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Lee H. Williams – In Memoriam

Lee H. Williams [1921 – 2017]

A long-time SALALM member active on various committees, mentor to those entering the organization, and superb collection curator died 24 May at his residence in Fort Myers, Florida. Born in Madison County, Georgia, he escaped the South for Seattle and the University of Washington where he received a BA in Spanish in 1947 after an interlude with the US Army on the Italian front from 1942 – 1945. Seattle’s rains proved motivating enough to accept his first professional position with the US Department of State and its Consulate General in Alexandria, Egypt. His service at a time of increasing civilian and military unrest given King Farouk’s sharply declining popularity and rising Arab nationalism under Gamal Abdel Nasser ended in 1952 with the military coup. Those years proved instrumental in Lee’s understanding of popular dissent, government corruption especially among political and business leaders, and the role of the military in society. Exposure to and implications of US government meddling in the affairs of sovereign states also was a legacy to follow him throughout his career as a Latin American specialist.

Upon return to the US, he enrolled in Columbia University’s MSLS program and graduated in 1954. His library career began at Wesleyan University where he gained experience in acquisitions, rare book cataloging and finally as the head cataloguer before departing in mid-1960 for the Universidad de Puerto Rico – Río Piedras as director of technical services in charge of cataloging, acquisitions, binding and photoduplication. After nearly four years of tropical weather and daunting bureaucracy, Lee toughen sufficiently to handle the State University of New York at Stony Brook where he was the director of technical services until fall 1967. These years of library experience proved critical for his next move: Yale University as Curator of the Latin American Collection where he served until July 1986. Bringing extensive managerial, supervisory and technical experience along with subject knowledge to this new role made him ideal for overseeing one of the country’s foremost efforts in developing a Latin American research collection. Respected by catalogers and administrators because he knew their expectations and proclivities, his unrelenting efforts to secure unique documentation as well as all available imprints of research potential enabled the collections to become even more distinguished, and often unique in depth and extent for the countries and topics of concern to Yale.

In 1970, I met Lee at my first SALALM conference [the 15th] in Toronto. Consistent and reliable acquisitions remained a problem for the area, and more bibliographers were aware that the Latin American Cooperative Acquisition Program [LACAP] required major efforts to supplement those acquisitions and specifically to locate reliable book dealers within Latin America able to expand their business to North American libraries. Acquisition trips became essential not only to assure a steady flow of new and old publications to research collections, but also to gain an edge over competing collections for it was an era of intense rivalry among the leading libraries and their bibliographers. Lee was generous to a younger generation of bibliographers and during acquisition trips with him to Mexico, Chile and Argentina I honed my expertise in this important facet of professional work.

Much of Lee’s success and admiration for his steadfast efforts stem from his voracious capacity to read widely and with great understanding, fitting together historic and contemporary trends into overriding principles to guide in the selection of materials. For many of his Yale years brutal military dictatorships ruled, and where they didn’t, often non-democratic kleptocracies did, so the challenge was documenting as many aspects of those experiences as possible, always with an eye to the backward linkages and potential of acquiring major collections of earlier imprints. Cuba held special interest for documenting the Revolution’s successes and failures as well as Chile under Allende and later the grim years of Pinochet. Throughout all this he gained and held the respect of Latin American book dealers as true partners in the efforts to provide future generations as strong a representation as possible of the thoughts and actions by the women and men, prominent and humble, who shaped the society and histories of the Americas. All this he accomplished with clarity and humor and an unwavering focus on detail that garnered the respect of scholars, faculty and graduate students, as well as his SALALM colleagues. His legacy are Yale’s great collections, enduring friendships and mentees.

Peter T. Johnson
SALALM Treasurer

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