Monday, December 19, 2011


Mary Jane Dustin grew up in rural Oregon.  Her daughter told me that as a young girl her mother was sent to live with distant cousins and was lonely.  The local librarian, however, was kind to her and “inspired her from an early age to aspire to be a librarian.”

After teaching in a one-room school, Bowles attended the University of Oregon and earned a BA in Journalism in 1925.  She worked in the university library as a student assistant and after graduation became a school librarian in the Bend (OR) High School.

Dustin moved to New York City to attend Columbia’s School of Library Service and earned her degree in 1929.  That same year she married Chessor O. Bowles (1901-1991), who was a social worker for the YMCA.

Bowles also entered NYPL in 1929 and initially worked in the Extension Division.  She became a Branch Librarian in 1938 and headed branches on Staten Island for the next 21 years.  She ended her career at NYPL heading the Inwood Branch for three years before retiring in 1962.

Mary Jane Bowles was active in community affairs on Staten Island and helped create the day care center at the Edwin Markham Houses.  She and her husband retired to North Carolina where they founded North Carolina Self Help for Hard of Hearing People.

Today would be Mary Jane Bowles 111th birthday.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

GERTRUDE COHEN (1858-1939)

Not much is known about Cohen’s early life except that she joined the Aguilar Free Library in 1896 and worked there until 1903 when the AFL consolidated with NYPL.  At the time of consolidation, Cohen was in charge of Aguilar’s Traveling Library Department.

At NYPL, Cohen organized the new Carnegie Branch at Port Richmond, Staten Island, 1904-1905, and then became the Branch Librarian at the 135th Street Branch.  In 1920 she transferred to head the 125th Street Branch and retired from that position in 1931.

Cohen was transferred out of 135th Street so that Ernestine Rose could develop the Library’s services to the growing African-American community around the branch.  While Rose is justly credited with having great success in that effort, some of those activities did begin under Cohen.

In 1914, Cohen hosted a Negro Civic Improvement League meeting which was attended by over 100 community residents.  A year later, Cohen also had an impact on Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) who was soon to become Harlem’s foremost radical and orator.  His biographer credits Cohen and James Weldon Johnson, writer and civil rights activist, with encouraging Harrison to concentrate on working with the “Negro masses” in Harlem. 

December 17th would have been Gertrude Cohen’s 153rd birthday.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

IRMA HORAK ERATH (1890-1953)

Irma Horak was born in the United States of parents from Germany, and she married William Erath, a German-born chemist, in 1923.  She maintained the connection to Germany by making at least six trips to that country with either her mother or her husband between the two world wars.

Horak joined the NYPL Training Class in 1903 when she was 18.  By 1911 she was promoted to be a Branch Librarian and over the next 35 years headed five branches.  She worked primarily at Staten Island branches, where she lived.  Erath retired in 1946 as head of the St. George Branch, the most important library center on the island.

The Branch Librarians were given a fair amount of autonomy and that may account for the fact that in the late 1920s and early 1930s Irma Erath negotiated directly with the Staten Island Borough President on the location, design and funding of the proposed West New Brighton Branch.  Her authority to deal directly with a political leader was probably reinforced by that fact that Erath was not just a librarian but was also a resident of the borough who was active in at least seven Staten Island civic organizations. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Today would be the 131st birthday of Minerva (or Minnie) Grimm.
Her father was a German-born cigar maker and her mother was born in NY.

Minerva Grimm began working at the New York Free Circulating Library in 1897 at the Bond Street Branch.  In 1898 she took the Harvard University summer course in English, a program aimed at teachers that was open to women.  Grimm transferred to the Yorkville Branch in 1900 and the following year was promoted to head that branch.

After consolidation, Grimm continued to head Yorkville until 1905 when she became Branch Librarian at the newly opened Tremont Branch in the Bronx.  In 1907 she took a leave of absence for unknown reasons.  She returned in 1908 as head of the newly opened Morrisania Branch and worked there until she resigned in 1929. 

When the NYPL Library School opened in 1911 Grimm became a part-time student while she headed Morrisania.  She received her certificate for completing the one-year course in 1913 and her degree for the two-year course in 1914.

There are only a few clues about Grimm’s life after she left NYPL.  The 1930 census shows her working for the Los Angles (CA) Public Library while the LAPL report for 1932 announced her resignation.  A 1936 voter registration list (she registered as a Republican) shows her living at the Rosicrucian Fellowship in San Diego and working as a librarian.  Another voter registration record for 1942 lists her as retired and living again in the Los Angeles area. 

Minerva Grimm died in Los Angeles in 1963.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Lucie (also spelled Lucy) Bohmert is an example of the paternalism of the NYPL administration which was reluctant to force out those “undependable and erratic” librarians who lacked a pension plan to provide support in their old age. 

Bohmert’s father was born in Germany, and Lucie Bohmert’s library career started in 1891 at the Ottendorfer Branch, which served a German neighborhood, of the New York Free Circulating Library.  In 1899 Bohmert became head of the NYFCL 34th Street Branch.  After the 1901 consolidation of the NYFCL into NYPL, Bohmert remained in place until 1908 when she became head of the St. Gabriel’s Park Branch, the new Carnegie building that replaced the 34th Street site.  In 1918 she returned to the Ottendorfer Branch and served as Branch Librarian for 16 years.

