17 January 2009

Former Special Collection's Librarian Gives Talk at NMGS Meeting

Joe Sabatini

Librarians and rioters: two types of people that you wouldn’t think would mix well together. And actually, they don’t. However, Joe Sabatini was able to discuss both types of people in his presentation “Genealogical Ramblings and Cross Cultural Adventures”. The program was put on by the New Mexico Genealogical Society on Saturday, January 17, 2009 at the Albuquerque Special Collections Library.

Sabatini is the former branch manager of the Albuquerque Special Collections Library. We invited him to speak to our organization about his experiences in the library system. He has had plenty of experience, too. He had worked in New Mexican libraries for 41 years, many of those years in Albuquerque. He was a librarian at the University of New Mexico Law Library from 1968 – 1973, and then was the head of reference and then head of the main Albuquerque city library until June, 2000. From 2000 – 2008 he worked at the Special Collections Library.

Joe began his presentation by giving his own genealogy. He admitted that it was very limited, going back only a couple of generations. His father’s family was Italian. His mother was a Sephardic Jew. Her ancestors were exiled from Spain after 1492 and lived in the Ottoman Empire. Joe explained that his mother spoke a different type of Spanish: one that could be easily understood by Northern New Mexicans, but not well understood by others. As we know, Northern New Mexicans were isolated from Spain and Mexico for hundreds of years and tend to retain 16th Century Spanish words and phrases. Apparently Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire had the same type of isolation from mainstream Spanish and therefore also kept the old language.

Joe also talked about the building that houses the Special Collections Library. When he began working there in 1973, it was the main library. At the time, it was too small to serve the city’s main library. In 1975, a new Main Library was built that five times the size of the old. The city shut down the old library to the chagrin of the heirs of the couple that donated the building. According to the will of the family that donated the building to the city it was supposed to be used in perpetuity as a library, or else revert back to the estate. The heirs threatened to tear down the building unless it was used as a library again. The city agreed and reopened it, eventually turning it into a genealogy library.

In 2001, the city celebrated the centennial of its library system. Joe was given the task of researching the history of one of the library’s enigmatic librarians: Stella Dixon. Mrs. Dixon was the librarian from 1918 – 1935. At the end of her career, she was forced out as librarian by a group of angry female activists. They believed that she was responsible for the poor condition of the library’s collection. At the time the library had only 200 children’s books. However, Joe believes that it wasn't her fault for the condition of the library. The library had been under budget constraits, mostly due to uncollectible overdue book fines.

Joe Sabatini displaying photos of Stella Dixon
Joe received these photos from Dixon's granddaughters just two months before doing his display.

Joe shared some of the displays that he put on for the library. These included presentations on Route 66, Ernie Pyle’s papers, and local postcards. For the postcard presentation, Joe was able make copies of over 2,000 postcards that had been donated by very enthusiastic local postacard collector’s club. He ended up using only 700 postcards in his display.

Joe ended his presentation by discussing what he described as the “John Houser Riot”. John Houser is an artist who created a sculpture of conquistador don Juan de Oñate. Native American groups found this sculpture in bad taste because of Juan de Oñate’s alleged and actual abuses of conquered Indians. Houser had allowed protesters to stand behind him while he was giving a presentation at the library. Joe Sabatini tried to keep the crowd under control, disbuting the library's code of conduct to the protestors. However, Joe said that once the discussion turned to the conquistador's legacy, the protesters became unruly and he had to throw them out. For our presentation today, Joe displayed a few of the protestors' signs that he had collected for the library’s archives.

Joe Sabatini displaying protestor sign from the "John Houser Riot"

Joe Sabatini’s talk was very informative and entertaining. He gave a good history of the library under his care. The New Mexico Genealogical Society is very appreciative of Joe's tenure with the library and we were glad to see him once again within its doors. Thank you, Joe.

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