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Sunday, March 13, 2016

WOODIN | Finding His Bio in a Library

William H. Woodin,
Secretary of the Treasury, 1933
Where does a biography fit in the book marketplace? I will approach this from three perspectives:
  1. A well-stocked library.
  2. A bricks-and-mortar-bookstore.
  3. Online sources.
Today, I write about the library, using as my example William H. Woodin, whose biography I am writing.

1. A Library

My library research began with browsing in the library of the Society of Genealogists in London and the NY Public Library.

My in-depth research on the book marketplace was at the Indian River County Main Library in Vero Beach, Fla. This is well-stocked, serving an affluent community that values knowledge and culture.  The county's per capita income ranks #7 out of 199 counties in Florida. The Vero Beach 32963 zip code is one of three wealthiest in Florida that include at least 1,000 taxpayers (the other two are Palm Beach and Longboat Key). At the end of the 20th Century, the library was first or second in Florida in per capita attendance at adult programs and new borrowers.

The Genealogy and Local History Room

The genealogical resources at the library have benefited from unusual support:
  • The Julian W. Lowenstein Family in 1985 through a bequest donated towards a new two-story Main Library that opened in 1991.  The much-expanded 2nd floor houses the Florida History and Genealogy Department.
  • Indian River County added significant support of the reference and genealogy departments–in the decade after 1991 the genealogy department quadrupled in size, to 4,000 square feet.
  • The Indian River County Historical Society donated photographs (5,000+) and documents (20+ boxes) to the library's Archive Center, which has more than 35,000 titles, 40,000 microfiches, 11,000 microfilms, nine computers and Wi-Fi.
In the Genealogy room are histories of families and local areas. The books go deep into ancestors and descendants. The local history books often include more than one family and seek to show how the area played its part in the history of the county, state and nation. These books are of huge interest to the families and residents of the local areas, but beyond that they have a limited audience.

I recently reviewed the product of years of research by Edgar Jadwin of his ancestors and relatives, who have played a great part in the maintenance of a strong U.S. military through two, going for three, centuries–his grandfather of the same name was Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1926-29. His book, written over the years with the help of members of the Indian River Genealogical Society, is a good example of the family-history genre. His book is useful and interesting, but because it is produced by a local printer rather than national publisher it is not so accessible to a wider audience. It lacks some of the visual aids and other anchors that help a reader follow a long stretch of time over broad areas of the earth.

I found nothing about Will Woodin in the Genealogy area at the Indian River County Main Library, but I did find information about the two of Will Woodin's three daughters who retired to Vero Beach (Mary Miner and Libby Rowe). I went back a second time only to find that the Genealogy area is closed on Saturday and Sunday (as well as during the lunch hour on weekdays) although the library itself is open these days. I can report that there are paper files only in the New York Public Library, and not much there, and the same is true of the Society of Genealogists in London. The Woodins have been largely forgotten by genealogists catering to the print media, and unfairly so.

I have accumulated more material on Will Woodin's ancestors and descendants than is likely to be of interest to a general reader, but will be of great value to some people. This material might be carved out and published as a print-on-demand book for genealogists and family members.

Biography Shelves

Nothing between Woodhull and Woodruff.
At the Indian River Main Library, biographies are located in huge rows of shelves filed, naturally, by last name of the biographee. A natural market for any book about a person is the biographical shelving.

There is no book about Will Woodin or any other Woodin. The biographies skip from Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States, to Judy Woodruff.

The question will be asked by anyone faced with a missing biography–"Why is he/she important?" The answer would be, for Will Woodin, that (1) he rose in 1928 to become President or Chairman of two of the 20 huge companies that then made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and then (2) he became Treasury Secretary at the most challenging period of American history for its labor and financial markets.

Dual-biography (Kennedy and Roosevelt), and
Multiple Biography (FDR and His Enemies).
Woodin can be found mentioned in passing in biographies of FDR, in comparative/group biographies (e.g., Beschloss's Kennedy and Roosevelt) and in collections of biographies like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, on Lincoln's cabinet.

Of least relevance, he is in theme-neutral collections by geographical area (county, state and nation) or by industry and occupation. The brief biographies of Woodin that appear in many such collections are too short to establish a story beyond a few bare facts.


American History Shelves


Another place the biography might be shelved is in history–American History–especially if the title suggests something other than a conventional biography, by, for example:
  • Going beyond biography, as in FDR and His Enemies. Such a book could show the bravery and loyalty of Woodin in supporting FDR as a Republican deeply entrenched in the New York establishment.
  • Focusing on only one period of a biography, as The Great Depression. Woodin's life naturally falls into two parts. The first might be called Woodin and the Capitalization of the Railway Car Industry, up to 1928. The second could be called FDR and Woodin–The Panic and Calming of 1929-33.
So there is a strategic question for an author and a publisher–does one want to be sold and filed as a biography, as a comparative or collective  biography, or as a study of a period of history built around a biography.

For Will Woodin, my biographee, the easiest approach is to call the book a biography and make that clear in the title: Will Woodin, the Man Who Calmed the Panic, focusing on his last four years, or Will Woodin: From Main Street, Wall Street, White House, which gives a fuller hint of the breadth of the story that Woodin represents. A book devoted to Woodin has the advantage of filling a clear gap, because Woodin has not yet been given a book-length biography.

But from the perspective of the library-book buyer, it might be more interesting to focus on the period of history, as in The Rise and Fall of Financial Capitalism, 1890-1933, which would use Woodin's life as the spine of a narrative showing how (1) In 1890-1928 a middle-sized firm was pumped up into a giant company that in 1928 was one of the 20 index companies in the Dow, and then (2) In 1929-33 the global financial system collapsed, only to be put back on its feet by FDR and Woodin–but too late to prevent the rise of Hitler to his German dictatorship. The second half would include the Glass-Steagall Act and other reforms that were put in place in 1933. A final chapter would swiftly review the unwinding of Grass-Steagall and the financial meltdown of 2008, as a way of underlining the significance of Woodin's achievement.