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.