These pioneering librarians were ones for the books
"Libraries are the enemies of books," a bookseller told me when I was starting to learn about the used book trade. I could see what he meant. Libraries put taped labels on books, or write impossible-to-remove Dewey Decimal System catalog numbers on the books' spines. They tattoo books with rubber stamps and sometimes remove copyright pages. And in the used book world, two of the most frightening words are "ex-lib," meaning "it used to be a library book." To the used and antiquarian booksellers, books are objects judged in large part on their condition. To the librarian, books are objects judged by their utility.
But librarians deserve our support and respect, and I've developed more of both since reading Susan Orlean's "The Library Book," a lively history of the Los Angeles Library centered around an arsonist's catastrophic act in 1986.
What appealed to me most about the book was not so much the history of the library, but rather the history of its librarians. The first female librarian in the U.S. (and the second librarian in LA) was Mary Foy (above right), hired at 18 to be the citiy librarian. "While it is surprising that such a young person would have been considered...the bigger surprise was that this young woman was a woman, since in 1880 the library was an organization run by, and still catering to men," Orlean wrote. Women weren't even allowed to have their own library cards, although librarian was one of the few career paths women of that day could pursue.
Foy was stern and efficient. Even though the library didn't yet have a catalog, she could find anything on the shelves quickly. She pursued overdue fines with a vengeance, depositing them in a leather purse she wore slung across here chest. Among her responsibilities was refereeing chess and checker games played in the reading room. Foy probably could have continued to be the city librarian for years, Orlean wrote, but the library board voted to remove her when it concluded that her father was wealthy enough that he now could afford to take care of her.
In 1900, another woman, Mary Jones (above left) became the first city librarian to have graduated from a library school. She was serious, efficient, and innovative in her own quiet way. She began her term by dropping the age limit for children, allowing ten-year-olds to come in. She recruited African-American librarians for library branches in neighborhoods with large Black populations and encouraged them to built book collections about "the Negro experience." The library thrived, doubling its circulation in just four years. This was at a time when libraries were either private or charged membership fees, a situation that changed with the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who ended up building 1,700 libraries.
As for Ms. Jones, she, too, was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a man. The rumor was that she had been propositioned by the head of the library board, but she had turned him down.
While we commonly think of librarians as the ones in the public libraries, there are all sorts of specialized librarians. Most universities have special collections librarians who oversee highly directed book collections that the university has built or been given or both. Companies have librarians who can research virtually any aspect of an organization's interests. And public librarians have evolved as well, as have public libraries, which have new challenges these days including a large homeless clientele and routine disputes with persons who want to ban this book or that one. But, still, do they really have to use those stamps?
Source: The Library Book by Susan Orlean.