from Libraries and Reading in Times of Cultural Change , Moscow: Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, 1996

Women's Values, Vision And Culture In The Transformation of American Librarianship,
1890 -- 1920

Mary Niles Maack

Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, librarianship in the United States was often a custodial occupation more involved with the conservation of small, restricted collections than with the promotion of reading and scholarship. When women graduates of the first library schools began to enter the profession in the 1890s, they brought to the field a gender-linked value system that emphasized altruism, advocacy, and intellectual nurturing of children and adults who otherwise lacked access to print culture. Accepting the premise that men and women have occupied "separate spheres" in American cultural life, this paper explores how women¹s different vision and values influenced American librarianship during the critical period when the field was becoming professionalized.

In rousing speech given to an association of college women in 1886, Melvil Dewey declared that "librarianship to-day means quite a different thing from what it meant twenty years ago." Drawing on his rich fund of metaphors, he continued: "The old library was passive, asleep, a reservoir or cistern, getting in but not giving out .... The new library is active, ... a living fountain of good influences ... and the librarian occupies a field of active usefulness second to none." 1 While some listeners may have been discouraged by his warning that library salaries were low, Dewey's recruiting efforts did bring seventeen well educated women into the new School of Library Economy which he launched at Columbia College in New York City on January 5, 1887. That day when the first twenty students assembled in makeshift quarters above the college chapel, they were quite unaware that Dewey had been forbidden the use of a classroom because he had insisted on admitting women to the all-male campus.

Although the presence of female students was one reason Dewey was forced to leave Columbia, library historian Sarah K. Vann observed that he could have scarcely created a library training program at all if he had had only three male students in the first class. Vann continues: "the anomaly is that women, in their ready acceptance of formal training, were largely responsible for the continuation of the first formal training program" which Dewey relocated at the New York State Library in Albany. 2 Formal training programs were soon providing a gateway for talented women to enter librarianship, and in 1916 Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam acknowledged that the library school had become a "potent agency" for women--bringing them into the field and admitting them on a basis of equality, thus allowing them to prove themselves. 3 Even though women had been working in American public libraries since the 1850s and attending library American Library Association (ALA) conferences since 1876, it was rare for a woman to play a significant leadership role in the field until the first female library school graduates established their careers. Proponents of new technical skills and scientific management, this generation of librarians was also imbued with the missionary spirit that animated Dewey's school and those founded by his female protégés in the recently established technical institutes in Brooklyn (Pratt, 1890), in Philadelphia (Drexel, 1891) and in Chicago (Armour, 1893).

The graduates of these new schools were welcomed into an emerging profession at a time when rapid public library growth was stimulated by educational reform efforts, Carnegie philanthropy and the Women's Club movement. 4 In less than fifty years the number of American libraries had nearly doubled, going from 2,637 in 1876 to 4,167 in 1923. 5 As these new libraries took root, existing libraries expanded in scope and function with the creation of branches, extension services, children's work, reference services and other new departments. To carry out this work trained personnel were badly needed, and as early as 1892 Salome Cutler, vice director of New York State Library School, boldly declared that "a woman's fitness for library work has been proved. She has already a recognized place in the profession ...due largely to the liberal spirit of the leaders in the library movement." 6 The number of library positions more than tripled during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and in 1920, the year American women won the vote, they accounted for over 88 per cent of the 15,297 librarians listed in the census. 7

Entering the world of work during the Progressive Era when reformers confronted the problems of unbridled industrialization, rapid urbanization, and immigration, these librarians were part of a generation pulled in one direction by a nostalgia for simpler values and in the opposite direction an enthusiasm for science, technology and efficiency. As one historian aptly observes, "however one characterizes this era, optimism and energy pervaded middle-class America. Progressives exuded confidence that human beings could ameliorate the deficiencies of the national life while remaining within a traditional American framework." 8 Within the framework of a democratic society, the "modern" public library was expected to provide resources for an informed citizenry complementing the work of the schools, serving business people and laborers, offering a means for "wholesome" recreation to rich and poor, and spreading cultural enrichment to the whole community.

