Ask any avid reader where she first fell in love with reading and you will hear time and again: “at my local library.” No matter if they are big or small, these repositories of knowledge offer more than just stacks of books; they represent safety, freedom, a gateway into the wider world, to readers from all walks of life. And at the helm of those libraries—serving as guides, gatekeepers, and fierce advocates—are librarians.
This week, Bas Bleu is highlighting just a few of the librarians who have made a lasting mark on the world. Some revolutionized the concept of libraries or shaped institutional practices still in use today; others you may recognize from their later careers, when they no longer worked behind the reference desk.
J. Edgar Hoover: You know him as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You may not know he once was on staff at the Library of Congress. Hoover was just eighteen when he began working at the library, staying on for several years while putting himself through night school at The George Washington University Law School. After graduation, he began his law-enforcement career with the U.S. Justice Department. But though you can take the man out of the library, you can’t take the library out of the man: Hoover allegedly modeled the FBI’s Central Records System on the Dewey decimal system.
Beverly Cleary: Fans of the beloved children’s author may be surprised to learn she grew up in a town with no library. Fortunately, Cleary’s mother coordinated with the State Library of Oregon to have books sent to their little town, where she set up a makeshift library in a local bank building. The family eventually moved to Portland, where Cleary availed herself of the public library and vowed to one day write the books she wanted to read but could never find: funny books about kids like her and her neighborhood friends. After graduating from the University of Washington, Cleary worked as a children’s librarian, where her young patrons echoed her childhood wishes for books about kids they could identify with. And thus Henry Huggins, Beezus, and Ramona were born!
Melvil Dewey: This famous librarian was a student assistant at Amherst College’s library when he developed the Dewey decimal system in 1876. The classification system revolutionized library organization, requiring books be shelved according to subject matter instead of physical size and date of acquisition. Dewey went on to help establish the American Library Association and co-found The Library Journal. He also established the world’s first library school at New York Columbia College (now Columbia University), and advocated admitting women to the program. Later, as director of the New York State Library, he created traveling libraries to serve communities without permanent ones. Unfortunately, for all his work revolutionizing America’s libraries, Dewey also leaves an unsavory legacy of sexual harassment, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Dorothy Porter: The Dewey decimal system may have revamped library organization, but it wasn’t perfect. In 1930, Dorothy Porter was named librarian of Howard University’s Moorland Foundation, a small collection of antislavery pamphlets and books that she expanded into a globally recognized repository for black history and culture. But while cataloging the contents of what is now known as the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Porter was frustrated by the Dewey decimal system’s limitations. At the time, books by or about black people were shelved under only two numbers: 325 (colonization) and 326 (slavery). Porter created her own classification system—and struck a blow to institutionalized racism—by organizing the collection to “highlight the foundational role of black people in all subject areas.”
Jorge Luis Borges: The Argentinean author once famously wrote “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library,” and, well…he would know! Borges worked at the Miguel Cané branch of the Municipal Library in Buenos Aires for nine years, until he was pressured to resign in retaliation for his criticism of President Juan Perón. After Perón was forced into exile in 1955, Borges was appointed head of the National Library in Buenos Aires, a post he held for eighteen years, despite being completely blind. His contributions as librarian are debated by many, but generally Borges is credited for increasing community access to the library and defending intellectual freedom.
Mary Jones: When Mary Jones took over as Los Angeles city librarian in 1900, she was the fifth woman to hold the position. (The first, Mary Foy, became librarian in 1880, when the library didn’t yet allow women to have their own library cards.) Library access was expanding nationwide, thanks to the largesse of Andrew Carnegie, and under Jones the L.A. library system thrived. Yet Jones is probably best remembered for “The Great Library War of 1905,” when an attempt by the library board to replace her with a man blew up into a battle of the sexes that rallied L.A.’s most powerful women and even earned the support of Susan B. Anthony. (To read more about the Great Library War, check out The Library Book by Susan Orlean and this blog series by the Los Angeles Public Library.)
Benjamin Franklin: This particular Founding Father wasn’t technically a librarian, but he did help to found the first subscription library in the United States. Colonial Americans had limited access to books, which were so expensive they were accessible primarily to the clergy and the wealthy. In 1731, Franklin and his pals from the Junto Club (a “mutual improvement” club) felt stymied intellectually by their limited access to books. So the men agreed to pool their money to create a private lending library: the Library Company of Philadelphia. The library rented space at Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774, and agreed to lend books to the delegates…becoming the first Library of Congress.
The Pack Horse Librarians: These librarians rode horses and mules into the hills and hollers of Appalachia to deliver books to impoverished Americans struggling through the Great Depression. Who says all superheroes wear capes?
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