Thursday, March 31, 2011


Alice Vielehr was born on March 31st in Constantinople in 1900 or 1901 and worked at the New York Public Library, 1927-1965.  I have found very little about her life during the years before she started at NYPL.  She came to the US about 1919 and did office work in Buffalo in 1923-1926.

When she started at NYPL in 1927, she was known as Mrs. Alice Van Arnam and was listed under that name in February 1930.  Sometime prior to 1932, she married Oscar A. Vielehr.

She was hired by NYPL in 1927 and worked primarily in Cataloging.  As she wrote in 1941 “I was never cut out to be a cataloger”, so she took a leave of absence in 1932 to get her library degree from Pratt Institute.  At Pratt she discovered work with young people and it was in that specialty that she made her first mark at NYPL working at the Harlem, Hamilton Fish Park, Muhlenberg, and Melrose branches.

Vielehr was promoted to Branch Librarian in 1945 at Hudson Park in Greenwich Village.  Over the next 20 years Vielehr made Hudson Park into a center for the cultural life of the Village.  The branch sponsored chamber music concerts, film forums, exhibits, poetry readings, theater presentations, and discussion groups.  Its small art gallery held exhibits of professional and amateur painters, photographers and sculptors.  Vielehr made certain that the programs were accompanied by tables with books relevant to the program so attendees could browse the books.  She believed that the programs would open new horizons and also promote more reading. 

Alice Vielehr died in New York City in 1994.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Today would be the 121st birthday of Helen H. Morgan who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was educated in private schools.   She worked at NYPL from 1919-1954, and her experience during the 1930s was typical of many NYPL librarians.

Morgan became a librarian in 1914 at the Cincinnati Public Library, but soon left to attend the Pratt Institute Library School.   After getting her Pratt degree in 1915, she became a cataloger at the Brooklyn Museum and then returned to CPL in 1916.  Morgan came back to NYC in 1918 and worked at the Hispanic Museum and Columbia University before joining NYPL in 1919. 

Helen Morgan is an example of the hardships that the branch staff suffered during the Great Depression.  The City of New York, which provided the funds for staff salaries in the Circulation Department, put strict controls on any salary increases and also limited promotions as a cost-saving measure.  In 1927, Helen Morgan had passed the Grade 4 exam which made her eligible for promotion to Branch Librarian, but it took her 15 years to be promoted to the higher grade.  She was appointed Acting Branch Librarian at the 67th Street Branch in 1938, one of many of her generation that took on a higher job classification without any increase in pay. 

In 1942 Morgan was finally promoted to head the Jackson Square Branch and served there until her retirement in 1954. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Yesterday, Larry Nix at Library History Buff posted an entry displaying a post card from the 96th Street Branch asking a reader to return a book since there had been infectious disease in the household.  The Library knew this because the NYC Department of Health had alerted it to this fact.

Destroying or fumigating so-called diseased books had been Library practice for some time.  I have seen a note that the Webster Free Library (serving the Czech community on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) destroyed a book checked out by a user with diphtheria in 1895.

Dr. John Shaw Billings, a medical doctor who served as the first Director of NYPL, was also concerned about the problem of diseased books.  In 1901, just a few months after NYPL had absorbed the NY Free Circulating Library to create the branch library system, Billings informed Melvil Dewey about his experiments on disinfecting books and described the box he had created to accomplish this. [See NYPL Archives, Billings Records, Library Matters Letterbook #21]

Despite Billings experiment, the Library was ambivalent about the reality of diseased books.  In May 1913, just two months after Billings died, his successor, Edwin H. Anderson, wrote privately to Mary E. Ahern (editor of Public Libraries) complaining that the NY Telegram “one of the yellowest evening papers” had printed the lie “about blood poisoning from books” and asked her help in refuting these types of stories. [See: NYPL Archives, Billings Records, Box 15]

Nonetheless, even in those years, the NYC Department of Health was sending the Library a list of households with contagious diseases (especially scarlet fever and diphtheria).  When books were returned from those households, they were held until picked up by the Department of Health and destroyed.  In 1916 that resulted in the loss of about 1500 volumes. 

