The Death of Phyllis Cutler

To the Williams community,

Williams mourns the death of College Librarian, Emerita, Phyllis Cutler, who passed away on March 5 at the age of 95.

Born in Boston, the daughter of the late Louis and Sadie Nanes, Phyllis earned her B.A. in biology from Harvard in 1962 and planned to become an anthropologist. She later changed her mind, in part due to the complications of pursuing research study while raising children. She was drawn to library sciences after hearing the dean of Simmons College’s School of Librarianship and Information Science remark, on the radio, that “libraries needed to attract good people from a wide variety of backgrounds.” She heeded the call, and completed her M.L.S. at Simmons in 1964.

From Simmons, Phyllis moved to the Newton (MA) Free Library, where she was supervisor of adult services and then to the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Her academic career began in 1971, when she joined Brandeis University as a science librarian, then was promoted to assistant university librarian in 1974. One of her major accomplishments there was creation of a unified science library, an experience that became highly relevant to her work at Williams. During this time she was also steadily building a national reputation through leadership roles in the American Library Association and her presentations at major conferences.

It was from Brandeis that Phyllis moved to Williams in 1982, hired as the new College Librarian, succeeding Lawrence Wikander. Judith Allen, who was Assistant to the President (Chandler) for Affirmative Action and Government Relations, said in the hiring announcement, “By the time we narrowed down the field to a few final candidates it was obvious that they were all extremely competent and well qualified for the position. As we spoke with faculty members at Brandeis, and the people who worked with Cutler, we got a picture of her as a person who carries out her job efficiently and professionally and is admired as a wonderful and decent human being.”

In the years from 1982 until her retirement in 1998, Phyllis introduced many innovations and changes that contributed to the excellence of our libraries, which today are among the finest at any liberal arts college in the country. She expanded our collection from 530,000 to 800,000 physical titles, oversaw completion of the Sawyer renovation and guided the design of Schow Science Library, which unified the collections from disparate departmental libraries.

Former head of the Schow Library, Helena Warburg, says, “Phyllis was a great supporter of her staff. At the monthly lunch meetings she convened, all the librarians discussed current trends in librarianship and developed collegial working relationships with staff from other library departments.”

Those collaborations helped Phyllis introduce major advances in technology. In 1998 the Williams library newsletter ran a tribute entitled, “Cutler Leaves Very Different Library,” which notes:

When Phyllis Cutler arrived at Williams, the closest Sawyer had gotten to technological innovation was the electric typewriter and a single computer workstation in the cataloging department. Imagine Sawyer without video facilities (or videos), public computer workstations, electronic indexes, or even an online catalog… Among other achievements, Phyllis managed the development and integration of our automated systems, including the online catalog, FRANCIS (named after President Emeritus Francis C. Oakley), a circulation system that keeps track of every item in the Library collections, and an interlibrary loan system that brings to Williams resources from around the globe and makes sharing material cost-effective. Phyllis is also responsible for planning and installing the first electronic classroom on campus.”

Massachusetts Professor of Humanities, Emerita, Susan Dunn formed a close friendship with Phyllis that continued right up until Phyllis’s death. Susan writes, “at the Sawyer Library, Phyllis was a pioneer for change. When she introduced the first library security system—magnetic strips hidden in books—she met with surprising resistance. I remember that some people objected that such a system was unnecessary and insulting because our students were honest and didn’t steal books. Some years later, Phyllis met with some skepticism as well as separation anxiety when she cast away the ancient card catalog and replaced it with the first online system. We take for granted our access to amazing online resources, but that access at Williams was forged by Phyllis.”

Phyllis maintained that forward-looking attitude right up until her retirement. A few months before she stepped down she gave a faculty lecture entitled, “The Scholarly Journal: Whence and Whither,” which surveyed the history of scientific journals from the 17th century to the present, including the impact of rapid scientific advances in the modern era, the growing role of commercial publishers and the advent of new publishing technologies.

When asked at her retirement what future she foresaw for academic libraries, Phyllis answered that librarians would become ever more important, “to help scholars find useful knowledge in the deluge of unverified electronic information that may be used in combination with the record of human history found in the library’s paper collection. The librarian’s role as knowledge professional and facilitator will be more crucial in the years to come.”

Phyllis is survived by children Lewis (Frances), Neal and Jonathan (J.R. Dreyer) and by grandchild Samuel Cutler. She was preceded in death by her husband, Maxwell (Manny) Cutler, and siblings Paul Nanes, Marion Zall, Rose Karp, Silvia Handelman and David Nanes.

A funeral service was held in March. In lieu of flowers, the family invites donations in Phyllis’s memory to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Our thoughts are with Phyllis’ loved ones, friends and former colleagues.