Frank Campbell: An Appreciation of Five Decades of Service

by Rick Witschonke

ANS Head Librarian Francis D. Campbell, who turned sixty-five last year, has decided to retire, effective March 31, after an outstanding career at the Society spanning fifty years—fully one-third of the Society’s existence. Over that period, Frank has made many valuable contributions to the ANS, and he leaves as his legacy the foremost numismatic library in the world and a chair bearing his name.

In 1958, when Frank was in his junior year at Bishop DuBois High School in Washington Heights (Manhattan), two of his neighborhood friends told him about part-time jobs they had gotten working in the photography department at the ANS, and they encouraged Frank to apply for a job as well. As fate would have it, Frank was given the job of library assistant, and thus began his lifelong involvement with numismatic books. After graduating from high school in 1959, Frank was accepted at Fordham University, where he graduated in 1963 with a BS in Communication Arts. Throughout this period, Frank continued his part-time work at the ANS library, and upon graduation, he became a full-time employee. Frank worked under Head Librarian Dick Breaden (whom Frank describes as an “encyclopedic polyglot”) and Breaden’s assistant Geoffrey North. When Breaden left the ANS in 1966, North succeeded him as head librarian, and Frank was promoted to the position of assistant librarian. North was an excellent mentor and friend to Frank. As former Curator Richard Doty put it: “Frank and he [North] respected each other, and they got along extremely well. Geoff was a very gentle, very erudite individual.”

So when North suggested that Frank might benefit from a degree in library science, Frank took his advice, and in 1969 began taking classes at the Queens College School of Library and Information Studies. Frank was an excellent student, maintaining a 4.0 average and becoming a member of the Beta Phi Mu Honor Society. He graduated with a masters degree in library science in 1973. When North retired in 1975, Frank was offered his position, and he became the Society’s head librarian, a position he has held for thirty-three years.

Frank grew up in Washington Heights at a time when the neighborhood was a melting pot of Irish, Italian, Polish, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African American families, and Frank’s friends included most of these ethnic groups. His father worked nights as a subway conductor, and Frank remembers that his clothes were always pressed and his cap shined as he went off to work. Frank has three sisters, all of them older. At the age of twelve, Frank was riding on a bike with a friend when they were hit by a bus. Frank was severely injured and remained in a coma for eleven days. He eventually recovered, but had to wear a brace on his leg for some time afterward. This perhaps explains why Frank never joined the excellent track team at Bishop DuBois High School, which he entered the following year. Instead, he turned more toward bookish pursuits, foreshadowing his ultimate choice of career. During this period, Frank became friends with an old gentleman who raised pigeons in a coop on the top of a garage on 168th Street. He would lure stray pigeons to his roof, then catch and sell them. Frank was fascinated, and he constructed a coop of his own inside the window of the second bathroom in his parents’ apartment, where he raised homing pigeons. Geoff North learned of Frank’s hobby and volunteered to take some of Frank’s pigeons with him when he vacationed in Vermont, then release them, so they could return to Frank’s apartment. Several times, Frank brought his pigeons to the ANS library and kept them there until North departed. Frank promises no feathers ended up in the books! In the mid-1960s, Frank was infected with wanderlust and hitchhiked to Los Angeles and later to Newfoundland. In the 1970s, Frank’s love of birds took him on Audubon Society birdwatching tours to South America and the Galapagos Islands.


Left: Frank camping, c. 1960s; Center: Frank in 1964 (photo by Joe Garcia); Right: Frank at the ANS library, c. 1970s.

About this time Frank first met his future wife, Rosa. She had immigrated from Puerto Rico in 1971 and was working at the Centro Esperanza, a community-services organization affiliated with Our Lady of Esperanza Church. Frank had always been a member of the church, and had even served as an altar boy. In 1970, he had become a member of the board of the Centro Esperanza, and through that position he met Rosa. In 1978, Frank moved into a wonderful bachelor apartment in Riverdale, with a fireplace and a lovely view of the Hudson. Frank and Rosa continued to date, and they married in 1984. In 1987, their son Geoffrey was born, named after Frank’s mentor and friend Geoffrey North. Geoff Campbell is now a junior at SUNY Binghamton, where he is one of the stars on the track team; during vacations, he often helps out at the ANS. And Rosa continues to work in the health services field. In 1993, Frank and Rosa purchased a home in Irvington, New York, where they currently reside.

When Frank took over as head librarian in 1975, the ANS already had a formidable numismatic library and a clear commitment to continued growth. However, parts of the library were in need of a major overhaul, and the entire record-keeping system was paper-based, employing a three-by-five-card catalogue of the library’s holdings as the primary means of searching for specific books or articles (as did most other libraries at the time). Short of visiting the Society and consulting the card catalogue itself, the only way the public could access the ANS library holdings was through the massive Dictionary Catalogue, which was basically a printed photocopy of the card catalogue.