In 1938 a new Health Commissioner finally proposed ending this practice as being unnecessary.  Although worried about the public’s reaction, the Library agreed after the Branch Librarians said they did not think the public would object.

For more on the profession’s approach to this topic see Gerald Greenberg “Books as Disease Carriers” in Libraries and Culture 23 (Summer 1988), 281-294.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I taught in library schools for 20 years and found that most students seemed to have a sense that they would take a public library or an academic library track.  It was rare that they crossed over the dividing line from one to the other.

As I looked at my database on those who became NYPL Branch Librarians 1901-1950, I discovered an unexpected fact.  There was a significant amount of back and forth by the Branch Librarians between NYPL and academic libraries. 

Overall, slightly more than 10% of all Branch Librarians worked in an academic library before going to NYPL, 5% took a leave of absence from NYPL to work in an academic library, and 8% worked in an academic library after leaving NYPL. 

In addition, five NYPL librarians not only worked in an academic library but made a major contribution in that position.  They were:

Rae Stockham was head librarian of Drake University for 10 years before starting at NYPL in 1921.

Gladys Young Leslie started the library at Bennington College in 1930 and headed it until 1956.

Ruth Wellman took a leave of absence from NYPL to organize the New School Library.

Mary K. Dempsey organized the Marquette University Library in 1945.

Loda May Hopkins retired from NYPL to serve as Assistant Director and then Director of the Simmons College Library.

These statistics indicate that for NYPL librarians, at least, the boundary between public and academic libraries was once much more permeable than it is today. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011


“Gee, you still here?”  That was the question that World War II veterans asked Marion P. Watson when they returned to their old neighborhood after the end of the war.  Watson had been head of the Tomkins Square Branch since 1927.  The veterans’ surprise, Watson told the New York Times, prompted her to think about retiring and “‘Make way for someone else.’”

Marion Watson joined NYPL immediately after receiving her BA from Wellesley College in 1911.  She entered the NYPL Library School a year later, took the 2-year course, and received her diploma in 1914. 

Watson was born on March 24th, 122 years ago today. 

MARY A. LEONARD (1877-1962) & JULIA C. LEONARD (ca. 1878-1951)

Mary and Julia Leonard were one of three pairs of sisters who served as heads of neighborhood branches.

They both started in the New York Free Circulating Library in the 1890s and became a librarian of NYPL when it absorbed the NYFCL in 1901. Neither appears to have had any formal library training.

Julia Leonard headed three NYPL branches starting in 1908 and continuing until 1938, when she retired.

Mary Leonard became the head of the Hudson Park Branch in 1911 and served there until she retired in 1939.  At Hudson Park  she was hailed for her work with the Greenwich Village community, and Leonard continued to work on local housing issues even when she retired.

March 24th would be the 134th birthday of Mary Leonard.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ROBERT SCOTT AKE (1913-1985)

Robert S. Ake, who started at NYPL in 1946, was promoted to Branch Librarian at the 115th Street Branch in 1948.  Not only was this a very rapid rise through the ranks, but it also made him the first man to head a NYPL branch since 1916.

In 1913 (the year of Ake’s birth) Edwin H. Anderson became Acting Director of NYPL and started to name men as Branch Librarians.  As a result of Anderson’s efforts, three men were named to head a branch in the years 1913-1916.  This experiment was regarded as a failure, and no other man held that position until Ake’s appointment, 32 years later. 

Ake resigned from NYPL in 1952 to become a Library Consultant for the State of Connecticut Department of Education, next served as Assistant Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (1958-1964) and was Director of the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley NY (1964-1972). 

March 22nd would be the 98th birthday of Robert Ake.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

ERNESTINE ROSE (1880-1961)

March 19th would be the 131st birthday of Ernestine Rose.  Her professional accomplishments could be celebrated by highlighting her 27 years as head of three NYPL branches.  Or her involvement with library education at the NYPL Library School,  the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh, and Columbia’s School of Library Service.  Or, her publications could be listed--especially The Public Library in American Life (1954) which was long regarded as an important text on librarianship.

