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Marion E. Sparks Career

Miss Sparks held numerous positions before finding her niche in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chemistry Library in 1911. Below is information on her early library work, followed by her position at the Chemistry Library and her study and teaching of chemical literature.

Early Career | Chemistry Library | Chemical Literature

Early Career

Miss Sparks’ first library-related work experience came in 1894, when she worked as a student assistant at the Loan Desk in the University of Illinois Library. She held this position until 1897. In 1898, she began a series of organizing jobs that would take her to several locations across the Midwest through 1904. She began locally, helping catalog the collection of the Urbana Free Library (1898-1899). Miss Sparks spent 1900 at the Davenport (Iowa) Academy of Science. From January-June, she contributed to the institution’s foreign correspondence; from June-December, she organized their library.

Her records indicate that she did not work in a library in 1901 and most of 1902, but there is no indication why.

From October 1902-February 1903, she organized the Elkhart (Indiana) Public Library. For the two subsequent months, she selected children’s books for the library. Sparks then spent June-November organizing the collection of the Kansas City (Kansas) Public Library. Her last job of this sort, at Dowagiac (Michigan) Public Library, ran from January-March 1904.

At this time, Sparks returned to Urbana, where she would work in various capacities at the university until her death in 1929. From 1904-1910, she was employed as a resident bibliographer in the Nutrition Investigation Laboratory. In 1904, she also created the first library catalog of the chemistry collection, which had started forming in 1892. In addition, she spent her evenings from June-August 1905 helping the Urbana Free Library implement their new charging system. Miss Spark’s resume describes her early library work.

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Chemistry Library

Sparks worked on the shelf list and catalog in the newly created chemistry library from 1910-1911. In October 1911, she was hired as a Library Assistant in the Chemistry Library. In 1913, her title would change to Chemistry Librarian.

With her strong background in languages (during her academic career, she had taken multiple years of Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish) and her broad interest in the sciences (including being an amateur astronomer and bird watcher), Miss Sparks was welcomed into the Chemistry Department. She assimilated quickly by providing excellent library service, including translating articles from any language, offering interlibrary loan (typewriting articles in the days before photocopiers), creating bibliographic access to materials, and conducting research.

An example of the type of research she undertook is demonstrated in the article she published in Science with then Chemistry Department Chairman William A. Noyes (“A Census of the Periodical Literature of Chemistry Published in the United States,”). A full bibliography is available on the publications page.

Throughout her time at the chemistry library, Sparks formed relationships with her patrons. She corresponded with chemistry students who served in World War I and reported on their progress (and often their deaths) in Illinois Chemist, a departmental magazine. She also took pictures of graduating chemistry students and put them in a book of photographs now located in the University Archives. Sparks also participated in the Chemical Club by providing refreshments at meetings (see her name on the club roster in the 1918-1920 Illios). She played a pivotal role in recording the department’s history as well as personal histories of its members.

In this position, her salary steadily increased. On a 1917 alumni update, Sparks reported her annual salary to be $840. In a 1920 update, her salary had increased to $1100 annually; it grew again by 1923, when she recorded an annual salary of $1800.

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Chemical Literature

Sparks’ lifelong interest, however, was teaching chemical literature. In 1912, she began by giving three lectures to the Chemistry Club on library research; she presented six lectures in 1913. It is believed that during the 1914-1915 school year, Sparks began teaching “Chemistry 92”, a required course for junior chemistry majors (although the first mention of her as the instructor came in the 1917-1918 University of Illinois Annual Register).

In 1919, using class notes compiled from her previous five years of teaching Chemistry 92, Sparks self-published her textbook for the course. With Chemical Literature and Its Use, she arguably authored and published the first book to address chemical literature and library instruction, and formalized the field of chemical information. A second edition, also single-authored, self-published and self-distributed, was produced in 1921. People in England and Australia purchased copies, as did “most of the large chemical firms” in America.

The text received favorable reviews, as evidenced by this excerpt from the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry: “Students of chemistry everywhere will find the pamphlet very useful for the purpose of reference, since the publications mentioned are in general use where they are available. The absence of systematic instruction in the consultation of chemical literature is a fault of academic training which should be remedied. The process by which the chemist becomes familiar with the literature is comparatively lengthy, and circumstances may conspire to keep below his horizon publications which would prove of great value to him; a little systematic training, such as is outlined in the pamphlet, together with some instruction in indexing, would eventually save him much time and minimise [sic] the possibility of such undesirable incidents.”

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