In 1934, Franklin Hopper, Chief of the Circulation Department, reported that Bohmert “never has been equal to the position of branch librarian and for the past few years she has been becoming more and more undependable and erratic.”   This is a remarkable assessment of someone who had been serving as a Branch Librarian for 35 years. 

Later that year the financial hardships caused by the Great Depression forced the Library “to release Miss Bohmert of her responsibility.”  In fact, she was one of only a dozen staff members who were put on furlough during the Depression.  Even then the Library found private funds to create a small allowance equal to about one-third of Bohmert’s former salary.
It is notable that it took the exigencies of the Great Depression to remove an aging librarian who was regarded as ineffective.  It would be three more years before the New York City librarians won a pension plan that provided them with a safety net.


Harriet E. Kemp was someone who sought out a variety of administrative experience during her career, and she took three leaves of absence to gain broader knowledge of librarianship outside of NYPL.  Kemp only served for five years as a Branch Librarian before becoming an administrator in the Circulation Department. 

Kemp received a BA in Classics from Mt. Holyoke in 1932 and immediately began working at NYPL.

She received her BS from Columbia’s School of Library Service in 1936 and took her first leave to spend a year as an exchange librarian at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. 

In 1942 Kemp took a leave of absence to become the head of Open Shelf Collection at the Portland (Maine) Public Library.  Upon her return to NYPL she served as Branch Librarian at two branches.   Kemp took her third leave in 1950-1952 to become the head of the Western Massachusetts Library Federation, an experimental library consortium in her home state.  When she returned to NYPL, Kemp served as the Assistant to the Chief of the Circulation Department and was promoted to Assistant Chief of the CD in 1956.

Harriet Kemp is also an example of a former union activist (she was Secretary of the Library Employees Union in the 1940s) who rose to the administrative ranks of the Circulation Department.

Today would be the 100th birthday of Harriet Kemp.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Gertrude Foster came from a Southern family that valued education and books.  Her grand niece told me that there was a long tradition of educated women on both sides of her family, and she described the Fosters as “book crazy.”  Gertrude Foster’s father was a surgeon and her mother was a teacher.

Gertrude Foster probably attended the Alabama Central Female College although it is not known if she graduated.

The 1900 census lists Foster as a Transcript Clerk in the Tuscaloosa Probate Court.  Later that year, she left that position to move to New York City and join the Aguilar Free Library.  She received her library training in 1901 at the Amherst Summer Institute.

Foster became an NYPL staff member when the Aguilar Free Library consolidated with NYPL in 1903.  In 1908 she was promoted to be Branch Librarian of the Stapleton Branch.  Three years later, she transferred to head the Jackson Square Branch in Greenwich Village and served there for the next 18 years.

In 1915 Forster married William Frederick Hamilton who had been born in Great Britain.  In 1920 she took a six-month leave of absence due to her own poor health and to care for her husband, who had contracted tuberculosis while serving in World War One.  He died in Montreal in October 1920.

In 1929 Gertrude Hamilton was forced to resign her position at NYPL due to poor health.  She moved to Sewanee TN and served as an assistant librarian in the university library 1929-1931.  She later returned to Alabama and lived with the family of her great niece.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Gladys Young was born in Iowa.  After graduation from Cedar Rapids High School, she worked as an Assistant Cataloger at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, 1908-1912.  She resigned that position to enter the NYPL Library School and finished the two-year program in 1914.

Young started working at NYPL in 1912 and was named First Assistant in Central Circulation even before she received her library degree.

In 1915 Young married Noel Leslie (1888-1974) an English-born actor.  It seems likely that they separated since she is not listed as a survivor in his obituary.

Gladys Leslie served as Branch Librarian at Seward Park, 1925-1927.  After the NYPL Library School closed in 1926, NYPL re-established its Training Class, and Leslie was named Supervisor of Training.  She was credited with attracting good trainees, some of whom later went on to get library degrees.

Leslie resigned from NYPL in 1930 and the following year was selected to organize the library for the newly founded Bennington College.  On her retirement as head of the college library in 1956, a notice in College & Research Libraries (Vol. 17, p. 441) recognized her as “entirely responsible for building a well balanced and mature book collection and for the efficient and friendly operation of the library.”

Today would be the 121st birthday of Gladys Y. Leslie.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Eliza B. Marquess was born in Crescent Hill, Kentucky.  Her father was a minister and college professor, who died in New York City in 1921. 

Eliza Marquess graduated from the Wadleigh High School for Girls, the first public girls’ school in New York City.  She then entered Barnard College and in 1917 received her BA in French.  After graduation, Marquess became an editorial assistant at the publishing house of Longman's Green & Co.

Marquess started at NYPL in 1918 as a substitute, and later did both children’s work and school and reference work.  She entered the NYPL Library School in 1926, but it does not appear that she finished the studies required to receive a certificate. 

In 1933 she was promoted to Superintendent of the Book Order Office (BOO) and served there until 1944.  A 1938 profile in the New York Times called Marquess one of the largest book buyers in the world and noted that she had purchased one million books for NYPL in her first five years in BOO--despite the fact that New York City had cut the allocation for book purchases in 1933 due to the Depression. 

