Wednesday, March 26, 2014


NYPL’s branch librarians loved books and looked suspiciously on new media that might reduce reading by children and adults.  They initially viwed both moving pictures and television as potential threats.  In each case, the librarians’ reactions to the new medium started with suspicion and ended with accommodation.  Here is a previous post about the initial reaction to television in a Bronx neighborhood.

The history of the Ottendorfer Branch illustrates this point in terms of motion pictures.  Ottendorfer, the second branch of the New York Free Circulating Library, opened in 1884 to serve a largely German population in what is now known as the East Village in Manhattan.

In December 1912, John Shaw Billings (NYPL’s Director) wrote the NYC Commissioner of Licenses to protest the opening of a movie theater next to the Ottendorfer Branch.  He argued that “it is not desirable on general principle to have movie picture establishments close to schools, public libraries and other places to which women and children are accustomed to go in large numbers. … around the entrances to such theatres there are usually displayed highly colored pictures, flaring electric lights, etc., which have a tendency to attract idlers.”  Despite Billings protest, the Commissioner granted the license.

In her annual report, Lucie Bohmert, the Branch Librarian, blamed Ottendorfer's decreased circulation in 1925 in part to “a successful moving picture house adjoining the Library.”

Just four years later, however, Bohmert’s annual report noted that the movie house was showing foreign films and boasted that the theater’s owner had agreed  to promote Ottendorfer’s foreign book collection in its program.

Over the course of 17 years, the Library had gone from protest to incorporating moving pictures into its community outreach activities.  

When I moved across the street from the Ottendorfer Branch in the early 1970s, both the library and the movie theater were thriving, and the theater was still featuring foreign films.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I have presented papers at the Conference on New York State History the past two summers.  It is a stimulating gathering of academic and independent scholars, archivists and curators, and town and county historians.

My 2012 paper explored the experience of African-American librarians at the 135th Street Branch, which was the focus of efforts to integrate the staff, 1920-1940s.

In 2013, I spoke about how the Branch Librarians (mostly single women) achieved a lot of workplace autonomy (in a male-run institution) and then lost some of it due to the economic pressures of the Great Depression.  But, in the 1920s-1930s NYPLs librarians also supported the certification of public librarians in New York State and the educational reforms recommended by the Williamson Report.  They chose to support these initiatives which undercut their autonomy at work because they held out the promise of greater status as professionals. 

A truncated version of the latter paper has now been published: “Single and Independent” New York Archives 13 (Winter 2014) 15-19.  The magazine is still paper-based although one article is posted online.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Margaret Monroe worked at NYPL for 13 years but headed an NYPL branch for only two of those years.  She credited her NYPL experience for changing her focus in librarianship and setting her on the course that made her so influential as a leader in adult services and as a library educator.  She was also, without doubt, the most prolific author among those who had headed an NYPL branch.

Monroe received both a BA and a BLS from the New York State Teachers College.  She also earned an MA from Teachers College in 1939. 

Monroe served as Branch Librarian at the St. George Branch, 1946-1948, a period when NYPL was initiating its Great Books discussion groups.  Although she had originally specialized in young people’s work, Monroe volunteered for the new project and later wrote, “When book discussions became a service option, I knew I had found my m├ętier.”   In her memoir, (Margaret Monroe: Memoirs of a Public Librarian, 2006) she wrote that it was the “mixed cultural backgrounds, ages, vocations and educational experiences, and the cross-cultural learning” that attracted her to NYPL’s book discussion groups.

Following the success of the Great Books program, NYPL developed the American Heritage discussion groups.  This effort was taken over by ALA, and Monroe took a leave of absence in 1952-1954 to work on the ALA project.  She never returned to NYPL.  Instead she joined the faculty of the Rutgers University library school and earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1962.  She then joined the University of Wisconsin library school, where she served as Director, 1963-1970. 

One measure of Monroe’s influence on the library profession is that the bibliography in her memoir lists 115 publications, including her book Library Adult Education: The Biography of An Idea (Scarecrow, 1963) which reviewed and defended the development of adult education approaches in American librarianship.

In 1985, the Reference and User Services Association of ALA established the Margaret E. Monroe Library Adult Services Award to honor those who made significant contributions to library adult services. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Maud A. Wait was born in Montreal, Canada, and came to the United States in 1903.

Maud Wait finished the NYPL Training Class in 1904 and received a permanent staff appointment.  She was promoted to First Assistant in 1907 and was appointed to be the Branch Librarian at the Washington Heights Branch in 1913.  Wait transferred to the Tremont Branch in 1917, but resigned in April 1921 to return to Canada and marry William Steele Louson (1860-1921), a “commercial traveler” or traveling salesman.   Within six months her husband had died, and Maud Louson returned to New York City in September 1922.  She immediately resumed her career at NYPL, serving as head of the Aguilar Branch from 1922 until 1938, when she retired.

After her retirement, Maud Wait Louson worked as a part-time librarian at the National Council of Churches in NYC.  There is one indication that Maud Louson might have returned to Canada to live in the 1940s.