GREEN, Samuel Swett

(20 February 1837 - 8 December 1918)

Submitted Under Contract to:


Dr. John A. Garraty, General Editor

American National Biography

c/o School of International Affairs

Columbia University

New York, NY 10027


31 March 1999

John V. Richardson Jr., Professor

PHONE: (310) 206-9369

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Department of Information Studies

Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

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GREEN, Samuel Swett (20 Feb. 1837-8 Dec. 1918), librarian, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of James Green, a successful apothecary, and Elizabeth Swett. In delicate health for much of his early life, Green was reportedly quiet and rather shy, inclined more to studious concerns than to playing outdoors with neighborhood companions. He enrolled, nevertheless, in Mrs. Sarah B. Wood's private school and then attended public grammar school and graduated from the Worcester High School in 1854. Green excelled in mathematics and was fond of grammar. He attended, as did his older brother, Harvard College where his classmates included Winslow Warren, Henry P. Walcott, and George A. Wentworth. Despite his "bad general health and worse eyesight," Green graduated from Harvard in 1858 with a B.A. Although he did travel to Smyrna and Constantinople (now Istanbul), for the next three years, Green stayed at home languishing as an invalid. Revived, he continued his studies in the Harvard Divinity School, starting in the autumn of 1860. He dropped out shortly thereafter as a result of poor health, but graduated in 1864. Ironically, Green was not rejected for the Civil War draft on the grounds of his ill health, but because of his short stature; he was only five feet, two inches tall.

            Thinking his divinity work "unsalable," Green worked in banking, first as bookkeeper at Worcester's Mechanics National Bank and then as a teller. He resigned when he became afflicted with rheumatic fever and traveled in the West to recover. In 1870 Harvard awarded him an honorary M.A. and later elected him an honorary Phi Beta Kappa member.

            Beginning in January 1867, Green served as a director of the Worcester Free Public Library, which had been funded by his uncle, John Green, a Worcester physician. In January 1871, Green became the librarian of this institution. During his tenure, the library became noted for its pioneering public service-orientation toward its readers, especially its personal assistance to school children and factory workers. The library also was noted for its opening on Sundays starting in December 1872. Green established a lending collection of artwork (especially pictures and photographs); instituted interlibrary loans; and advocated use of the telephone in libraries as early as 1880. Today, though, Green is probably best known to librarians for the paper he delivered at the October 1876 Conference of Librarians in Philadelphia, "The Desirableness of Establishing Personal Intercourse and Relations between Librarians and Readers." His presentation forms the basis of modern library reference service and argues that librarians must acknowledge the presence of library users and interact with them by answering their questions. Green was a founder of the American Library Association in 1876 and served as its vice - president twice and as its president in 1891; starting in 1892, he served on the original council of the association. Green wrote the well-received Public Library Movement in the United States, 1853 -1893 (1913) and taught at the School of Library Economy at Columbia University and the State Library of New York.

            After his death in Worcester, Green was remembered for his sympathy, geniality, versatility, patience, tact, energy, and wisdom in discharging his duties, for as he had said of himself, "There are few pleasures comparable to that of associating continually with curious and vigorous young minds, and of aiding them to realize their ideals." His service ideals continue to influence modern library service.

            Few of Green's papers are extant at the Worcester Free Public Library in Massachusetts. The standard assessment of his life and contributions is Robert K. Shaw, Samuel Swett Green, American Library Pioneers, no. 2 (1926), which is now dated. See also Z. W. Coombs, Samuel Swett Green, Worcester Free Public Library, Worcester, Mass.: Director, 18667-1971, Librarian, 1871-1909 (1909).


John V. Richardson Jr.