In her book, An Ample Field (Chicago: ALA, 1950), Amelia Munson (a colleague at NYPL) quoted Eliza Marquess’ definition of book selection as “‘the practice of supplying people with the books they want, and of setting before them the books they don’t know that they want.’”

In 1944, Marquess left BOO and returned to branch work as head of the Harlem Branch.  She retired from NYPL in 1962.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Katherine L. O’Brien was born in upstate New York, 104 years ago today.

In 1928 she graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Classics from Wells College.  After graduation, Katherine O’Brien became an assistant in the Albany (NY) Public Library, 1929-1930.  She then entered the Columbia University School of Library Service and earned a BLS in 1931.

O’Brien entered NYPL in 1931 and worked in the Central Circulation Branch until 1942.  In that year she was promoted to be Branch Librarian at the Riverside Branch and later held the same position at the St. George Branch on Staten Island.

In 1950 Kay O’Brien, as she was known, drew up a plan to implement what was called regionalization.  She proposed creating the position of Staten Island Coordinator who would supervise all the branches in that borough.  The plan was adopted, and O’Brien was named to the position.  Regionalization was later extended to the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx.

In 1955 O’Brien was promoted to Coordinator of the Donnell Branch.  This new building in midtown Manhattan housed a general collection plus Young Adult Services and the Central Children’s Room in addition to special units for Education, Foreign Language and Film.  In 1957 O’Brien was promoted to be the head of the Office of Adult Services.

In 1967 O’Brien was chosen to develop and head the new Mid-Manhattan Branch which was to be the new central circulating library diagonally across Fifth Avenue from the Central Building.   It officially opened in 1970.

After serving as a Branch Librarian and having developed two new library centers in midtown Manhattan, O’Brien retired in 1976.  Her career at NYPL, however, was not over.  A year after she retired, O’Brien was asked to return to NYPL to become the Personnel Officer.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Rachel C. Perry was born in NJ and was a graduate of the New Jersey Normal School in the early 1880s.  She held a NJ teaching certificate in 1882.  She probably had no formal library training.

Perry worked as an Assistant in the Aguilar Free Library 1900-1903, at the East Broadway and 110th Street branches. 

After consolidation Rachel Perry continued to work at the 110th Street Branch.  The new Aguilar Branch replaced the old 110th Street Branch in 1905, and Perry was named First Assistant.  In 1907 she was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Aguilar Branch.  The following year, Perry took a leave of absence (probably for health reasons) and it was reported that she found the work was “too hard for her”. 

Perry returned to NYPL in 1910 to work in the Traveling Library Department but in a lower level position.  She resigned at the end of 1915 after another prolonged illness.  At that time she moved to Wallingford CT.

Today would be the 159th birthday of Rachel Perry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Louise P. Berry was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky and attended Hamilton College in Lexington KY, 1899-1900. 

In 1907 she married George P. Bull (1876-1915), a farmer in Florida.  She apparently returned home to Kentucky after his death and moved to NYC a year later.

Louise P. Bull, as she was known at NYPL, entered the NYPL Library School in 1916 and completed the two-year degree program in 1918.  Bull received a regular appointment to NYPL in 1917 and after 1919 spent her entire career at the Mott Haven Branch in the Bronx.  She served as Branch Librarian at Mott Haven from 1923 until her retirement in 1948.

Tight city budgets in the 1920s made operations difficult for NYPL.  Bull’s annual reports at Mott Haven often commented on the impact of low salaries and high turnover on library efficiency.  She complained that the low pay attracted unqualified employees and that good staff members often left.  In her 1925 report she cited one librarian who after receiving six months of training left for a Long Island library with a one-third increase in salary.  A year later Bull reported that the branch had had 31 different staff members during the year, but only seven of them had worked in the branch the previous year. 

Today would be the 128th birthday of Louise Bull.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Charlotte E. Wallace was born in Wallingford CT.

She received a certificate from the Pratt Institute Library School in 1897 and took the children’s librarians course at Pratt in 1900.

Wallace began working as a librarian in 1900 at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburg and headed two branches there.  In 1910 she moved to the Seattle Public Library, where she was Superintendent of Circulation.  She resigned in 1912 to travel abroad with her mother.  They returned from Europe in 1914, and that year Charlotte Wallace was appointed Branch Librarian at the Yorkville Branch.

Wallace resigned from NYPL in 1916 to marry Dwight Clark (ca. 1869-1935), an industrialist and director of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation.  After her marriage she used the name Elizabeth W. Clark.  They lived in Pittsburgh, 1916-1920, and then moved to Washington DC., where they lived until at least 1930. 

Today would be Charlotte Wallace’s 138th birthday.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ESTHER K. JOHNSTON (1886-1986)

Esther Johnston was born on this day 125 years ago.  As a child she knew that she wanted to be a librarian, and as an adult she became the first woman to head NYPL’s Circulation Department. 

Johnston had no college education and her library training consisted of earning a certificate from the Wisconsin Library School in 1908.  Her first professional position was at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (1908-1909).  She then returned to Wisconsin to head the Marshfield Free Library (1909-1910) and then served as head of the Lake Forest (IL) Public Library (1910-1916).

