Celebrating the Career of Chris Edmonson

Submitted by Heather Saunders on

This week, we bid farewell to Reference Librarian, Chris Edmonson, who retires after holding various positions since 1981 at the Ingalls Library. She has been Reference Librarian since 2008.

Like many in the profession, Edmonson fell into being a librarian. As a student of art history at the University of Delaware, she spent summers working at the library, but it was always her intention to follow the museum studies field with an eye to being a registrar.

Edmonson’s first professional position in art librarianship was at the Winterthur Museum, which has the largest collection of American decorative arts. As Library Assistant from 1974 to 1978 and Assistant to the Manuscript Librarian at the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscript Material from 1979 to 1981, she engaged with the collection directly. She recalls getting down on her knees to count the warp and weft of textiles with a colleague. “It was such an intimate place to start my library career,” she says. Plus, it was fascinating to her, because the collection revealed how Americans lived. Prior to working at the Winterthur Museum, her taste in art was more narrow, with a strong preference for British painting—especially the pre-Raphaelites. It was at the Winterthur Museum that Edmonson developed her “long-lasting love of decorative arts.” Now, she considers herself a generalist.

Another experience that expanded her taste in, and knowledge of, art was a year spent in France with her husband, Jim, from 1978 to 1979. As a member of the American Library in Paris, she was able to study French furniture and visit the many museum collections open to visitors. Interestingly, at the Louvre, she saw a retrospective exhibition of work by Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), and noticed that two of the works featured were from the CMA; reflecting on that memory, Edmonson says she never imagined that she “...would spend most of my [her] adult life working there.” Also in France, she studied at the Institut de Langue et de Culture Françaises, Institut Catholique de Paris. Doing so would later prove valuable when assisting with in-depth research for exhibitions like Gauguin: Paris, 1889 (2009-10), co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum. Working closely with now Chief Curator Heather Lemonedes on details ranging from the preparation of audio guides about Gauguin to tracking down an obscure Exposition Universelle poster featuring Gauguin and eight other artists, is a personal highlight from her time at the CMA. Her supervisor, Lou Adrean, Head, Research and Programs, comments, “...Chris has been instrumental in guiding and shaping the reference/research services provided by the library. There is hardly an exhibition or publication in which she has not played a major role.” Of this role, Edmonson says, “It’s just been such a joy!”

Her tenure at the Ingalls Library began with reference work on Wednesday evenings. At the time, the library was only open to the public one day a week, so schools like Kent State University brought students by bus to take advantage. She recalls football players in tears, who had assumed mistakenly that art history would be a ‘bird course.’ Edmonson remarks, “People often say, ‘Sorry to bother you,’ but they shouldn’t feel that way.” She says she knows how they feel: if you don’t use a library every day, it can be confusing. Therefore, Edmonson is fine with helping someone six times over for the same need. Her qualities of empathy and patience combined with her subject-specific knowledge make her a fitting addition to the Joint Program in Art History and Museum Studies with Case Western Reserve University. She has been an adjunct faculty member with CWRU since 2015, and she has taught information literacy and library orientation sessions for their students since 2013.

To her list of attributes, her colleagues add generosity. Cataloging/ Reference Assistant Stacie Murry says that Edmonson “...bends over backwards to find...information....I’ve never seen anyone so happy to help people find information....She is so generous.” Collection Development and Management Services Assistant Marsha Morrow says, “Chris has a thirst for knowledge, a love of art and art history, and a willingness to share these passions. I will be forever grateful to her for sharing those passions with me.”

When asked how the library profession has changed, Edmonson says, “[I]t has truly become international,” from interlibrary loan traversing borders to the worldwide sharing of catalog records and more through OCLC. Technology has been a game-changer. She cites as examples her receipt of a digital photo of prints from the Louvre and her sending of a digital photo of an auction catalog excerpt to Christie’s in London—tasks that would have been costly and taken up to eight weeks in the past. The connectedness “...is the biggest change of all....We never thought the world would work that way.”

When asked what she’ll miss most, Edmonson’s second answer was the challenges of contending with the printed word. Her first answer was, “Mostly I’ll miss the people,” who have become like family to Edmonson. Because her own family expanded recently (Edmonson is a newly minted grandmother), she looks forward to the next stage of life. She insists that she will be “at the beck and call” of her granddaughter, whose only competition for Edmonson’s time appears to be the forthcoming show, The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, co-organized with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Edmonson hopes to be in attendance practically on a daily basis, so we look forward to seeing her again soon!