Long active in the work that he had chosen and followed in his career, William Eaton Foster had been, since 1877, librarian of the Providence Public Library, of Providence, Rhode Island. He also held numerous other positions in this field of human endeavor, and in all of them performed, like most members of his craft, duties which have won all too little respect and admiration from his fellowmen. For, routine workers though librarians appear to be, they are more than that; they have within their handling the knowledge of the centuries, all that has come down from ancient times in written or printed form, and great, indeed, is the duty that they fulfill in the world. Except for the wisdom that they, by careful effort and constant watching, keep alive from generation to generation, man would not, today and tomorrow, be able to profit by the experiences of yesterday and the discoveries of his forebears, and so would differ little in this respect from the lower orders of the animal kingdom. It is such faithful workers as Mr. Foster, workers who love the task that they have taken for their own and value the responsibility that is placed in their hands, who have helped, perhaps most of all citizens, to preserve the culture and the practical knowledge that we have today and to give us foundations upon which to build for our own and future generations.
The family from which Mr. Foster was descended is an old and honored one in American life, and its members have taken part in different fields of work—journalism, education, business, public service of all sorts. The Fosters were in evidence in America in the early part of the seventeenth century, and have since been prominent here. William Eaton Foster, who was a son of Joseph Coggin and Abigail Ann (Eaton) Foster, was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, on June 2, 1851, and died in September, 1930. He attended the schools of his native community and subsequently registered at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where he took his Bachelor of Arts degree in the class of 1873 and his Master of Arts degree three years later. This institution, in appreciation of his public services as librarian and his loyalty to his alma mater, awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1901. He began his career as librarian with the Hyde Park Public Library, of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, in 1873, and there remained until 1876, when he became cataloguer at the Turner Free Library in Randolph, Massachusetts. This position he retained until, in the following year, 1877, he became librarian at the Providence Public Library, an office of importance in the library world and one which enabled him to be of marked public service.
In addition to his work in this connection, which was a labor of love and devotion, Mr. Foster was active in a number of societies and organizations, both those having to do with the affairs of his own profession and those which deal in other activities of civic and social life. He was a member of the American Library Association, the American Historical Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Massachusetts Library Club. In the Massachusetts Library Club he held the presidency in 1894 and 1895, while in the Rhode Island Library Association he was president from 1903 to 1905. He also became the author of a number of books of his own, some of them having to do with subjects related to library work, others dealing with contemporary and historical matters, but all of them containing a wealth of wisdom and experience gained through a life of usefulness and service. He wrote “The Civil Service Reform Movement,” which appeared in 1881; “The Literature of Civil Service Reform in the United States,” which was published in the same year; “Libraries and Readers,” 1883; “Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island Statesman,” 1884; “Town Government in Rhode Island,” 1886; “The Point of View in History,” 1906; and “Five Men of ’76,” 1926. These volumes throw a wealth of light on subjects which less careful and seasoned workers would be content to treat more sketchily, and they won for him, in the circle in which they have been read, a widespread respect and esteem for his ability as a student of life and men.
William Eaton Foster married, in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 2, 1886, Julia Appleton, of this city.
Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.