Johnston was hired to be the First Assistant at the Seward Park Branch in 1916, for what she later called a “trial run” that she would undertake for a year.  At the end of that year she was made the Acting Branch Librarian and then served as head of Seward Park, 1917-1923.  She took a leave of absence in 1919 to spend eight months working for the ALA Overseas War Service to aid France’s recovery after World War I.

In 1923 Johnston was given an important assignment to organize work at the new Fordham Branch in the Bronx.  Then from 1924-1941 Johnston was the head of NYPL’s Central Circulation Branch, the busiest branch in the system.  In 1941 she became Supervisor of Branches—the second highest position in the Circulation Department.

Johnston was the Acting Chief of the Circulation Department 1943-1945 while the Chief, Francis R. St. John, served in the Navy.  She resumed her old position upon his return from the war.  St. John left NYPL at the end of 1946.  Johnston was promoted to Chief in 1947 and headed the system until her retirement in 1951.  In this position she oversaw a staff or more than a 1,000 employees.

While this promotion was a breakthrough for women administrators at NYPL, even Johnston still faced day-to-day obstacles.  For instance, Johnston, as Chief, presented a report at the monthly meetings of the Committee on Circulation.  This NYPL committee sometimes met at a private club which admitted only men as members.  Therefore, Esther Johnston was forced to use the service elevator, in the rear of the building, to reach to meeting room where the all-male Committee on Circulation was meeting.

1946-Mar 15

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Louise E. Jones was born in Wisconsin 132 years ago today.

Prior to becoming a librarian, Jones was interested in both teaching and art.  She earned a diploma in Latin from the Oshkosh Normal School in 1900 and then became a teacher.  She left teaching to come to New York City and earned a degree in Manual Art from Pratt Institute in 1906.

In 1910 she entered NYPL and began studying at Teachers College (earning a BS in 1911).  She later earned a two-year degree from the NYPL Library School in 1916.

Louise Jones was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Rivington Street Branch in 1917.   She was transferred to the Aguilar Branch in 1920 and was credited with turning around a troubled branch.  In 1921 she was transferred to the Tremont Branch in the Bronx.  This was regarded as a very important assignment, and at the time Jones was described as “unquestionably one of the most able graduates" of the NYPL Library School.

Louise Jones resigned from NYPL in 1923, shortly after her mother’s death.  She subsequently moved to Denver where she served as Supervisor of Libraries for the public schools, 1923-1924.  She then moved to Los Angeles to work at the LA Public Library, eventually becoming head of the Philosophy and Religion Department.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

ELLA M. SAUER (1864-1937)

Today would be Ella Sauer’s 147th birthday.

Ella Sauer started work at the New York Free Circulating Library in 1886 and eventually headed three NYFCL branches.  She was serving as the Treasurer’s Assistant in 1901 when the NYFCL consolidated with NYPL.  Sauer continued to do administrative work in NYPL’s Circulation Department until being named as Branch Librarian for the Bond Street Branch.  After that she also headed the St. Agnes and Washington Heights branches. 

Sauer was regarded as one of the finest librarians in the Circulation Department although her work suffered as her health began to decline in the 1920s.  In 1927 the Director reported that “Her 41 years of excellent service seem to have exhausted her capacity for work.”  Sauer, however, did not have the funds to support herself in retirement.  After her death, the minutes of the Trustees’ Committee on Circulation noted that “she stayed on year after year in the hope for a pension.  It is tragic that just at the time the pension seems definitely in sight Miss Sauer should die.”  Sauer died on March 30, 1937, and the pension plan became effective on July 1st of that year


Dorothea H. Waples was one of the few NYPL librarians whose mother was a college graduate.  Her mother, Agnes Howson Waples, graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1897 and worked as a teacher.

Dorothea Waples attended Wellesley College and received an AB in 1929.  In 1931 she earned her library degree from Columbia’s School of Library Service.  For eight years after getting her library degree, she worked as an Assistant Librarian in Columbia University’s Business School Library 1931-1939

Waples left Columbia to join NYPL’s Readers Advisor Office in 1939.  In 1943 she transferred to the Yorkville Branch as the Assistant Branch Librarian.  In 1945 she was promoted to be the Branch Librarian at Yorkville. 

Waples resigned from NYPL in 1946 just months after she married Simon Lissim (1900-1981).  Lissim was a Russian born artist, who emigrated to the United States in 1941 and the following year received a grant from the Emergency Committee to Aid Displaced Foreign Scholars to teach art classes in several NYPL branches.

Today would be Dorothy Waples Lissim’s 104th birthday.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Marjorie L. White was born and died in Bennington VT.  She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1920 with a BA in History and afterwards moved to New York City to work in the Teachers College Library.

White entered NYPL in 1923 and was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Hamilton Fish Park Branch in 1939.  She then headed the Wakefield Branch, 1941-1948.  In 1948 she resigned from NYPL shortly after she married Hans Ernst Friederich (1884-1967), a German-born insurance adjustor.  White returned to NYPL in 1949 and was re-appointed to her former position at Wakefield.  She headed that branch until her retirement in 1953.