Redefining Librarianship and Implementing New Ideals

As they became established in the field in 1890s, the first generation of female library school graduates readily embraced new ideals of public service. Many agreed with ALA President Samuel Swett Green who declared in his 1891 inaugural address that the measure of a library's success lay "in its usefulness ... in disseminating information and bringing about as large as possible an increase in knowledge and wisdom." 9 Viewing librarianship as a public service occupation, Green asserted: "the service to be rendered by a librarian ... is that of a parent and teacher and never that of a slave." 10 The metaphor of a parent or teacher guiding, educating and providing intellectual nurture immediately resonated with educated women whose social values centered on altruism and caring.

Some influential women who expanded upon this new ideology of public librarianship gave papers at ALA, but more often they spoke at state and local meetings. A number of these talks were later published in Public Libraries, a monthly journal launched in 1896 to meet the needs of small libraries. The forceful impact of this journal was due to Mary Eileen Ahern, who took on the editorship immediately after graduating from Armour Institute in 1896. Ahern continued as editor for thirty-six years, and during this time she gained a reputation as a courageous, energetic writer, and a "militant champion" of the public library cause who offered "challenging, fearless, friendly and always thoughtful criticisms." 11 After referring to the "change in attitude" from thinking of the library as a storehouse to "thinking of it as a workshop, a laboratory, a people's school," Ahern concluded her first editorial with a request for articles. 12 Katharine Sharp, the director of the Armour Instititute library school, was among the authors featured by Ahern. In an 1898 paper Sharp pushed Ahern's metaphor further, confidently stating: "The library is ... a university of the people, from which the students are never graduated." Like Dewey, Sharp also believed that the librarian should be a "true missionary," and "a potent force" in the community; she concluded: "There is no work more absorbing, and its followers feel that it is second only to the church in its possibilities for good." 13 . Other leading women also adopted religious metaphors, and one Ohio librarian wrote that the "the vitalizing force" and "guiding spirit of this great library movement" was the belief that "knowledge should be free." 14

Ahern's journal also featured articles on practical matters and technical services, but even these tended to be client-centered, infused with a strong sense of service to the individual reader. One woman cataloger wrote in 1901: "a catalog to be most useful, must be made for the people who are to use it, and not for some theoretically ideal people contemplated by codes of rules." 15 She therefore urged the cataloger to spend three to four hours per day on the reference desk in order to meet users--helping them and learning from them how cataloging could be better adapted to their needs. Gratia Countryman from Minneapolis also focused on very practical issues in her 1899 article on "Contact with the Public." However, in addition to urging that libraries keep rules and red tape to a minimum, Countryman stressed that "the books belong to the people" and the librarian, who is their intermediary, must learn "to be of the people, not apart or above them." 16

Dynamic women like Gratia Countryman not only took part in the redefining the ideology of librarianship, they also put their beliefs into action. During her thirty-two years as director of the Minneapolis Public Library (1904-1936), Countryman provided foreign language materials for immigrants and Braille books for the blind, she launched new branch libraries throughout the city and she set up over 300 other "distributing agencies" including classrooms, factories, business firms, residences for women, orphanages, jails, homes for the aged, hospitals and the poor farm. Local newspapers praised her efforts for "the bedbound, the poverty-bound and the troublebound" and referred to her as "the Jane Addams of libraries" because, like the founder of Hull House, she saw her work as a social mission. 17 Countryman believed that books were "stimulating, inspiring, curative and regenerative" and saw the public library as an agency for social betterment, "a wide-awake institution for the dissemination of ideas ... the center of all the activities of a city that lead to social growth, municipal reform, civic pride and good citizenship." 18