Frank, of course, had extensive direct experience in cataloging numismatic works at the ANS, and he had also written reviews for ANS Numismatic Literature and the Library Journal. As early as 1970, he had prepared a report outlining the needs and future direction of the library. Over the years, the ANS had developed an excellent subject heading list tailored to a numismatic library. And the ANS, unlike most libraries, cataloged not only books but individual journal articles by author, title, and subject, providing a powerful search tool for scholars. But the subject heading list needed updating, so, in 1978, the ANS applied for and was awarded the first of three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make the list compatible with the Library of Congress cataloging system. The initiative finally concluded in 1987, with the production of the definitive “List of Subject Headings for Specialized Collections in Numismatics,” which ultimately included nearly 20,000 items. Throughout this period, the ANS had also been updating its card catalogue to conform to the revised subject headings, and this involved the modification of 75,000 cards. Given the fact that all of the library’s systems were paper based, it is not surprising that the entire project took a decade to complete. In 1991, Frank presented a paper summarizing the project and introducing the subject list at the Brussels International Numismatic Congress.

Leslie Elam, former ANS Executive Director, summarized the project this way: “Frank was forward-looking enough to see the need not only for standardized terminology but also for an integrated reference system that would provide detailed guidance to librarians preparing subject entries in the future.”

In 1983, while the subject-heading project was still in progress, the ANS engaged a consultant to design an automated system to replace all of the manual procedures employed at the time. By 1985, various automation options were being considered, and the ANS implemented a software package to assist with the subject-heading project. In 1997, a test group of library-catalogue entries was made available on the Society’s Web site, and by 2000, the entire card catalogue had been converted to a searchable database and made available online.

The driving force behind the Society’s automation initiatives was Harry Bass, ANS President from 1978 to 1984, and, while working together, a real bond of friendship formed between Frank and Harry. Even before his presidency, Bass showed a keen interest in the Society’s library. In 1970, Frank attended an American Library Association convention in Dallas: “When Harry heard I was heading his way, he extended a warm invitation to visit his home and inspect his library. He called his library the ‘Sanctum Sanctorum,’ and it was quite a treat for a then young librarian to be given a personal tour by Harry Bass. The year following my trip to Dallas, Harry established the Bass Library Fund, the income from which has been used ever since for library acquisitions.”

Frank was struck by the contrast in their backgrounds: the sophisticated billionaire Texas oil executive and the kid from Washington Heights who grew up with “doowop” music and stickball. Just as Breaden and North had done when Frank first joined the Society, Bass befriended, encouraged, and challenged Frank. Bass even joined Frank and Rosa at their apartment for dinner one evening, and this meant a lot to Frank. As Doty puts it: “Frank Campbell and he [Bass] hit it off marvelously. Frank is a national treasure, he really is. And Harry, who also knew good books and publications, those two were very, very close.”

In addition to his library duties, Frank has also found time to help other organizations and to share his knowledge through publication. For example, in 1985, Frank served as chairman of the New York City Museums Council. Also in 1985, his important article “Numismatic Bibliography and Libraries” was published in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science and later reissued in booklet form. In 1992, a report on the Libraries and Bibliography Roundtable, which Frank had chaired at the Brussels Congress, was published in the Revue Belge de Numismatique et de Sigillographie. That same year, Frank served as a consultant to the Art and Architecture Thesaurus Program, sponsored by the Getty Art History Information Project.

During his tenure as head librarian, Frank has also been instrumental in bringing many important acquisitions to the library, both through donation and purchase. These include the David Bullowa library; the many manuscripts relating to early American coinage given by Joe Lasser; the Newcomb, Clapp, and Hines correspondence; the Brand inventory and papers; the Garrett archives; the Norweb collection inventory; the New Netherlands archives; the Mickley diary; the Zerbe correspondence; the many early numismatic books donated by Jonathan Kagan; the Kunz letters; and the Chapman bid books and correspondence.

Frank’s many accomplishments and contributions to the development of the ANS library are clearly impressive. But perhaps his most important legacy lies in the many scholars and numismatic researchers whom he has helped over his long career. If one could list all of the numismatic publications that have benefited from the assistance that Frank provided their authors, it would undoubtedly number in the thousands. Frank’s knowledge of numismatic literature is encyclopedic, and he is always ready to answer questions or suggest a source that might be useful. Frank summarized the satisfaction he feels this way: “They’ve all come here and done research, both in the coin collection and the library. It’s very pleasing to see the Society’s library and its collection mentioned in the acknowledgements of the books these people publish…. You know the author; you have a feel for the person, and very often you have an informal, first-name relationship with the person. And that just adds to the pleasure of working in this kind of environment.

“I look at my career as one where I’ve gained much more knowledge from the people who’ve come here, because they’re all specialists within a specialized field; they bring knowledge that you didn’t have previously. And you build on that. And eventually you have that knowledge, and people think you’ve had it from time immemorial, and they credit you for it. But it’s an exchange that goes on, between the clientele and the staff of a museum.

“I am very lucky. I’ve met a lot of good people through this institution, and they’ve been very supportive and given me a lot. They’ll always say ‘oh, he’s given me this’ and ‘he’s helped me with that.’ But I think I’ve gotten more from them than they got from me.”

I suspect that most of Frank’s many friends and colleagues would disagree. And we will all certainly miss him greatly.

(Thanks are due to ANS Archivist Joe Ciccone and Photographer Alan Roche for their assistance in preparing this article.)