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Koch, Theodore Wesley, 1871-1941



Theodore Wesley Koch (pronounced “coke”) was Northwestern University's librarian from 1919 until his death in 1941. During that time he presided over the planning and construction of the Charles Deering Library and fought to keep the library strong during the Great Depression.

Koch was born in Philadelphia on August 4, 1871 to a Pennsylvania Dutch family. His father, William Jefferson Koch was a grain broker. Koch grew up in Philadelphia and studied at Central High School there. He earned his A.B. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 and then a second A.B. and a masters degree in Romance languages from Harvard in 1894. Koch had a great facility for language and studied French, Italian, Spanish, German, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit.

After Harvard he spent five years at the Cornell University Library in Ithaca, New York preparing an annotated catalog of Cornell's extensive Dante collection. When he completed the Dante bibliography, Koch studied for two years at the Collège de France at the University of Paris. He returned to the United States in 1902 as an assistant in the Catalog Division of the Library of Congress. Two years later, in 1904, the University of Michigan hired Koch as an assistant librarian.

Michigan's head librarian, Raymond C. David, retired in 1905, clearing the way for Koch to take his place at the age of 34. He spent the next decade in Ann Arbor, marrying Gertrude Priscilla Humphrey, the librarian of the Lansing Public Library, in 1907. They had one child, Dorothy Alden. According to Edward Kraus, a dean at Michigan, Koch “injected new life” into the library there and secured increased appropriations to fuel its rapid growth. “Indeed it may be said,” the dean wrote, “that he put our library on the map.”

Koch tangled with Michigan administrators, the Board of Regents, and Legislators, however, especially over his campaign for an expensive new library. The dispute ended with Koch's resignation in 1915. A large number of Michigan faculty publicly supported Koch, offering what the Library Journal called a “sweeping and cordial testimony of appreciation,” but the university forced Koch to take a leave of absence with the understanding that he not return. During this debacle Koch developed severe stomach ulcers and entered a sanitarium at Johns Hopkins.

By late 1916, however, Koch was back at the Library of Congress, this time as head of the Order Division. His duties brought him to London, where he observed the British War Library Service's efforts to supply soldiers with books. Impressed, he helped organize a similar American program. To help the cause, he wrote Books in the War: The Romance of Library War Service. Koch also campaigned to restore the destroyed collection of the University of Louvain library in Belgium.

With the war over, and despite the lukewarm endorsement of Michigan, Koch secured the position of University Librarian at Northwestern in September 1919. When he took the helm at the Orrington Lunt Library he found it painfully inadequate, both its collection and the size of the student body having swelled considerably since its construction in 1894. In his first budget report in 1920, Koch complained about low wages for the staff and the resulting high turnover rate, the insufficient size of the book fund, and the generally poor state of affairs. The library's service didn't even measure up to Evanston Public Library, he wrote. He asked for more money and, only five years after being forced out of Michigan for a similar project, even expressed his hope for acquiring a new building in the near future.

This first budget report set a tone that was not to change for the duration of Koch's 22-year Northwestern career. At every opportunity he harped on the library's financial needs and lobbied administrators and donors for more funds. In 1925, Trustee Mark Cresap gently informed Koch that a new building was a “pipe dream.” Koch remained undeterred and by 1927 he had his eye on the estate of Charles Deering. In a letter to William Dyche, he suggested seeking the support of the Deering family for “a splendid living memorial,” in the form of a new library. By 1929 his efforts bore fruit and the Deering family signed on for the library project. Elated, Koch was deeply involved in all stages of the planning and construction for the library, which was dedicated at the end of 1932. He kept up a strong relationship with the Deerings, making numerous visits and maintaining a frequent correspondence.

Koch took great pleasure in building up the new library's collection. He made trips to Europe where he scoured the bookstalls of London and Paris for bargains, delighting in finding fine English calf or French morocco bindings at Depression-era prices. C.B. Roden, the librarian of the Chicago Public Library, recalled traveling with Koch. “In every big city he had friends who knew him,” Roden wrote. “Librarians, booksellers, scholars and antiquarians, in England and Scotland, in France, Germany, Italy - a telephone call from T.W. in any language (and he spoke them all) brought friends posthaste to bestow their hospitality on him.” In 1938 while in pursuit of a collection of several thousand volumes of German literature, Koch staged a back door assault on the home of the donor's ex-wife, who was trying to obstruct the gift. President Walter Scott responded to the tale by writing, “We either have to shoot you for exceeding your authority, or crown you as a hero. The latter seems more agreeable to me, and I am willing to cooperate in taking the necessary step to buy the crown.”

Koch was active outside the library as well. He was a prolific translator and a member of many boards and associations, including the Evanston Public Library, the Chicago Library Club, the American Library Institute and the American Library Association. The French government awarded Koch the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1940. At Northwestern he was notable for his stewardship of the Harris Lecture series, which brought numerous distinguished speakers to campus.

A member of the Caxton Club of Chicago, Koch wrote with knowledge and affection about collecting and living with books (for example, Reading: A Vice or a Virtue? Notes and Adaptations [preface by Walter Dill Scott, Evanston, 1926]); even his translations from German or French were mostly related to the art of book-collecting (The Assembly of Books, translated from the German of Julius R. Haarhaus (1932); Thanks to Books by Stefan Zweig (1929)). Koch also assembled a large collection of bookplates.

Behind these exploits, however, constant financial pressure loomed. Throughout the years of Depression belt-tightening Koch kept up his complaints on behalf of the library. He drew attention to the “very serious” turnover problem in the library staff in 1936, a year in which fourteen assistants had resigned because, he said, of low wages. In 1939 he summed up his frustration, writing, “There remains so much to be done, so many demands to be met, so many avenues of service that we might pursue if we only had the means, that the net result is baffling, bewildering, and discouraging.”

In another frank report, he offered again his ambitious plans for “making the Library a university within itself.” Perhaps recalling Cresap's comments years before, or indeed the Michigan debacle before that, he said, “Well, if it is a dream, please do not rob me of it. I have seen some of my dreams of eighteen yeas ago come true. Why may not the Deering Library building be but a foretaste of still better things to come?”

Koch died on March 23, 1941 at the age of 69. He would have retired on August 31. His ashes were buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor and a memorial book fund was established in his name. The University Library gardens were named in his honor.

His daughter, Dorothy Koch Bestor, remembered Koch as “a man with wide ranging interests, who ran a library pretty damn well, surmounted budget crisis and space crunches, added to the collection of books, increased the circulation… anything and everything that might possibly have a bearing on a better library where more people could get into immediate, direct contact with books.”

Please note, the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan also has extensive holdings of Theodore Wesley Koch's papers. A finding-aid to the Bentley's holdings is located in Box 1, folder1 of this series.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Records of the Biblioteca Femina

Identifier: 9/1/12

These records document the Northwestern University Library's Biblioteca Femina collection of books by women, which was formed in 1933. The records span the years 1932-1973 (with the bulk dating from 1933) and include correspondence between Northwestern librarian Theodore Wesley Koch and feminist/author Grace Thompson Seton, as well as reports and newspaper clippings relating to the collection.

Dates: 1932-1973

Theodore Wesley Koch (1871-1941) Papers

Identifier: 9/1/6

The Theodore Wesley Koch Papers fill three boxes and document Koch's life and work as University Librarian at Northwestern University, 1919-1941. The Papers include biographical materials, correspondence, and publications, but the bulk of the materials relate to Koch's involvement in the design and construction of Northwestern's Charles Deering Library (1933).

Dates: 1894-1980

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Academic libraries--Illinois--Evanston 1
Authors, American--20th century 1