Other librarians active in social reform included Cornelia Marvin and Grace Hebrard. As a library school student at the Armour Institute, Marvin joined with classmates to set up libraries in the stockyard slums of Chicago where she met settlement house workers like Jane Addams. A small, dynamic woman, Marvin worked with the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, but later grew "discontented as the missionary phase began to be replaced by bureaucracy and politics." 19 At the age of 32 she took a pay cut and went West to create a state library commission in Oregon. In this pioneer environment she set up new libraries, recruited librarians and provided books to the unserved--including American Indians. Concerned for geographically isolated readers, Marvin immediately launched a statewide system of traveling libraries--each one containing fifty volumes packed into a sturdy trunk that doubled as a bookcase. These collections traveled by rail, stage coach and boat to library stations in lumber camps, general stores, post offices and schools. Although most traveling libraries were sponsored by public or state libraries or by women's clubs, academic librarians occasionally initiated this work. Grace Raymond Hebrard, who embraced the idea of having "the library interests of the state centered at the University [of Wyoming] Library," wrote that every day she prepared individual books or packages of books to be sent to schools, granges, women's clubs. 20

Gender Issues, Women's Rights and Librarianship

Grace Hebrard, Carolyn Marvin and Gratia Countryman were not only civic leaders and social reformers, they were also supporters of the woman's suffrage cause. Grace Hebrard, a surveyor turned librarian, spoke on behalf of woman's suffrage before the Wyoming State Constitutional Convention. Gratia Countryman, an active member of local suffrage groups, was also a popular speaker. The most radical of these women was probably Cornelia Marvin, who not only used her influence with Oregon legislators on the issue of suffrage, she also circulated socialist literature to her colleagues and endorsed the abolition of capital punishment. 21

While countless librarians directly or indirectly supported the social reform efforts of the Progressive Era, their publications largely focused on professional and technical concerns, bypassing political issues such as women's rights. In her extensive study of women librarians in the American West, Joanne Passet found that their surviving correspondence did not challenge the view that most "appear to have taken a moderate course" on the issue of suffrage. 22 However, she goes on to comment: "While few could be categorized as radical feminists, they did blend feminist ideas with rational values and an ethic of caring as they extended their spheres of influence throughout the region. Operating within the constraints of time, place, and gender, they transcended female stereotypes as they pursued their vision of library service." 23 Female librarians from other parts of the country also felt the need to transcend confining stereotypes of womanhood without rejecting traditional gender roles or family responsibilities. James Carmichael's studies of southern women librarians "demonstrate that, far from being timorous library ladies they were progressive cultural and social leaders who ... to a degree shared a sense of missionary enterprise with other librarians of their era," viewing the public library as a means to better southern conditions. However, he observes that the "considerable administrative skill" of these women was often masked by their use of "indirection, charm, and diplomacy" when dealing with the library board, civic leaders and the general public. 24

Librarians from the East and Midwest also believed that the professional woman should affirm rather than ignore or reject her gender identity. Mary Salome Cutler, from the library school in Albany, declared that "honor and ... opportunity waits for her who shall join a genius for organization to the power of a broad, rich, catholic and sympathetic womanhood." 25 Midwesterner Mary Ahern likewise admonished women engaged in any kind of public service to live up to the "finest ideals of womanhood." Although Ahern urged women librarians to cultivate a sympathetic attitude and "a dignity of manner," by declaring that the library profession offered "a profitable field of action for womanly women," she pointed to the rewards awaiting an energetic professional who moved beyond the narrow boundaries of a "woman's sphere." 26 Salome Cutler also saw a vital public role for the librarian as "a business woman and educator in the highest sense," not simply satisfying the demands of the library but creating a demand. She concluded: "The librarian must be in touch with the latest and best thought of the time and with the growth of her own community, making the library an active, aggressive, educational force." 27

In many ways the standpoint taken by Ahern and Cutler was similar to that of contemporary women's rights advocates whom historian Nancy Cott describes as arguing for equal opportunity in education and employment and for equal rights in law "while also maintaining that women would bring special benefits to public life by virtue of their particular interests and capacities. ... `Women's sphere' was both a point of oppression and a point of departure for nineteenth century feminists. `Womanhood' was their hallmark, and they insisted it should be a human norm, too." 28 Ahern, who would have never identified herself as a feminist, refused to combat "any arguments for or against the present status of women." Instead she sought compromise, advising her female colleagues in the business world to adapt themselves to a masculine code of conduct that differed from the manners of polite society. Aware of the inherent contradictions facing women in the public sphere she wrote: "One of the first and most important lessons which a woman who enters the business world needs to learn is the seeming paradox to forget that she is a woman, and at the same time keep ever before her that she is a woman." 29 Ahern's solution was for the female librarian to bring the positive values of womanly culture into the workplace--adapting to business norms without loosing her dignity or integrity as a woman.