Even more than those accomplishments, however, Rose should be hailed for her efforts to racially integrate the NYPL staff and to bring library services to the growing African-American community in Harlem.

The African-American population of New York City doubled between 1900 and 1920, and by the latter date many had moved to Harlem, particularly around 135th Street.  The Library responded by placing Ernestine Rose (who was white) in charge of the 135th Street Branch with the mandate to serve the new community in the same way she had earlier worked with the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side as head of the Chatham Square and Seward Park branches.   Rose began to hire African-American staff members and to make connections to the newly-formed black community. 

Within five months of taking up the post in 1920, Rose had hired the Library’s first two Black assistants and thus began the process of integrating the Circulation Department staff.  The only three African-American women who became Branch Librarians prior to 1950 (Regina Andrews, Dorothy Robinson Homer, and Jean Blackwell Hutson) worked for Rose at 135th Street, and she provided support as they sought to advance in the NYPL system.  Rose was also responsible for integrating the NYPL Library School.  She had hired Nella Imes Larsen (soon to become a noted novelist of the Harlem Renaissance) in 1921 and pushed for her admittance to the NYPL Library School, overcoming the reluctance of the administration and objections of some alumni.  In 1922, Rose also hired Pure Belpré (the first Puerto Rican to work for NYPL), who became a noted children’s librarian and folklorist.

In addition, Ernestine Rose reached out to the Harlem community and connected the leaders of that community with NYPL and helped make the 135th Street Branch an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance. 

In 1925 Rose created the Division of Negro History and Literature as a special collection at 135th Street, and this unit eventually grew into the world-renown Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which collects and promotes the study of the history of people of African descent. 

In one sense Rose’s work was not a new direction for NYPL--it continued the Library’s tradition of serving users in the City’s changing communities.  In another sense, of course, Rose’s work was pioneering—she positioned the white-run Library as a central element for the growing African-American population of Harlem and beyond.    

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The New York Herald of October 12, 1919 described the World War One adventures of a “young woman, with a smile, a dog and a tan dispatch bag.” The woman was Helen Grannis, a courier for the American Red Cross, who traveled throughout the Balkans by train, cart, or donkey to deliver the official documents in her tan bag to US Army bases and outposts of the American Red Cross. 

Before leaving New York City for “war work” in Europe, Grannis had worked in the Circulation Department of the New York Public Library since 1915.  She earned her certificate from the NYPL Library School in 1917 and started the second year of study.  She resigned instead, and joined the American Red Cross in France. 

In 1920 Grannis left the Red Cross and joined the Rockefeller Foundation in France, where she traveled the country lecturing about tuberculosis until 1923. 

Her wartime experiences were hailed by Ernest Reece, Principle of the NYPL Library School, who recommended Grannis for a position at Ohio State University in 1923.  He noted that her drawback for the job was the lack of a college degree, but went on to say, “Mrs. Grannis has a vision, a knowledge of world affairs, and an experience of life which would dwarf many of us who are college graduates.”

Grannis returned to NYPL for a few months in 1923, left to organize the US Marine Hospital on Ellis Island, and returned to NYPL in 1926.  Grannis was promoted to Branch Librarian in 1929 and headed the Muhlenberg and George Bruce Branches.  She died in 1935 after a long illness.

Today would be the 127th birthday of the Red Cross courier and librarian, Helen W. Grannis.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


NYPL librarians closely followed the introduction of television sets in their neighborhoods.  Marjorie Church Burbank, Branch Librarian at the High Bridge Branch in the Bronx, noted in her five-year report, 1946-1951, that “Television did not make itself felt at High Bridge until 1950.”  When it did arrive, however, the neighborhood impact was dramatic.  She reported that the popularity of the Texaco Star Theater, hosted by Milton Berle, caused the stores in the High Bridge area to change their late shopping night from Tuesday to Wednesday evening and the local PTAs stopped meeting on Tuesday nights entirely.

