well as the system designers’ lack of insight into these needs in designing these systems (La Barre, 2004).

In 1969, Dr. Richmond moved away from librarianship and into the field of library and information science education, beginning as a visiting professor at Syracuse University in 1969 and then returning to Case Western Reserve in 1970 where she would remain as a member of faculty until her retirement in 1984. During her time at Case Western Reserve, Dr. Richmond most often taught courses in classification and cataloging, providing to her students both the theoretical knowledge on the subject and her own personal experience in the field. Additionally, Dr. Richmond would serve as acting dean twice at Case Western Reserve, once in 1979 and again from 1982-1983. From 1983 to 1984, Dr. Richmond was the appointed dean until she stepped down for her retirement at the end of the academic year. She would return to her professorship in 1986, serving as a visiting professor at Columbia University, before ultimately ending her career (La Barre, 2004; Williamson, 1999).

Major Achievements & Contributions

 Dr. Richmond, throughout her life, was awarded many achievements. Several of these predate her career and studies of librarianship. For example, after receiving her Bachelor’s degree, Richmond was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and, as mentioned previously, she also wrote a paper during her undergraduate studies – “Problems Connected with the Development of the Telescope, 1609-1687” – that received the Alumnae Association prize (La Barre, 2004; Williamson, 1999). After receiving her M. S. L. S., Dr. Richmond was also elected to Beta Phi Mu (Williamson, 1999). In addition to these awards attributed to her academics, Dr. Richmond also received several professional awards. 1968 saw her awarded with the Technical Service Award from the American Documentation Institute, a “predecessor of ASIS” (Williamson, 1999). In 1972 Dr. Richmond became the first woman to be awarded the ASIS Award of Merit, commending her contributions to classification theory and subject analysis (Williamson, 1999). In 1977, the American Library Association (ALA), awarded Dr. Richmond with the Margaret Mann Citation, the highest award available from the association, in recognition of her outstanding work in classification and cataloging and her exceptional teaching of those fields (La Barre, 2004; Williamson, 1999).

 Dr. Richmond’s work as an educator deserves a mention as an important contribution on her part to the field of library and information science. She provided a unique perspective, drawing on her own practical experience within classification and cataloging, to engage her students. She worked to push her students to go farther than they ever expected, to think about the problems of cataloging and classification in new, creative ways (La Barre, 2004).

 It would, of course, be remiss to omit Dr. Richmond’s stellar work and firsthand experience with the process of library automation, a main driving factor in her later work with classification and cataloging. Her position as information systems specialist at the River Campus Science Libraries was created specifically for her and allowed her to oversee the automation of the University of Rochester Libraries. The knowledge she would gain during the automation process greatly influenced her view of the automation process and instructed her on how to improve cataloging and classification for this kind of drastic change (La Barre, 2004).

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 Finally, it is also important to mention Dr. Richmond’s involvement with several library organizations. She was both a Bennet fellow at the University of Pennsylvania from 1948-1949 and an American Council of Learned Societies fellow from 1947-1948 at Cornell University. She was a member of the American Society of Information Science (ASIS) and the American Library Association (ALA), and actively participated in several committees within those organizations. Additionally, Dr. Richmond was an assistant editor for Library Resources and Technical Services. Dr. Richmond also served as the very first chair for the Classification Research Special Interest Group (ASIS CIG/SR), a subgroup of ASIS and a position which labeled her as a true American pioneer in information and documentation science. Dr. Richmond’s work in the Classification Research Special Interest Group was preceded by her membership in the British Classification Research Group (CRG) and her contribution to the Classification Study Research Group (CSRG), and her involvement in these research groups should not be overlooked as they ultimately contributed to her later work within the ASIS CIG/SR (Williamson, 1999).

Works and Publications

By the time of her retirement, Dr. Richmond had written more than 75 articles and a book (Williamson, 1999). Unfortunately, this paper cannot list and synopsize them all, though there are a few that warrant honorable mentions. Perhaps the most important publication to note from Dr. Richmond’s career is her dissertation “American attitudes toward the germ theory of disease, 1860-1880”, published in the Journal of the History of Medicine in 1954 (Tomes, 1997). In this dissertation, Dr. Richmond discusses the evolution and changes of American attitudes toward the germ theory of disease, presenting a detailed account of the process from disinterest, discounting, and direct attacks to ultimate acceptance and practice (Richmond, 1954). This particular article has directly influenced the study of medicine and its history. Nancy Tomes (1997) revisited the arguments presented by Dr. Richmond in her article “American attitudes toward the germ theory of disease: Phyllis Allen Richmond revisited” and discussed the impact Dr. Richmond’s article had upon the medical field and presented a countering argument to Richmond, thereby demonstrating the lasting impact that was left behind by the original paper even as she challenged its assumptions.

Other works by Dr. Richmond that are of particular importance to the fields of classification and cataloging are “The future of generalized systems of classification”, published in 1963, and “Systems evaluation by comparison testing”, published in 1966. The former article discusses special problems that arise within the creation and adaptation of classification systems while the latter discusses the pitfalls of using comparison testing to determine the effectiveness of a system. The main point addressed in both articles is that finding the perfect system is not the goal, rather, that the right system will fulfill the goals it was designed for and that these classification systems will change and adapt as these goals do (Richmond, 1963; 1966).

Another work by Dr. Richmond that deserves a mention is “Cats: An example of concealed classification in subject headings”, published in 1959 (Williamson, 1999). Unfortunately, the article itself is unavailable, but Williamson (1999) synopsizes the article briefly:

“…her article on “Cats: An Example of Concealed Classification in Subject Headings” …reflected not only her pleasure in her beloved cats, Fluffy and Brownie, but also it brought together her knowledge of zoology and the problems of structure in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.” (p. 188)

Articles like this one present a more complete picture of Dr. Richmond, one that perhaps only her students and colleagues remain to tell of. This synthesis of several of her interests serves to demonstrate Dr. Richmond’s humanity as well as her passion for life, her hobbies, and her work.

Interesting Facts

  Dr. Richmond is quoted as saying, after declining to enroll in a new Ph. D. program for library and information science, “Enough, [f]our degrees are enough.” (La Barre, 2004). After receiving a Bachelor’s, Ph. D., and two Master’s degrees, Dr. Richmond devoted her life to the study and education of classification and cataloging. She published many articles and inspired her students to go the extra mile and question the world around them, providing analogies she drew between classification and the rest of the world (Williamson, 1999). An interesting example is presented in Williamson’s (1999) article in memoriam of Dr. Richmond, quoting a question she commonly posed to her Ph. D. students: “There are many kinds of medicine based on different theoretical foundations…[a]ll practicing medicine uses the same materia medica…What are the equivalents in classification and cataloging?”.

 Outside of her passion for education, Dr. Richmond was a unique individual. She held an interest in ham radio, birdwatching, and was an avid philatelist, or stamp collector (La Barre, 2004). She also adored her cats, Fluffy and Brownie, including them within the article “Cats: An Example of Concealed Classification in Subject Headings”, as discussed in the previous section, and demonstrating her love for her work and her hobbies and the overlap between the two aspects of her life (Williamson, 1999).


 Dr. Phyllis Allen Richmond was an exceptional individual, and she left a legacy in the world of library and information science. Her works continue to be a driving force the fields of cataloging and classification, pressing those who follow in her footsteps to think differently about the theory and practice of classification. Dr. Richmond left an enduring legacy as a scholar, educator, and classification pioneer. Undoubtedly, her work will continue to influence library and information science for years to come.



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