Friday, May 4, 2018

In Memoriam: J. B. Dobkin

J. B. Dobkin—Librarian, Bookman, Man of Letters—1922-2018.

Friends and associates of the Tampa Book Arts Studio share a profound sense of loss with the passing of J. B. Dobkin, Chief Librarian for the Tampa Book Arts Studio’s Special Collections Library and a major donor of books and early printed leaves to our research collections.

Known to friends and colleagues as “Jay,” Joseph B. Dobkin made significant contributions to major research libraries, printing history, local history, and genealogical research collections during his 96 years of life and learning. 

Jay was born in New York City in 1922, but his family moved to Daytona Beach in 1925, where his father bought a small apartment building on the ocean and opened a business on Beach Street there called Fashion Frocks. A few years later, his father purchased a large clothing business in Charlotte, N.C., and he expanded into fashion wholesale as well as retail operations, maintaining business interests in both North Carolina and Florida. Jay grew up in the two locations, though he attended schools mostly in Florida. He graduated from Fletcher High School in Jacksonville Beach, completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, and joined the Naval Air Corps in 1942. After the war, he left the service and worked with his father's businesses for a time, but soon started his own consumer finance company in Charlotte, expanding it into thirty loan offices in North and South Carolina. 

His father died when Jay was 40, prompting him to reexamine his own career choices. He knew the business world was really not for him. He loved reading and the world of books. He sold his businesses and returned to graduate school to earn a degree in Library Science. Building on his strong knowledge of history, literature, and art, he found he was able to work with special collections and rare books in ways that highlighted their strengths, extended their depth through acquisitions, and made them accessible to scholars. His professional library career included an impressive range of leadership positions, with appointments as Assistant Director in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Toronto, Canada; Director of Special Collections at the University of Florida, Gainesville; Director of Libraries at Arizona State University, Tempe; and Special Collections Librarian at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where he served from 1974 until he retired in 1988.

He also served for many years as Executive Secretary of the Florida Historical Society, has been both President and Vice President of the Florida Bibliophile Society, Chairman of the Pinellas County Public Library Cooperative Board, and President of the Largo Library Foundation. He was also a founding board member of Konglomerati Florida Foundation for Literature and the Book Arts, a pioneering book arts studio in Pinellas County that was funded as one of only five regional literary centers in the country by the National Endowment of the Arts. (Konglomerati’s letterpress equipment and printing collections are now part of the Tampa Book Arts Studio.)

A folio leaf from “The Golden Legend” 
printed and published in 1488 by
the German printer Anton Koberger, one
of more than 500 early printed leaves
donated by Jay Dobkin.

After retirement, Jay volunteered at the Largo Library and built the genealogy collection there into one of the largest in Florida. He also served as a volunteer archivist at Heritage Village in Pinellas County and worked tirelessly to organize and add to its collections. At the same time, he served as Chief Librarian of the Tampa Book Arts Studio Library Collections at the University of Tampa. He advised and guided us in building our special collections, and he sought out, acquired, and donated more than five hundred rare printed leaves, from fifteen-century incunabula to examples of the work of nearly every major sixteenth-century printer in Europe. He also presented the Studio with his Peter Pauper Press collection of books and ephemera, and he continued to add materials to complete it, making that collection at the University of Tampa one of the best in the world. The collection formed the basis for his 2013 reference book with Sean Donnelly, The Peter Pauper Press of Peter and Edna Beilenson, 1928-1979: A Bibliography and History. He also published numerous articles on juvenile literature—particularly boys’ series books—in collecting magazines and bibliographic publications. He co-authored or edited Spain in the New World: An Exhibition of Books, Maps, and Manuscripts (Arizona State, 1972); American Boys’ Series Books, 1900-1980 (University of South Florida Library Associates, 1987); and a popular booklet that was widely distributed and highly valued among amateur book collectors, A Non-professional’s Guide to Book Values (1976).

Jay always enjoyed sharing stories and anecdotes involving his most famous relative, his great-uncle Sholem Aleichem, whose fiction formed the basis for the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof. Aleichem’s will contained detailed instructions to family and friends with regard to burial arrangements and how to observe his yahrtzeit. He told his friends and family to gather, “select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you. . . . Let my name be recalled with laughter,” he said, “or not at all.”

This was Jay's own attitude. He always closed his emails, “BE HAPPY!”

Jay passed away peacefully at his Largo home on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. He will be deeply missed. 

This framed tribute from the Florida Bibliophile Society was presented to Jay in 1987 upon his retirement as Director of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Florida.  It recognizes his “support and encouragement to students of the book, wherever he found them,” his achievement in raising his collections “to national prominence,” and his “legacy of pride and a standard of excellence,” all principles he sustained in helping to build the Tampa Book Arts Studio collections.

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Photograph of J. B. Dobkin courtesy of Carl Mario Nudi