In her first annual report at the Wakefield Branch in 1941, Marjorie White reflected the optimism of NYPL librarians and their faith in humanity, even as World War II began.  White wrote:  “the hope that America may lead the way in solving world problems seems suddenly quite possible.  We see moving about the room without friction or ill-will the descendants of those nations on both sides of the world’s most devastating conflict.”  For White, the ethnic coexistence reflected in her small branch library in the Bronx had a positive meaning that gave her hope even as this new “devastating conflict” erupted around the world.

Today would be the 114th birthday of Marjorie White.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Isabella M. Cooper had one of the most varied careers among the NYPL Branch Librarians.  She was a librarian, bibliographer, and library educator who worked in public, special, academic and federal libraries.  She was also unusually well-educated for her time.

Cooper graduated from the Emma Willard School in Troy NY in 1894.  She then entered what is now Teachers College to study elementary education.   She received a BA from Barnard College in 1901.  Cooper entered the NYPL Training Class in 1904 and later got her BLS from the New York State Library School in 1908.  She later returned to Teachers College and got an MA in 1912-- making her the first librarian in this study to earn a Master’s degree.

Isabella Cooper worked at NYPL in 1904-1907, 1908-1909, 1916-1920, and 1921-1924.  During the last two of these periods she served as head of the Central Circulation branch.

In between these stints at NYPL, Cooper worked at the Newark Public Library (1909-1910), taught at the Simmons College library school ((1910-1913), and worked for the Brooklyn Public Library (1913-1915) and the American Committee for Devastated France (1920-1921).  She later worked for the Queens Borough Public Library, McGraw-Hill, the Works Progress Administration, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the New-York Historical Society.  As a freelancer, Cooper produced bibliographies on References to Beer and Ale (1937) and Educational Broadcasting (1942).

When Cooper left NYPL for the last time in 1924, she became the editor of the A.L.A. Catalog, the second update of ALA’s original 1904 annotated list used by librarians to select the best books.  Cooper’s 1926 edition included 10,000 titles that would be of interest to public library users looking for current fiction and non-fiction.  The ALA Catalog was probably the most significant of Cooper’s contributions to the library profession.

Today would be Isabella M. Cooper’s 137th birthday.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Emily F. McCormick was born in Pennsylvania where her father was a lumber merchant.  After high school she entered Vassar College and received her AB in 1922.

Shortly after graduating from college, McCormick started working as a substitute at NYPL.  After a year of substituting McCormick took a leave of absence to attend the NYPL Library School and completed the one-year certificate course in 1924.  She then received a regular appointment at the Fordham Branch. 

McCormick worked in the Extension Division, 1926-1936, and for a short period in 1936 she was the Acting Superintendent of the Book Order Office.  McCormick was promoted to Branch Librarian in 1937 at the Epiphany Branch.  She later served two years as head of the Aguilar Branch and finally headed the Bloomingdale Branch for 20 years, 1941-1961, before retiring.

I was once told by a librarian at the Bloomingdale Branch that Emily McCormick was known for taking staff members of the branch with her on trips to Europe.  This would certainly be an interesting fact, if true.  While her father was a successful businessman, it is not clear that McCormick would have had enough money to pay for the vacations of staff members.  In fact the ship passenger lists available through do not support this story.  While McCormick did travel to Europe, as did other Branch Librarians, I found that there was no evidence that any NYPL staff members accompanied her on these trips. This story is apparently an oral tradition that got mangled over the years.

Friday, September 23, 2011

CATHERINE A. FAY (1880-1953)

Catherine Fay was born in Northern Ireland on this day 131 years ago.

I know nothing of her schooling but do know that she had no formal library training.

Fay had been a volunteer at the Cathedral Free Library before she joined NYPL in 1908.  She spent most of her career at the Cathedral Branch, serving as a children’s librarian and then as head of the branch.  She retired in 1946.

It isn’t certain, but it is likely, that Catherine Fay was one of 16 Catholics who served as head of an NYPL branch, prior to 1950.  The Cathedral Branch was originally the headquarters of the Cathedral Free Library, which was absorbed by NYPL in 1905.  It was housed in space provided by the Archdiocese of New York, and Fay’s predecessor at the Cathedral Branch had been a Catholic.  Thus, it is very probable that Catherine Fay was herself Catholic, but I have not been able to prove this as yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Until the late 1930s, New York City librarians did not have pensions, and H. Estelle Olmsted (as she was known at NYPL) is a good example of how the lack of retirement allowances impacted library services.  As the librarians aged, they could not afford to quit, and the Library kept them on payroll despite their infirmities. 

Olmsted graduated from Auburn (NY) High School in 1882 and taught in the town’s public schools for at least three years, maybe more.  She entered the NYPL Training Class in 1902 and earned a regular position in 1903.  Olmsted was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Tottenville Branch in 1908 and remained there until 1917.  She then transferred to be the Branch Librarian at the Stapleton Branch and served there until 1929, when she died suddenly.

In 1927, Edwin H. Anderson, the Director of NYPL, wrote that Olmsted (who was then 64 years old) was "a mere shadow of herself ... stooped and shriveled and hardly able to get about".  Although she could barely walk around the branch to serve users, Olmsted kept working the best she could since she would be unable to support herself if she retired. 

