"I'm a proponent of teachable moments," says Pamela Eyerdam, the manager of special collections and fine arts at the Cleveland Public Library. Right now, she's showing off a few of the "profile sheets" she's put together to highlight bits and pieces of the CPL's John G. White Chess Collection, the largest of its kind in the world. This one's about chess legend Emanuel Lasker.
"Often, people don't like to read a big block of text, so I try to keep them to a single page," she says. She walks over to a display table featuring old autographs. Here, a document signed by Abraham Lincoln; beneath it, one signed by Marie Antoinette.
"With kids," Eyerdam says, "you've got to bring in the gore, so we talk about the guillotines."
Born in Cleveland, raised in Maple Heights, and currently living in Walton Hills, Eyerdam has been with CPL for 12 years. But she's been a librarian for 35. She has worked for both Cleveland State University and the University of Akron.
"In my field, when you move from academia to public, you're kind of a traitor," she says.
But for Eyerdam, the CPL is just as much a university as her previous places of employment. Indeed, John G. White, the philanthropist and avid chess collector whose personal bequest forms the core of the chess library, was a firm believer in literature's power to educate. Eyerdam is almost as fervid a fan of White as White himself was of chess. She describes his good deeds with affection and reverence: He was sportsman. A philanthropist. Every week, he would deliver baskets full of books to children.
These days, the White collection is known the world over. Eyerdam says the special collections wing (on the third floor of the main library building) gets more tourists than local visitors. Every summer, for example, they host chess researchers from American and Europeans universities. An international club of chess players and collectors holds a mini-conference there every few years.
When the John G. White Chess Collection was featured in a 2012 cover story in Chess Life magazine — "For us, being on the cover of Chess Life is like being on the cover of Time," says Eyerdam — the reporter remarked upon Eyerdam's hospitality.
"If you've ever done serious research in national archives in Europe or private libraries in America," wrote reporter Mark Taylor, "you had probably got the impression at some point that you were not exactly welcome. Not so in the CPL Special Collections room. [Eyerdam] has taken [John G. White's] attitude to heart and created a welcoming atmosphere most rare among first-rate collections."
But Eyerdam sees her hospitality as in keeping with the library's "public university mantra" and the progressive attitudes of John G. White and former Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson.
"For a city to be progressive, it needs to educate the general public," Eyerdam says. "Educate people so they can get jobs and the city can be more progressive."
She shrugs. That much is obvious to her.
"And look," she says, gesturing to the windows that face Daniel Burnham's glorious green mall and Lake Erie in the distance. "We've got the best views in the city." — Sam Allard