Sincerely Yours: How Cecil Got His Gun

Cecil K. Byrd (1913-1997) was a longtime librarian and faculty member at Indiana University. He served as Curator of Special Collections (1942-1946), Assistant Director of Libraries (1946-1949), Associate Director of Libraries (1949-1964), University Librarian (1964-1972), and finally professor and librarian emeritus at the Lilly Library (1980-1997).

Air mail envelope addressed to Dr. Robert A. Miller from C. K. Byrd
Air mail envelope from Cecil K. Byrd’s wartime correspondence with Robert Miller, June 1944.

Cecil K. Byrd (M.A. 1938, Ph.D. 1942, History, Indiana University) landed a plum job at IU as Curator of Special Collections upon his graduation, but his career was soon interrupted by the entrance of the United States into World War II. Byrd left the university for service in the U.S. Navy in April 1943, not long after an important IU special collections milestone– the donation of the Oakleaf collection on Abraham Lincoln, which Byrd cataloged, and the opening of the library’s Lincoln room (then located in Franklin Hall).

Photograph of Cecil K. Byrd and three scholars in the Lincoln Room at its dedication on February 13, 1943.
Lincoln Scholars at Lincoln Room Dedication, February 13, 1943. Cecil K. Byrd is the second from the right.

During his wartime service as a ship’s navigator, Byrd corresponded with IU Libraries Director Robert Miller, who kept him up to date with campus affairs. In return, Byrd shared some of his experiences as well as his eagerness to get back to his beloved job (“I would give my share of paradise to be sitting on my thin bottom in that red chair in Rare books and attending an auction now and again!”). One of Byrd’s more entertaining anecdotes appears in a June 23, 1944 letter, written while Byrd’s ship was stationed in France on transport duty. It concerns the requisitioning of a machine gun that he just had to have, not for himself, of course, but for Lincoln:

“Visited a German ammunition dump that had been evacuated a few hours before. Mindful of the Rare Book section, I selected a machine gun that in some mystical way had been connected with Lincoln for a souvenir. Pulled and groaned with the thing many miles and had nearly reached the ship when I was hailed by a British M.P. who wanted to know what I was doing with one of his Majesty’s guns. I gave him my little song and dance and “for Lincoln” he let me take it aboard. But I was so disappointed that it wasn’t German that I gave it to the mess boy with the story that I captured it alone and unarmed.”

Byrd’s mock-curatorial escapade was not the end of his exploits abroad in the name of the IU Libraries. During a stopover in England, he used coupons to procure “enough Harris tweed…to make myself a suit and topcoat” (stereotypical mid-century librarian wear?) and offered to buy additional cloth for Miller:

“Don’t know whether you like tweed or not. I’ve bought enough Harris tweed in Eng. to make myself a suit and topcoat. It takes coupons but I have a contact out to get more. If you are interested I think I could get you enough for a suit or topcoat. The last I got cost me $27 for 7 yards. You’ll have to trust me for the general color, etc. I’ll not make you look either like a librarian or race track tout — something in between. Let me know about this.”

After the war, Byrd returned to his beloved library, complete with a brand-new title: Assistant Director of the Libraries. And the rest is history- the expansion of library collections and branch libraries, the establishment of the Lilly Library as IU’s rare books and special collections repository, etc. etc. Except for Abraham Lincoln’s machine gun. Byrd totally made that up.

Read the entirety of Byrd’s June 23, 1944 letter to Miller here, including original handwriting and transcript.

Byrd’s wartime correspondence with Robert Miller is located in the Indiana University Libraries Director’s records, 1932-1977, Collection C540, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

Leave a Reply