Anderson’s memo also listed five other librarians, with between 25-41 years of service at NYPL, who were described as “feeble”, “practically blind”, or “exhausted”.  All were single women with no other means of support, and NYPL kept all of them on payroll.  Another decade would pass before a pension plan was finally enacted for all NYPL librarians and retirement at a reasonable age became the norm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Ida Buchanan Lowther was born in Northern Ireland and came to the United States at the age of three. 

She had no college and probably no library training either.

She started working in the New York Free Circulating Library in 1898 and worked at two branches prior to the NYFCL’s consolidated with NYPL in 1901.

Ida Lowther was appointed Branch Librarian at the 96th Street Branch in 1905 and transferred to the new Carnegie-funded Melrose Branch in 1913 and served there until her retirement in 1939.

In 1913, Lowther married Arthur Molnar who worked for the YMCA and later became a real estate agent.  Thus, Ida Lowther Molnar became the first Branch Librarian to be married and remain in her position as Branch Librarian. 

Today would be Ida molnar's 139th birthday.


Dorothy H. Robinson was born and grew up in Washington DC.  In 1919 she received a BA from the Howard University Teachers College.  It seems likely that she began teaching at that point, but I have not been able to confirm that possibility

In 1931 she came to New York City to attend the School of Library Service at Columbia University and received her degree in October 1932.

Homer worked at NYPL, 1932-1935, but then returned to her hometown to be a librarian at Miners Teachers College.  In December 1935 Dorothy Robinson married Theodore H. Homer, Jr., who was a pharmacist.

She returned to NYPL in 1938 to be the Acting First Assistant at the 135th Street Branch, serving under Ernestine Rose.  Homer who was described as  "a southern lady" who was "soft-spoken, very quiet" was clearly being groomed as Rose’s successor.   As First Assistant, she helped Rose bring artists, writers, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance into the 135th Street Branch.

When Rose retired in 1942, the Harlem community wanted an African-American appointed as her replacement.  The NYPL administration, however, thought that Homer needed an additional one or two years experience before being promoted.  In the end, NYPL acceded to community pressure and named Homer as Acting Branch Librarian and later appointed her to the position permanently.  Thus Dorothy Homer became the first African-American to head the 135th Street Branch which was the center of NYPL’s efforts to serve the Harlem community.   Homer was also one of the three African-Americans  who headed a neighborhood branch of NYPL before 1950.  (See Regina Andrews and Jean Blackwell for the the others).

In 1962 Homer was promoted to work in the Office of Branch Librarians and she retired in 1964.

Today would be Dorothy Homer’s 114th birthday.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Florence Normile graduated from Wadleigh High School for Girls in Harlem in 1910 and began work as a clerk for a publisher.
She joined the NYPL Probationary Class in 1911 and became a children’s librarian in 1912.  That year Normile also started classes at the NYU School of Commerce but never graduated.  She also took some classes in the NYPL Library School.

Between 1912 and 1928 Normile worked at 11 different branches in all three boroughs served by NYPL—Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.  During that time she lived in Manhattan with her mother.

Normile was appointed Branch Librarian at the Port Richmond Branch on Staten Island in 1928 and the following year became head of the Hunt’s Point Branch in the Bronx.  In 1933 she took a leave of absence due to illness, and she never returned to NYPL.  I have no information on her life after that point except that she was receiving Social Security benefits in Central Islip NY when she died in 1984.

Today would be Florence Normile’s 119th birthday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Frederick Goodell started working as a page in the Detroit Public Library in 1902.  In 1906 he was head of reference but left to attend the University of Michigan.  He dropped out of college during his first year due to health issues.  Goodell returned to DPL in 1907 but resigned in 1912 to attend the NYPL Library School. 

In 1913, as Goodell entered his second year of library school, he was appointed to be the First Assistant at the Hamilton Fish Park Branch and was soon promoted to Branch Librarian.  He later headed the Seward Park and Epiphany Branches.  He resigned in 1916 to return to Detroit.

Goodell’s short tenure at NYPL illustrates some of the gender tensions faced by the library profession and NYPL in the early twentieth century. 

When Goodell applied for admission to the NYPL Library School, two of his reference letters were from administrators at the Detroit Public Library and both commented on gender issues.  One, by a woman, pointedly described Goodell as “manly” while a second from the male Assistant Librarian recommended him to NYPL because he “would profit considerably from some hard professional training and at least temporary removal from the feminine friendliness of our staff.”  

Indeed, Goodell did “profit” from working at NYPL.  He was promoted quicker and was paid more than most of the female Branch Librarians.   At the start of the his second year in library school he was hired at the First Assistant level and the following month was promoted to Branch Librarian.  His rise was exceptionally rapid as was the increase in his salary—in a short period of time it went from $75 to $110/month, higher than 80% of the women Branch Librarians.  Keyes D. Metcalf’s memoir Random Recollections of an Anachronism  (Readex, 1980; page 130) cited this as an example of how women were discriminated against in the NYPL Circulation Department.