Like Ahern, most women active in ALA chose to pursue a strategy of integration and compromise rather than separatism. Although a Woman's Meeting was held at the 1892 conference, a proposal to set up a Woman's Section within ALA met with opposition. Among the opponents was Tessa Kelso who sent a letter of protest to Library Journal. Having worked as a journalist before becoming head of the Los Angeles Public Library, Kelso was a self-confident, somewhat unconventional woman "of extraordinary business ability, quenchless energy and great executive force." 30 A suffragette who believed in egalitarianism she candidly wrote: "For years woman has worked, talked and accepted all sorts of compromises to prove her fitness to hold the position of librarian and to demonstrate that sex should have no weight where ability is equal ... For women to now come forward with the argument that a woman librarian has a point of view... is a serious mistake." 31 After an exchange of correspondence, the three members of committee responsible for organizing the Women's Section agreed to drop the plan. 32

Although there was no published response to Kelso's letter, articles by other women leaders also emphasized equality and co-operation. One strong advocate of integration was Salome Cutler Fairchild who wrote that a library serving both men and women could provide better service with a staff "on which the important positions are divided between the two sexes. Men and women represent different elements, they look at things from a different point of view. If they work together side by side in an individual library .... each contributing his or her best, the result is broader, richer and more varied than if men alone or women alone take part." 33 Some men also shared this viewpoint, and in 1912 Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam wrote that "the welfare of society and the state requires that what might be called the masculine and the feminine natures shall be equally operative." 34 Four years later Putnam again addressed the theme of complementarity in a eulogy to Mary Wright Plummer. Describing her life as a tribute to all women whose work had enlarged the library profession, Putnam declared that women's "qualities as workers are not merely supplementary to those of the men: they are absolutely complementary. The material with which we deal, the constituency which we serve, and the service which we render has each its feminine side;--a side which can be best interpreted by feminine intelligence and feeling." Putnam then turned Mary Wright Plummer, describing her as a woman "whose strength lay not in aggression ... but rather in quiet steadiness of motive and of action ... Her influence has been a potent force and ... a radiant one." 35

A graduate of Dewey's 1887-1888 class in library economy, Mary Wright Plummer is a fitting exemplar of this first generation of women trained as librarians. The founder of two library schools (Pratt, 1890 and New York Public Library school, 1911) her career was largely devoted to library education. However, she also served as director of the Pratt Institute Free Library where she built a collection to serve the broader community and designed the first separate children's room. In addition she pioneered in training for children's services and wrote children's books related to her travels. Plummer made several trips to Europe and maintained numerous international contacts as well as being active in local and state library associations and holding numerous ALA offices. In 1915 she became the second woman president of ALA, but she was too ill to deliver her presidential address the following year. Shortly after her death, a very distinguished group of librarians came together at New York Public Library (NYPL) to honor her "work and influence." 36

Because Mary Wright Plummer's life seemed to her colleagues as representative of the best work of this pioneer generation of library school women, what they chose to say of her mirrors their view of what a woman librarian could achieve, what qualities she should possess. Naturally, given her work as a library educator, many friends recalled her sympathetic support, mentoring, and concern for students far from home. However, one of the most moving tributes was from Franklin F. Hopper, a colleague from NYPL who said in part: "The [Quaker] traditions to which Miss Plummer was heir made inevitable her interest in the freedom, the rights, the equal opportunities for work of the women of America ... We are fortunate that our profession had for thirty years the benefit of her reflective, yet keenly perceptive and creative mind, her quiet spirit, her ideals so fully realized in her own life, her strong personality." 37 The image evoked here is that of a "womanly woman," who was intelligent, empathetic and reflective. However, Hopper also mentions her skill in devising "a definite program of action...[that put] everyone to work" when she served as president of the state library association. Others also would have been comfortable describing her as a "woman of action." One colleague noted that "Miss Plummer lost no time in mobilizing all the resources at her command. She knew New York. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it." 38 Recognizing her national standing as well as her active role in the field, Princeton University librarian, E.C. Richardson declared that no other individual except for Herbert Putnam had "contributed so much constructively to the elevation and dignity of the library profession in America." 39

