Orin G. Libby and Elwyn Robinson
I have been editing chapter six of Elwyn Robinon’s autobiography. This chapter describes his arrival in Grand Forks and first years at the University of North Dakota. Robinson works hard to bring to life many of the important figures in the history of the University and the Department of History. None of these figures is more important than Orin G. Libby, the first professional historian at the University.
While the tendency has been to eulogized Libby as the unwavering and clear-eyes proponent of all things right, Robinson provides a more balanced picture on Libby’s scholarship, teaching, and character.
Robinson, of course, brought to fruiting Libby’s work on the history of the state. Robinson traced some awareness of this back to his first days in Grand Forks:
“On the first Sunday we were in Grand Forks, Dr. and Mrs. Libby had us for dinner at their home on South 6th Street… Soon after joining the faculty of the University of North Dakota in 1902 (at age 38), [Libby] revived the defunct State Historical Society and served as its secretary and editor until October 1944, shortly before retirement. His work with the Society was an invaluable contribution to the people of North Dakota and made him a widely known and respected person in the state. He was a person of very considerable force of character, a strong personality. That day Mrs. Libby told us that he was going to write a history of North Dakota.”
He saw in Libby’s sometimes stern demeanor an underlying kindness:
“Dr. Libby, of course, played a very important role in my life during my early years at the university. During the school year I saw him almost daily except for the weekends. By the end of the 1938-39 school year, Dr. Libby was seventy-five and still energetic and vigorous, a strong and alert, white-haired individual. A courteous, kindly man, he tended to be formal and not given to any personal confidences. He addressed his close personal friends with their titles, thus the head of the sociology department whose office had been across the hall from Libby’s for years was not “John” but “Dr. Gillette.” I believe he called me “Mr.” or “Dr.” and Felix the other young member of his department the same way. He was not in the least given to gossip. And he was a stern, forbidding figure to his students. In later years, a returning alumnae would tell me that she had been afraid of him”
Robinson’s respect for Libby and his standing in the community and university did not, however, extend to his teaching:
Dr. Libby wanted Felix [Vondracek] and me to use a question-and-answer method in our survey sections. He believed that if the students had to recite, they would study the text more diligently. Perhaps he was right, but it made for dull, uninteresting classes.
The text in the survey, Dr. Libby’s choice, was a thick book by John Spencer Basset, A Short History of the United States. Bassett, a North Carolinian who had a teaching career at Smith College, had been a distinguished scholar. He had died in 1928, age 61, after writing a fine biography of Andrew Jackson and a volume in the American Nation series and editing many important historical documents for publication. I believe his Short History, originally published about 1913 [actually in 1921 ed.], was for a time the leading college text for American survey course, but in 1935 was hopelessly out of date even though chapters had been added on the history of the years since its original publication….
There was more wrong with the survey as it was taught at the University of North Dakota than an out-dated text and a recitation method more suited to high school. There was no reserve reading program to introduce the students to a variety of source and secondary materials. At [Western] Reserve [University] in the survey, students were assigned excerpts in American History As Told by Contemporaries edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, a star of the Harvard history faculty, in American History as Seen by British Travelers, edited by the famous Allan Nevins, and in a large volume of secondary accounts of economic developments edited by Felix Flügel and Harold U. Faulkner, the well-known economic historian [Readings in the economic and social history of the United States - ed.]. These were great materials, but they were ignored at the University of North Dakota. Moreover, no effort was being made to introduce the students to a rich body of historical biographies and the writings on particular subject. It was a sad state of affairs.”
Such balanced and perspective views are typical of Robinson’s autobiography (and many would say his scholarship).