Eileen Thornton was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1909 and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota in 1931, earning a bachelors degree in English and Library Science. In her early career she worked in public, school, and academic library positions in Minnesota and Iowa. In 1942 she enrolled in the University of Chicago Library School, which was then the leading school of library science in the nation, earning the Masters Degree in 1945. During that same period she was College Librarian and later Administrative Assistant to the Library Director at the University of Chicago. In 1945 Eileen was appointed College Librarian at Vassar College, a post she held for eleven years.
Blazing a trail that would later be followed by another well-known woman administrator, Eileen left Vassar in 1956 to become College Librarian at Oberlin. She was the first (and she remains so far the only) woman to hold our library director's position. Her sixteen-year tenure at Oberlin coincided with substantial expansion and growth of the college library system. She played a central role in planning the new main library, which is now housed in Mudd Center. At the time of her retirement in 1971 she saw the culmination of years of effort when the Trustees approved the letting of bids for the construction of the new building. Eileen also facilitated the construction of the Conservatory of Music Library and the Kettering Science Library. She developed herself the essential design for the Kettering Library under a tight deadline of less than twenty-four hours prior to a Trustee meeting. Under Eileen's direction Oberlin began the computerization of library functions, becoming in 1967 a founding member of the Ohio College Library Center. Eileen also played a central role in the establishment of the East Asian Studies collection and the creation of the Oberlin College Archives.
Known among library staff as ET -- since she often signed her memos with her initials -- Eileen was a persistent advocate for the goals she believed in. Confident and self-assured, she knew what she wanted and pressed hard for it. She fought, for example, to have the new main library located at the center of the campus and worked consistently to make the library as responsive as possible to student needs. She was widely regarded as a no-nonsense person, who excelled at communicating exactly what she meant. Some students perceived her as fierce while others, who were more closely associated with her, appreciated her firm principles. She was witty, quick-minded, facile with words, and very effective in written communication. She was also very sociable and engaging, having a fine ability to tell entertaining anecdotes and hold a group's attention. One of her co-workers relates that Eileen was a superb mimic, able to imitate others almost at will; she remembers in particular an impersonation of Edith Sitwell by Eileen that brought raucous laughter to the librarians who heard it. A staff member summarizes her character well in saying that Eileen was "very classy, in sort of an East Coast style, literary and sophisticated, and tough as a boot."
With the exception of the Dean of Women (who by definition was female), Eileen was for most of her career at Oberlin the sole female senior administrator in a male-dominated administrative structure. As such she was very attuned to issues related to women. In a 1964 memo to the business office, for example, she asks in passing, "Can we avoid using that bastard term 'coed' in official publications? It is just as easy to say 'women students' or 'women college students' and in better taste, I think. 'Coeducation' means the education of men and women together; 'Coed' is an American colloquial for female student, for some odd reason. I happen to loathe it, just as I loathe [the words] 'frat' and 'varsity' and a few other dated vulgarisms." Despite her obvious affinity with women's issues, Eileen was not perceived as a strong feminist; she seemed to prefer proving herself regardless of gender and demonstrating in various ways her personal independence.
Eileen was an important figure in the profession of librarianship. Before coming to Oberlin she had served as President of the Minnesota Library Association and as Vice President of the New York Library Association. As Oberlin's librarian she held the rare distinction of being elected president of two divisions of the American Library Association -- the Association of College and Research Libraries (1957-58) and the Library Administration Division (1967-68). She was elected to the ALA Council, served on the Executive Board of the Ohio College Library Center, was an active library consultant, and taught as a visiting lecturer at the library schools of Columbia University and Western Reserve University. She received a distinguished-service award from the Association of College and Research Libraries in 1989.
Eileen lived in Oberlin following her retirement from the College. An avid traveler, she became well-known for her frequent ocean voyages to distant points around the world, trips which she took not on cruise ships or ocean liners, but on common freighters. It was especially fitting that her distinguished service to Oberlin was recognized in 1989 when the library's primary conference room was dedicated in her honor. Eileen died at the Kendal Retirement Community on Friday, January 10, 1997.