When Mary Wright Plummer began her library training in 1887, to have compared any woman with the Librarian of Congress would have been unthinkable. By the end of her life, women had not only become visible as respected leaders, they had also contributed to the creation of a people-centered profession that bore the imprint of their values. While the word "feminist" was newly coined at the time of Plummer's death, her life in many ways was an embodiment of historian Gerda Lerner's definition of feminism as "a system of ideals and practices which assumes that men and women must share equally in the work, in the privileges and in the defining and the dreaming of the world." 40 Viewing knowledge as power, and power as empowerment, 41 Mary Wright Plummer and the women of her generation shared equally with their male colleagues in redefining librarianship, creating a new professional paradigm that was fundamentally different from the authoritarian model of the "liberal professions" like law and medicine.


1. Melvil Dewey, "Librarianship as a Profession for College-Bred Women. An address Delivered Before the Association of Collegiate Alumni on March 13, 1886." (Boston, Library Bureau, 1886) Reprinted in Melvil Dewey, His Enduring Presence in Librarianship. Edited by Sarah K. Vann. (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1978), p. 103.

2. Sarah K. Vann, Training for Librarianship Before 1923. (Chicago: ALA, 1961), p. 39.

3. Herbert Putnam, "The Woman in the Library," Library Journal 41 (December 1916):880. For a discussion of women faculty in the early library training programs see Mary Niles Maack, "Women in Library Education: Down the Up Staircase," Library Trends 34 (Winter 1986):401-431.

4. Between 1890 and 1917 industrialist Andrew Carnegie contributed over forty-one million dollars for the construction of more than 1,600 library buildings throughout the United States. For a discussion of these donations and of the changing role of the library see John Y. Cole, "Storehouses and Workshops: American Libraries and the Uses of Knowledge," in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1920. Edited by Alexandra Oleson and John Voss. For more complete analysis of the Carnegie philanthropy see George S. Bobinski, Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969). Less studied but equally important is the role of women's organizations. By the 1930s the American Library Association credited Women's Clubs with initiating seventy-five percent of the public libraries then in existence in the United States. For a discussion of the role of these associations see Paula D. Watson, "Founding Mothers: The Contribution of Women's Organizations to Public Library Development in the United States, Library Quarterly 64 (July 1994):233-269. Anne Firor Scott also deals with club women¹s contribution to library development in "Women and Libraries," Journal of Library History 21 (Spring 1986):400-405.

5. Haynes McMullen, "The Distribution of Libraries Throughout the United States," Library Trends 25 (July 1976):28

6. Mary Salome Cutler, "What a Woman Librarian Earns," Library Journal 17 (August 1982):94 Reprinted in Kathleen Weibel and Kathleen M. Heim, The Role of Women in Librarianship 1876-1976: The Entry, Advancement and Struggle for Equalization in One Profession (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1979), p. 15. Cutler is perhaps over optimistic. Through the turn of the century women continued to express a need to prove themselves.

7. Edward G. Holley, "Librarians, 1876-1976," Library Trends 25 (July 1976):180.

8. Lynn D. Gordon, Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), p.3.

9. Samuel Swett Green, "Conference of Librarians, San Francisco, October 12-16, 1891, Address of the President," Library Journal 16 (Conference Number):2-3.

10. Ibid., p. 1

11. C. D. Roden, "Valedictory," Libraries 36 (December, 1931):431 and Carl H. Milam, "Miss Ahern and Associations," Libraries 36 (December, 1931):432. This entire, final issue of the journal contains tributes to Mary Ahern from numerous library leaders.

