Kathie Coblentz, a Renaissance woman who read or spoke 13 languages; collaborated on books about the directors Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and Alfred Hitchcock; and, during her day job, cataloged rare books for more than 50 years at The New York Public Library, died on April 3 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 73.
She was apparently grazed by a car pulling out of an underground garage as she was walking home to her apartment on West 58th Street, fell and hit her head and never regained consciousness, her friend and former colleague Jane Greenlaw said.
In that home, of 900 square feet, were some 3,600 books of her own, all having served as inspiration in her writing “The New York Public Library Guide to Organizing a Home Library” (2003).
Ms. Coblentz was recruited for a library job in 1969 even before she graduated from the University of Michigan, said Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president and CEO. “She thought she’d work at The New York Public Library until she figured out what to do next,” he said. “Well, she never left.”
She was the library’s third-longest serving employee, working most recently in the 42nd Street research library’s special formats processing department of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.
Her supervisor, Deirdre Donohue, described her as the “matriarch of our work family,” who cataloged hundreds of items “that were the products of detective work, deep research and skepticism about facts.”
Ms. Coblentz was a bibliophile with interests that ranged well beyond the written word. Her blog on the library’s website was full of eclectic arcana. She demystified a Wikipedia debate over whether the Syrian author of “Scala Paradisi” wrote in the sixth or seventh century. And she rhapsodized about photographs of the last “blue blood moon” seen over North America in 1866.
As a rare materials cataloger for the Spencer Collection — it “surveys the illustrated word and book bindings of all periods and all countries and cultures,” the library says — she conducted public tours of the steel stacks beneath what is now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street, reminding visitors that browsing among those books was prohibited and that researchers had to order hard copies of materials from the card catalog, which was later digitized.
“That’s why catalogers are the most important workers in this library,” she would tell her tour group.
Ms. Coblentz was a true-blue Yankees fan (she and a friend were planning to go to a game being played two days after her death), and a committed cinephile.
She collaborated with her former teacher from the 1990s at the New School, Robert E. Kapsis, a professor emeritus of Sociology and Film Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, on researching (including translating avant-garde European criticism into English), editing and indexing books.
She edited anthologies of interviews with contemporary filmmakers and was a contributing editor, writer and programmer for Professor Kapsis’s interactive Multimedia Hitchcock project in 1999 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.
And she ran in several New York City Marathons.
Kathie Lynn Coblentz was born on Nov. 4, 1947. Her father was Dr. Jacob Coblentz, an immigrant born in Riga, Latvia, who was a bacteriologist in Lansing, Mich., where she appears to have been born. He also worked in Tennessee and Ohio before settling in Frankfort, Mich., where he was employed by the Pet Evaporated Milk Company and the Michigan Department of Health; he died when she was 10. Her mother was Sidney Ellarea Coblentz, an art teacher and artist.
Even in high school in Frankfort, in northwest Michigan, Ms. Coblentz demonstrated a bent for cataloging, winning a mathematics award for a paper titled “Some Possible Systems of Numerical Notation.”
She earned a degree in German from Michigan State University in 1968 and a master’s of library science from the University of Michigan in 1969. She learned Danish, Norwegian and Swedish so that she could read her favorite Scandinavian authors of murder mysteries unaltered by translation.
She had no immediate survivors. Her older brother, Peter, died in 1969.
For a lifelong cataloger who wrote a high school paper on improving ways to sort things numerically, her system of classifying her own collection of books at home defied library science and was ripe for parody. Ms. Coblentz had 16 bookcases holding more than 200 feet of shelf space in her one-bedroom apartment. The books were arranged by country of origin, size, sentimentality and personal obsession.
“Your system doesn’t have to be logical,” she told The New York Times in 2005. “It just has to work for you.”
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