Hirsch Library History

The Early Years

In 1926, MFAH director James Chillman introduced the idea of building a library at the Museum. He stated that "the purpose of the library was to furnish information for judging the arts." He reported that the library was "proving quite popular—particularly in view of the fact that it is not of a circulating character. Almost any bright day there may be found a generous sprinkling of readers—housewives, professionals, and Rice Institute students" (Post Dispatch, January 22, 1928).

The library was situated in the basement of the west wing of the Museum, and furnished with Windsor chairs and a single reading table. In the beginning, the Museum's registrar, Edward Mayo, served as the library curator. The public participated in a fund drive for money for books to start the library's collection. After that, the library had its own budget within the MFAH budget. In 1964, the Museum hired its first professionally trained librarian, Debra Neu.

By the 1970s, the library's collection had outgrown its space. In 1974, a new area for the library was created in the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe addition to the MFAH. The modern, spacious reading room was welcoming to the staff as well as the public. The view from the reading room onto the Alice Pratt Brown Garden attracted visitors who found a quiet place to read, research, and browse the art periodicals.


Maurice and Winifred Hirsch

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In September of 1981, an endowment was established for the library by two longtime Museum supporters: General Maurice and Winifred Busby Hirsch.

This generous bequest was designated to be used for "the maintenance, repair, and embellishment of the present or subsequently substituted premises of the Museum library and for the purchase of fixtures, furnishings, books, manuscripts, book illustrations, periodicals, appropriate art objects, and any other use pertinent to a museum library" (letter from Maurice Hirsch to the chairman of the Board of Trustees, September 23, 1981).

The library was named the Hirsch Library that year, as a lasting tribute to these two patrons.

The Hirsch family had been involved with the MFAH since it opened in 1924. General Hirsch's father, Jules Hirsch, was an early contributor to the Museum building fund that year. In 1947, Maurice and Winifred were married and became active participants as a couple in the city's cultural life. In the early 1950s they carried on the family's support of the Museum with generous financial contributions and donations of works of art to the MFAH art collections. The Hirsches traveled the world many times, and during a trip to Egypt in 1952, they bought several Egyptian art objects for the Museum.

Maurice became a Museum trustee in 1960. Winifred played an active role in the Museum's auxiliary and volunteer groups, and in 1954 and 1955 she was the first chair of the "Art Cart" program that took works of art from the Museum to Houston's Veterans Administration Hospital. The most treasured of the Hirsches' gifts to the Museum is an outstanding Greek vase, or hydria, created circa 470–460 BC by the Painter of the Yale Oinochoe. This lovely black vase depicts scenes of daily life painted in red.

Maurice died during a trip to Hong Kong in 1983, after a lifetime of work as a lawyer and philanthropist. Winifred continued to actively support the Hirsch Library until her death in 1990. She bequeathed her jewelry collection to the library, and its 1991 sale at Christie's in New York added significantly to the endowment.


Hirsch Library Renovation and Expansion

By 1989, the library's stacks were overflowing. A renovation in September of that year added high-density compact shelving and reduced the number of periodicals in storage, enabling the library collection to double in size. This measure was temporary, however, with a plan for an expansion of the library scheduled to coincide with the opening of the Museum's Audrey Jones Beck Building in 2000.

In 1991, the library introduced the first computerized resources. The Art Index on CD-ROM greatly simplified searching for citations to art periodicals. Meanwhile, the plan for an online system was in the works. The first step was to convert the old card catalog to machine-readable form. Using the national bibliographic database Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), matching records were found, and the Hirsch Library’s holding symbols were added. The conversion process was completed in 1996, so that when a library system was purchased, the Hirsch records could be extracted from the union catalog, and loaded into the local system. The new system, Endeavor’s Voyager, was purchased in 1998, and by the time the curators moved into the new offices in 1999, the online catalog put the library’s holdings at their fingertips.

In the fall of 2000, a renovation of the Hirsch Library began that would significantly increase its physical size—from 3,900 to 8,400 square feet. The Library opened to the public in May of 2001 with an enlarged reading room on the main floor, and a downstairs area housing the main stacks, vertical files, rare-book collection, and cataloging offices. The original space on the main floor was redesigned to incorporate an electronic resources room, an expanded current periodicals area, and work space for the library staff.


Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center at Bayou Bend

Shortly after the completion of the Hirsch Library’s new facility in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison caused significant damage at Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, necessitating the temporary relocation of 5,000 books and periodicals from the library at Bayou Bend to the Hirsch Library at the MFAH.

In September of 2010, the completion of Bayou Bend's Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center and the establishment of the newly named Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center enabled the return of the Bayou Bend library and Hogg Family Collections to their proper home. Now staffed with its own librarian and library assistant, the Powell Library is available to the general public, docents, and staff in a location only a short walk from the actual artworks and artifacts on display at Bayou Bend. Kitty King Powell’s support of this library facility reflects her love of libraries and her years of service as a Bayou Bend docent.


Today

The Hirsch and Powell libraries are used not only by MFAH staff, but also by art-history students, art collectors, dealers and appraisers, curators from neighboring museums, and MFAH visitors who stop in to find out more about the works of art on display. Queries also come to the libraries via e-mail and telephone. The libraries provide a variety of services, including in-depth reference assistance; bibliographic instruction sessions for universities, teachers, and docents; and interdepartmental loans to MFAH staff. Educating researchers about the most-effective use of print and online resources continues to be an ongoing endeavor.

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