Burbank lamented that the branch’s circulation numbers had been rising steadily but began to drop once the “TV aerials began to sprout from every rooftop.”  Having seen libraries survive radio and the movies, however, Marjorie Burbank ended by expressing confidence that the place of books “cannot readily be usurped” by television.

While the NYPL librarians were fearful of television’s impact on reading, in 1945 the Library had begun experimenting with the use of television broadcasting in its adult education courses.  I intend to write more on this subject in the future.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Kate Kaufman was born on this day 150 years ago.

Kate Kaufman had no formal training in librarianship, but she served the library needs of the neighborhood around the West 60s of Manhattan for nearly 35 years, under the auspices of three different institutions.

She came to the profession thorough the social settlement movement.   In the mid-1890s she became the librarian for the Riverside Association a settlement house on the West Side of Manhattan.  When that Library consolidated with the New York Free Circulating Library in 1897, Kaufman stayed in the new arrangement.  Similarly, when the NYFCL consolidated with NYPL in 1901, Kaufman stayed as the Branch Librarian of the Riverside Branch of NYPL.  She officially held that position until her death in 1933 but had been on sick leave since 1929. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Today would be the 110th birthday of Helen Benson Matthews.

Matthews received her certificate from the NYPL Library School in 1924 and immediately started working as a children’s librarian at Seward Park (1924-1929) and the Extension Division (1929-1937).  She then was promoted to Assistant Branch Librarian in Extension and in 1942 was make Branch Librarian at Aguilar.  She served at Aguilar until her retirement in 1958.

Helen Matthews was unusual among NYPL librarians in that she was mentioned twice in the New York Times.  A 1945 article highlighted the new youth lounge at Aguilar Branch, developed by Matthews in conjunction with United Neighborhood Houses.  When the Times asked about noise problems with the teenage users, Matthews was unconcerned, “'After all,’ she said, ‘the days of sh-sh in the library have long been over.’”

Five years later the Times mentioned Matthews earning a special citation from the Library for her “brilliant adaptation of services and book stock” to the changing needs of Aguilar’s predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood.

Helen B. Matthews was one of eight librarians in my study who was married to another librarian; in 1933 she married William Henry Matthews Jr (1903-1968) who was a librarian in the Theatre Division of NYPL’s Research Libraries. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I headed the NYPL Archives from its creation in 1986 until 2001.  Then as today, most of the historical work on the Library had focused on its founding or the justly famous Research Libraries.  There was not a lot history written about the Circulation Department (now called the Branch Libraries).  The work and lives of the NYPL branch librarians, who worked in the nation’s foremost city, had not been explored in depth.

Over time, I began to research one particular aspect of library history--the librarians who headed a neighborhood branch in the first 50 years of the Circulation Department, 1901-1950.  I began to collect information on their work histories, educational backgrounds, and the basic demographic characteristics of their lives.  In doing this, I became interested in several related topics as well. 

I am now working on five articles focused on the NYPL branches during this period.  The topics are:

Collective biography.  I have found about 80% of the basic demographic (gender, marital status, ethnicity, religion, parents’ occupations, etc.) and professional information on these librarians and am beginning to analyze the data.

Autonomy.  The Branch Librarians (about 95% women) carved out a fair amount of autonomy within a male-run institution.  I am looking at how they achieved that autonomy and how they began to lose it in the 1930s.

Racial Integration.  Although there are only three African-American women in the cohort I am studying, I had accumulated a lot of detail on the process of integrating the branch staff.  I am looking at the impulses that led the Library to begin integrating its branch staff in 1920 and the up and down progress of the effort over the following 25 years. 

Publications.  There are not a lot of studies on publication patterns by public librarians in the first half of the twentieth century, but it appears that the Branch Librarians were unusually prolific authors.  So far, I have identified 240 journal articles, 16 book chapters, and 71 books or pamphlets written by the Branch Librarians.