After leaving NYPL Goodell worked for the ALA Library War Service, 1917-1920.  He then enrolled in the University of Detroit Law School and graduated in 1924.  Goodell practiced law in Detroit for the next 38 years.  In 1962-1965 he served as Librarian/Administrator of the Detroit Bar Association and wrote a column about the library’s holdings for the Association’s newsletter. 

Today would be Frederick Goodell’s 126th birthday.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Elizabeth King was born in Michigan 107 years ago.  She attended the University of Michigan and received an AB in liberal arts in 1926.  During her college years she worked as a substitute and then a reference librarian at the Hackley Public Library in Muskegon MI.

Upon her graduation from college, King moved to New York City and began substituting at NYPL.  She entered the NYPL Training Class in 1927 and worked as both a children’s librarian and as a school and reference librarian.   She received her certificate from Pratt Institute’s Library School in 1930.

In 1936 King studied British library methods as an exchange librarian at the Bury-Knowle Branch of the Oxford (England) Public Library.  A year after her return, she was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Washington Heights Branch, 1937-1939, and also headed the Hudson Park Branch, 1939-1943.

Upon her return from England In 1936, King married Louis Charles M. Abolin (1886-1968) who worked for the US Labor Department.  Elizabeth King Abolin resigned from NYPL in 1943 when her husband was transferred to Washington DC.  Between 1949-1954 she worked in several federal and special libraries in the Washington DC area.   She was later Coordinator of Adult Services at the Prince George’s County Memorial Library in Maryland. 


Annie Jungermann was born in Georgia and earned a certificate in librarianship from the Carnegie Library School of Atlanta in 1914.  Her first professional position was as an Assistant Librarian at the University of North Carolina.  Also working in the UNC library was William Cecil Rymer, a student assistant from Hendersonville NC who would graduate in 1916. 

In 1916, Jungermann took a job at the Birmingham (AL) Public Library and two years later moved to the Montgomery (AL) Public Library. 

In 1918, she married William C. Rymer who was then a Second Lieutenant in the US Army.   The marriage was short-lived since the Army later reported him to be lost in action. 

Anne J. Rymer moved to New York City and entered NYPL in 1920.  She served as a First Assistant at three busy branches in New York’s Lower East Side.  In an undated note, an NYPL administrator recalled that Rymer worked “in the midst of the thickly populated east side, in the centre of Manhattan Jewry.  It was severe in its demands on the technical skill, nervous and physical strength of its staff, to say nothing about their professional attainments and their stock of common sense.”  In 1923 she was transferred to the newly opened Fordham Branch and served there as Branch Librarian, 1924-1928.  In the latter year she resigned to become head of the new Scarsdale (NY) Public Library.  It was reported that she sought this suburban position in order “to be relieved of tension” of urban library services.

Rymer worked in Scarsdale until 1948 when she retired to Hendersonville NC, her deceased husband’s home town.

Today would be Annie Rymer’s 118th birthday.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Eunice C. Wilson was educated in private schools but had no formal college or library school training.

Wilson joined NYPL in 1904 and became a Branch Librarian when the new Carnegie building for the Fort Washington Branch opened in 1914.  In 1918 she was transferred to be the second librarian to head the 58th Street Branch a position Wilson held until her retirement in 1941. 

Shortly after going to 58th Street, Eunice Wilson began the development of a special Music Library at the branch. 

Wilson’s predecessor at 58th Street was Pauline Leipziger, a singer who had added Beethoven scores to the branch’s collection.  Wilson continued that effort and in 1920 the Library officially created the Music Library as a special unit at the 58th Street Branch.  Dorothy Lawton was hired to head the Music Library.   Under Wilson’s and Lawton’s leadership, the branch continued to add scores and also purchased books on music and dance.  They also starting collecting phonodiscs in 1928 and in 1930 installed a phonograph booth so users could listen to music.  The branch also frequently sponsored concerts.

September 6th would have been Eunice Wilson’s 138th birthday. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Jean F. Blackwell grew up in Baltimore and became one of the most influential African-American librarians in the United States.  Her career at NYPL encapsulated the problems African-Americans faced as the Library integrated its staff.

Jean Blackwell started college at the University of Michigan but quit when she was denied the right to live in an integrated dormitory.  She transferred to Barnard College and earned her BA in 1935.

Following Barnard she entered Columbia’s School of Library Service.  Upon her graduation in 1936, Blackwell applied for a job at NYPL, but she was told that NYPL did not need more Negro assistants.

The initial rejection of Blackwell’s application was the result of a de facto quota system.  Since 1920 the Library had been committed to having an integrated staff at the 135th Street Branch, which served Manhattan’s rapidly growing Black community.   NYPL’s well-intentioned integration policy, however, imposed a quota since the 135th Street Branch was the only branch that accepted new African-American librarians. 

Fortunately for Blackwell, the National Urban League intervened, and she was soon hired as a substitute at 135th Street.  Once hired, Ernestine Rose, her Branch Librarian, became her mentor, and with Rose’s encouragement Blackwell began to rise through NYPL’s ranks.

Even with Rose’s support, Blackwell continued to run into obstacles.  Generally a Branch Librarian could select her own staff members, and this was another factor hindering integration.  In 1938 Blackwell was transferred to the Harlem Branch, in an area experiencing an influx of African-Americans, without the approval of the white Branch Librarian.  Blackwell recalled that this librarian refused to speak to her directly due to this breach of NYPL protocol.    

