The sight of a ‘children’s room’ in a public library just after school hours is enchanting…they pour into its doors, the crowd of children, well-dressed, poorly clad, boys, girls, big, small, all with an assured air of welcome, comfortably, easily, happily at home among bookshelves as they are in no other spot. Thirty years ago nobody would have dreamed of such a golden picture as a possibility.
So wrote the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher in Children’s Library Yearbook Number One, a 1929 volume reviewing what might have been called, in the idiom of the time, three decades of progress.
But specialized work with children in the burgeoning public libraries was well underway before 1899. It didn’t spread from the storied cities of the Northeast, with their intellectual eminence; it arose almost simultaneously in many scattered locales. None were more representative of the children’s library movement, however, than Cleveland and Pittsburgh—cities of the industrial heartland with large immigrant populations and, crucially, a succession of gifted, forceful librarians who met a prevailing need in a historic partnership.
William Howard Brett was an accidental librarian. Born in 1846, he repeatedly tried to enlist in the Union Army—once putting a slip of paper in his shoe inscribed with the number 18, so he could honestly say he was “over eighteen”—until, in the last year of the war, he passed muster as a drummer boy. After the war his attempt to go to college foundered for lack of funds. But he was an avid, discerning reader and made his mark selling books—first in his native Warren, Ohio, then at the big Cleveland bookstore Cobb & Andrews. When the post of city librarian became vacant in 1884, who better qualified?
The Cleveland Public Library—originally the Public School Library—was then housed on the second and third floors of Board of Education headquarters. In the circulation department, borrowers waited at a high counter for an attendant to fetch the requested books. No one under fourteen could get a card.
As a bookseller, Brett knew two big things that the cloistered librarian didn’t: the value of browsing among books and the importance of books to children. He brightened up the quarters, and made them comfortable; he cataloged the collection by the new Dewey system. And with added space, a few years later, he arranged the nonfiction in alcoves by subject and allowed readers to go to the bookcases. In a large city library, where the borrowers were strangers to the staff, open shelves were a daring innovation.
Brett had audacity. A year after taking office, he submitted an article to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, called “Books for Youth,” soliciting a donation of $5,000 (about $125,000 today) to build up a collection of reputable children’s books. Youngsters shouldn’t be reading “worthless and corrupt literature,” he wrote, because the library didn’t have enough copies of Louisa May Alcott titles to meet the demand. No concerned citizen responded, but the article was reprinted in Library Journal, with an editorial salvo, and launched Brett as a children’s library advocate. In later years, Anne Carroll Moore was reputed to have called Brett “the first great children’s librarian.” The quote may be apocryphal, but the tribute rang true, and stuck.
Brett’s polemic against trash also expressed a common sentiment. In those days, you didn’t have to be stodgy to look askance at Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore or Horatio Alger’s heroes. What enlightened grownup didn’t?
The Cleveland Library was then, like many others, serving children through the schools. But the popularity of the school collections only demonstrated to Brett “the pressing need of a system of branch libraries and delivery stations in a city so widely extended as our own.” In 1892, the library opened the first of four branches in existing buildings; from 1904 to 1914, with a grant from Andrew Carnegie, seven new libraries were constructed, with spacious, attractive children’s rooms, in key neighborhoods around the city: the neighborhood library came to be, in large part, as a place that kids could get to on their own.
At the Central Library, meanwhile, restrictions on children’s use were soon relaxed and, in 1896, the age limit was abolished altogether; to join the library, a child had only to write his or her name, and get a parent’s signature. But where were the newcomers to go? Brett’s solution was to partition off the largest of the alcoves, and cut a door into the corridor. In this makeshift space—with high bookcases around the walls, and upper shelves reached by a ladder that children propelled (to their delight) by pushing with a foot—Effie Louise Power was installed as librarian. In later years, Power liked to speak of herself as “Mr. Brett’s first children’s librarian.” He had recruited her himself, out of high school—making her, according to youth services historian Christine Jenkins, the first person “hired specifically for children’s work.”