Male Librarians.  Only seven men had became Branch Librarians by 1950, and they are found in three distinct time periods (1904-1905, 1913-1917, and 1948+), and there were no male librarians (except for the Chief of the Department) in the system, from the end of World War I until the late 1930s.  I am researching the reasons for this gender stratification.

In later posts, I will report on my research findings and interpretations of NYPL history, write about individual librarians, and present vignettes on library history that I have uncovered during my research.


Today would be the 100th birthday of Mary Howe, one of the early public library pioneers of automation. 

Howe graduated from the University of Illinois with a BA in Journalism in 1932 and an MA in Education in 1934.  She received her BS from CU SLS in 1939.  Howe started at NYPL in 1940 and worked in several branches before being promoted to Branch Librarian in 1949 at Stapleton Branch on Staten Island.  Howe resigned from NYPL in 1953 to return to the Midwest.  There she headed three library systems in Illinois (Decatur, Starved Rock and Lewis & Clark) between 1957-1977. 

While working as a student assistant in one of Columbia University’s libraries, Howe helped create an index to major physics books.  She reported later that compiling the paper slips was so laborious that they “began to explore other equipment to record data.”  This was her introduction to the need for machine processing in libraries.

Later while working for NYPL on Staten Island, Howe and a small group of friends (including Margaret Monroe--noted library educator) met to discuss equipment that could be used in libraries.  At the time, she was also encouraged by Ralph Beals who was then Director of NYPL to explore her interest in machine applications and she was exposed to related work as chair of ALA’s Bibliography Committee.  Later as Director of the Decatur (IL) Public Library Howe worked with representatives of IBM to use the company’s “accounting machines” to manage the library’s book collection. 

In the early 1960s Howe published two articles on library automation, see: “Mechanization in Public libraries” UNESCO Bulletin for Libraries 15 (November 1961), 317-321+ and “Data Processing in the Decatur Public Library” Illinois Libraries 44 (November 1962), 593-597.

Mary T. Howe donated her personal and professional papers to the University of Illinois Archives in 1989.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Florence Overton (1870-1948), one of the most influential women librarians in the New York Public Library in the first half of the twentieth century, was born one hundred forty-one years ago today in Brooklyn NY.   

In 1899 Overton began as a children’s librarian in the Ottendorfer Branch of the New York Free Circulating Library (NYFCL) which consolidated with the New York Public Library in 1901 to create NYPL’s Circulating Department (CD), or branch library system.  Soon after consolidation, Overton worked as First Assistant in the Yorkville and the Riverside branches and then became Branch Librarian at Yorkville in 1905.  She held that post until 1914 when she was promoted to Supervisor of Branches.  In that position she reported directly to the Chief of the CD (always a man until 1943), and Overton was the highest ranking woman librarian in the branches until her retirement in 1941.

The retirement tribute published in the NYPL Bulletin (1941, page 240) noted that Overton “was in charge of personnel during the formative years of the Circulation Department when many branches were opening and the staff was growing.”  In fact, the size of the staff increased by about 50% during her tenure, but, even more significantly, the branch staff became much more professional during her time.  In addition, several special collections within the CD, such as the Music Library, the Picture Collection, and the Theatre Collection, “were largely results of her interests.”

Overton herself was active in ALA, the New York Library Association, and the New York Library Club, and she was a charter member of the Women’s City Club of New York.

The Bulletin article concluded that “Her native love of New York found practical expression in the building up of a great branch system, while her robust liking of people led to the encouragement of every individual talent.”

Her sisters Clara and Jacqueline also worked in the Circulation Department. 

Overton died in Westbury NY on May 8, 1948.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eileen Riols

Today would be the 103rd birthday of Eileen F.P. Riols (1908-1988) who started at NYPL as a summer substitute in 1929 and retired in 1970 as Branch Librarian of the Kingsbridge Branch.  After retiring she served as librarian at Mother Cabrini High School in northern Manhattan.  Riols specialty was working with young people and in Youth, Society, and the Public Library Miriam Braverman described Riols as “an outstanding ‘book talker’”.  Riols was one of the few Catholic librarians (less than 10%) who headed a neighborhood branch before 1950.