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

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