12. M. E. Ahern, "Editorial," Public Libraries 1 (May 1896):16, 17.

13. Katharine L. Sharp, "Librarianship as a Profession," Public Libraries 3 (January, 1898):5-7.

14. Linda Eastman, "The Library Spirit," Public Libraries 4 (October 1899):343.

15. Edna D. Bullock, "Practical Cataloging," Public Libraries 6 (March 1901):135-36.

16. Gratia Countryman, "Contact with the Public," Public Libraries 4 (November 1899):398.

17. Nancy Freeman Rohde, "Gratia Alta Countryman, Librarian and Reformer," in Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays. Edited by Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter. (Saint Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977) pp. 173, 180, 182.

18. Rohde, "Gratia Alta Countryman," p. 182.

19. Joanne E. Passet, Cultural Crusaders: Women Librarians in the American West, 1900-1917. (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), p. 81.

20. Ibid., p. 73, 76.

21. For fuller discussion of Marvin see Brisley, Melissa Ann. "Cornelia Marvin Pierce: Pioneer in Library Extension," Library Quarterly 38 (April 1968): 125-53.

22. Passet, Cultural Crusaders, p. 29.

23. Ibid., p. 135.

24. James V. Carmichael, Jr. "Atlanta's Female Librarians, 1883- 1915," Journal of Library History 21 (Spring 1986):377-378.

25. Cutler, "What a Woman Librarian Earns," p. 15.

26. Mary Eileen Ahern, "The Business Side of a Woman's Career as a Librarian," Library Journal 24 (July 1899):60-62 (emphasis mine). Reprinted in Weibel and Heim, The Role of Women in Librarianship, 22-25. This article is based on a paper which Ahern read at the 1899 ALA conference in Atlanta. Although Ahern rarely reprinted her talks in Public Libraries in this instance she did include it under the title, "Women as Librarians in the Business World," Public Libraries 4 (June 1899):257-261.

27. Cutler, "What a Woman Librarian Earns," p. 14.

28. Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 20.

29. Ahern, "The Business Side of a Woman's Career," p. 23.

30. Charles F. Lummis, "Books in Harness," Out West 25 (September 1906): 207.

31. Tessa Kelso, "Woman's Section of the A.L.A.," Library Journal 17 (November 1892):444.

32. Wayne A. Wiegand, The Politics of an Emerging Profession: The American Library Association, 1876-1917 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986):73.

33. Salome Cutler Fairchild, "Address Delivered at Library Section of International Congress of Arts and Science. St. Louis, Missouri, September 22, 1904: Women in American Libraries." Library Journal 29 (December 1904):157-162. Reprinted in Weibel and Heim, The Role of Women in Librarianship, 49-55. Citation taken from p. 55. Salome Cutler married Reverend Edwin Fairchild in 1897 but remained at the New York State Library School until 1905.

34. Herbert Putnam, "The Prospect, An Address Before a Graduating Class of Women," Library Journal 37 (December 1912):655.

35. Putnam, "The Woman in the Library,"" pp. 879-881.

36. "A Library Life: A Symposium in the Memory and in Gratitude for the Work and Influence of Mary Wright Plummer," Library Journal 41 (December 1916):864-881.

37. Franklin F. Hopper, "State-wide Inspiration," Library Journal 41 (December 1916):873-874.

38. Annie Carroll Moore, "The New York Library School in New York," Library Journal 41 (December 1916):875.

39. E. C. Richardson, "In Defense of Standards," Library Journal (December 1916):879.

40. Gerda Lerner quoted in Helen Astin & Carole Leland, Women of Influence, Women of Vision: A Cross-generational Study of Leaders and Social Change (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1991):19.

41. In her last article, "The Public Library and the Pursuit of Truth," School and Society, 4 (no. 39, 1916):4-18, Mary Wright Plummer wrote: "Free-will to choose must be based upon a knowledge of good and evil; access to all factors for making choices must be free to the people of a democracy ... The free library is one of the few placed where education and wisdom can be obtained for preparation in the making of choices." p. 16.