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Obituary: Shirley Prager Branner (1928–2019)

by Pauline Saliga | Jun 06, 2019

Shirley Prager Branner, librarian, indexer and real estate broker, died in New York on May 9, 2019, at the age of 90. Shirley was married to the late Dr. Robert Branner, who was a noted expert on the history of French Gothic architecture, taught at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities, and held many leadership roles at SAH, including Editor of JSAH from 1964 to 1966. Shirley Branner worked collaboratively with her husband and has been cited as the editor of his 1989 book, The Cathedral of Bourges and Its Place in Gothic Architecture, published by MIT with support from the Architectural History Foundation. Over the decades she also stayed engaged with students of the history of Gothic art and architecture at Columbia University, offering them financial support for public lectures they organized over each academic year. Those lectures, which began the year of her husband’s death as a way for his students to continue their training in his absence, eventually developed into the Robert Branner Forum for Medieval Art.

Shirley Branner’s greatest contribution to the field of architectural history was compiling a print and computerized index to the first twenty years of JSAH called the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians INDEX Volumes I–XX 1941–1961. Published in a single, print, 454-page volume by SAH in 1974, the saga of creating the Index is well documented in the book’s Foreword by SAH President Barbara Wriston and in the Preface by Shirley Branner. As Wriston details, at the 1959 SAH annual meeting in Cleveland, JSAH Editor Paul Norton suggested that once the twentieth volume of JSAH was published, SAH should compile an index of its articles and reviews. However, between the time Norton floated the idea in 1959, and 1964 when the board asked Shirley Branner to compile it, “the Index concept changed dramatically, something far more elaborate, difficult, and complicated was undertaken...” [Wriston Foreword, page vi]. What changed was the expectation that the Index also could be computerized in a database. Branner, who at the time was a librarian at The City College of the City University of New York, thought compiling the Index would take a couple of years. But its complexity--owing to the introduction of new technologies--was so enormous that, it took nine years and required $34,000 in funding which SAH raised from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Branner’s Preface to the Index provides fascinating details about creating the volume in the early days of computerization. For historians and librarians at the time, who still worked with index cards, computerizing data was uncharted territory which caused unexpected and frustrating results. As Branner wrote in the Preface,

“Never shall I forget my dismay when, long after I was assured that all the problems had been solved, a particular item appeared on a print-out as: zzzz….. (bad code). But this is not the place to describe in detail the difficulties encountered or the frustrations of proofreading some six miles of print-out—none of which corresponded visually to the printed book I hoped would result. If the layout of the pages and the unorthodox look of much of the spacing [in the Index] are less than perfect, the faults are more than compensated for, I believe, by the existence of a tape on which all the information has been stored and coded in such a way that future SAH Indexes, and indeed indexes to other works, can be merged with it.” [Branner Preface, page ix–x]

Clearly, Shirley Branner understood the future research opportunities that computerized data would offer. As a librarian, Shirley Branner compiled many scholarly finding aids, including a Bibliography and Index to the work of her late husband, Robert, published two years after his death in JSAH, vol. 34, no., 3, 1975. Shirley Branner’s indexing work for JSAH was a great service to the field and her embrace of early computer technologies prefigured SAH’s many experiments with digital technology in the 2000s. Shirley Prager Branner will be remembered as a skilled librarian, indexer and bibliographer, and a long-time friend of SAH who, with Robert Branner, helped define and advance the field of architectural history in the U.S. in its early formative years.

SAH is the organization that the Branner family has named for gifts in memory of Shirley Branner. Please consider making a gift to SAH in memory of Shirley Prager Branner.

Pauline Saliga
Executive Director, SAH

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