In 1947 Blackwell was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Washington Heights Branch.  She only served as Branch Librarian a short time before being made Acting Curator of the Schomburg Collection, a special collection at the 135th Street Branch which documenting the African Diaspora.   She was eventually made full-time curator and served there until her retirement in 1980.

Despite her short tenure as Branch Librarian, Jean Blackwell Hutson’s major contribution to NYPL was building the Schomburg Collection into one of the worlds best repositories on the history and culture of people of African descent.  That collection is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

Friday, September 2, 2011


One of the issues I am studying focuses on the autonomy the Branch Librarians had to run their branch and how that autonomy began to erode in the 1920s.  Isabel de Treville’s career illustrates that autonomy.

Isabel De Treville, as she was generally known at NYPL, was actually named Sarah Isabelle de Treville at birth.  She was part of a prominent South Carolina family but moved to NYC in the mid-1880s.  She joined the New York Free Circulating Library in 1891 and was promoted to head the NYFCL’s George Bruce Branch in 1898

De Treville continued to head the George Bruce Branch from consolidation with NYPL in 1901 until 1913.  At that point she transferred to be the first Branch Librarian of the new Carnegie building for the West 40th Street Branch.  In 1915 she transferred back to George Bruce and headed it until her death in 1929.

Fourteen years after her death the Library uncovered a practice that illustrated the autonomy the Branch Librarians could exercise over the operation of their branches.  The Circulation Department discovered that the George Bruce Branch had never stamped its books “Property of the City of New York” as was required by the 1901 contract between NYPL and NYC which established the Circulation Department.  Every other branch followed the contract provision.  In a 1943 memo about the contract violation, the Director wrote: “My guess … is that it goes back to Miss de Treville, who was for many years librarian of the old Bruce Library and then the George Bruce Branch.  She was a very independent person and operated the George Bruce Branch as independently from the system as a whole as possible.”  

Today would be the 148th birthday of this autonomy-seeking librarian.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Anna M. Wallace was one of a dozen Catholics who headed an NYPL branch, 1901-1950.

Anna Wallace had no higher education and no formal library training, but she and her sister Agnes were among a small group of volunteers who helped organize the Cathedral Free Library in 1887-1888.  Agnes became head librarian for the CFL, which eventually grew to have five branches.  Anna was promoted to head the Amsterdam Avenue Branch in 1902.  The CFL consolidated with NYPL as of January 1, 1905.

Upon consolidation, Agnes left to become a public school teacher.  Anna continued to head the Amsterdam Avenue Branch until 1907 when it was replaced by a new Carnegie building and renamed Hamilton Grange.  Anna headed the Hamilton Grange Branch until her death in 1920.

Mary L. Wallace, niece of Anna and Agnes, joined NYPL in 1909 and initially worked under Anna Wallace at Hamilton Grange.  She was promoted to Branch Librarian in 1941.

Today would be Anna Wallace’s 153rd birthday.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Elizabeth Foote received a BA in 1888 from Syracuse University and was the only NYPL Branch Librarian to earn a college degree prior to 1900.  She received her library degree in 1892 from the NY State Library School.  Beginning in 1891, she worked as a cataloger or organizer at seven public libraries in upstate New York and one academic library (Colgate University).   

In 1897 Melvil Dewey recommended Foote to Dr. John Shaw Billings, NYPL’s first Director, and she was hired as a Cataloger.  When the Circulation Department was formed in 1901 she became head of the Library’s Training Class.  Foote’s position at NYPL changed when Edwin Anderson became Assistant Director in 1908.  He was known for building strong library staffs and advised Billings that Foote was not the best person to attract good candidates to the Training Class.  She was finally moved out of that position in 1911 when the NYPL opened its own Library School.   At that time she was appointed Branch Librarian at the 125th Street Branch.

Foote liked working with foreign populations and was interested in the issue of Americanization of immigrants.  Nonetheless, she rejected a transfer to the Seward Park Branch, which served a largely Jewish population, since she felt that she could not “understand the foreign language or the foreign character” of that community.

This lack of understanding perhaps had its roots in her religious beliefs.  Foote, whose father was a Methodist minister, was active in summer evangelical campaigns in NYC.  She also wrote three pamphlets on church libraries: The Librarian of the Sunday School (1897), Strengthening the Sunday School Library (1903), and The Church Library (1931). 

In 1916 Foote was put in charge of the Aguilar branch which ironically had been the headquarters of the Aguilar Free Library, a Jewish-run library until it consolidated with NYPL in 1903.  In 1920 she was transferred out of Aguilar on the grounds that the conditions in the branch “have been exceedingly unsatisfactory.” 

A few months later E.L. Foote resigned from NYPL and became the head librarian at the Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey.  That lasted only two years until she resigned in the midst of a dispute over her authority to run the library. 

Foote returned to the Syracuse area and received an MA from Syracuse University in 1924.  She continued to live in Syracuse and remained be active in religious undertakings. 

Today would be the 145th birthday of Elizabeth L. Foote.