Brett made another significant hire in Linda Eastman, who became vice-librarian in 1896 and shared his interest in children. The next year, Eastman and Power launched the Children’s Library League to encourage respect for books and teach their proper care. There was also a reading component—children made lists of the books they read, for posting as suggestions for others. The first year’s program climaxed spectacularly with a mass meeting in the city’s largest auditorium.
At the American Library Association conference that year, when Brett was president, Eastman presented a paper on the program—one of many contributions to ALA affairs that Cleveland librarians made regularly through the formative years of children’s services. They did groundbreaking work, they wrote about it for professional journals, they shared their experience with colleagues. A new profession was rapidly taking shape.
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, by contrast with its counterpart in Cleveland, sprang “almost full-grown from the mind and purse” of its namesake, as a later director wrote. The central building opened in 1895, and within five years there were five large neighborhood branches, with three more soon to follow. In 1898, Frances Jenkins Olcott was hired to oversee service to children in the growing system, the first in the country to hold such a post.
In Cleveland, Effie Power had been tapped to be a children’s librarian, and later got professional training. Frances Olcott had professional training (at the New York State Library School, the nation’s first) and might be called a children’s librarian incarnate. She had spent her early years in France, where her father was in the consular service; she’d been homeschooled by parents steeped in the traditional literature of Germany and France. She had a sense of drama.
She was also a force—on fertile, uncharted ground. The Progressivism of the period imbued librarians with a social mission to elevate the masses. In cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, that meant both the majority of children who were either immigrants or the children of immigrants and the school-leavers—the overwhelming number who didn’t get past the eighth grade, if they got that far.
No child left out, might have been the motto. With a strong, supportive director, Olcott instituted one after another “experiment”—her word—in extending the library’s reach. There was storytelling in all the branches: cycles of myths and legends for the older children, fairy tales for the younger ones. By 1905–06, more than 600 stories were told to over 400 groups of children. There was Library Day once a week at the summer playgrounds, a cozy introduction to books away from the branches. “The ‘little mothers’ invariably saved a place on their cards for a book to please the baby brother or sister tugging at their skirts,” a librarian reported, “or for some older member at home.”
There were also programs, such as the “Home Library,” tailored to the time and place. A neat bookcase with “a small, carefully selected collection of attractively bound and illustrated books” was kept in a neighborhood home. The oldest child in that family usually served as librarian, recording the books borrowed and returned at the group’s weekly meeting. There, a “friendly visitor” led the group of ten to twelve youngsters in an informal program of games, storytelling, and group discussion. Before long the groups ranged across the city and covered the ethnic map.
All of this was labor-intensive work, and much of it was performed by students at the Training School for Children’s Librarians, housed in the Central Library. Founded in 1899 as a training class to meet pressing local needs, it emerged in 1901 as a professional, certificate-granting school, with (eventually) both one- and two-year programs and more than half its students from outside the Pittsburgh area. A few had four-year college degrees; a few already had library experience. The next year the school enrolled graduates of Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Northwestern, Bryn Mawr; it had “special students”—working librarians—from the New York Public Library and from Cleveland, Des Moines, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Mansfield, Ohio; already, its graduates were working as far afield as Galveston, Texas.
Frances Olcott was the head of this booming operation, as she was of children’s services, and the instructors were drawn from the library staff. The course of study, that first year, ranged from the basics of ordering and cataloging, to children’s literature and storytelling, to school-library relations and Home Libraries, to “psychology” and “civic education.” (“Psychology” meant reading the childhood portraits of Dickens and Spyri and Ewing, not “analysis of the children themselves.”) Then there was the practice work: “presenting various [facets] of the cosmopolitan life of a fast-growing industrial city.” And, increasingly, there were visiting lecturers: in 1914–15, the roster included Caroline Hewins, Alice Jordan, Anne Carroll Moore, and Boy Scout Librarian Franklin Mathiews. No one prominent in the field escaped.
Olcott’s reign over library and school ended abruptly in 1911, when an “insurrection” by library school students—in the words of the library director—led to her dismissal. Yes, she could be a prima donna. She didn’t lose her standing in the profession, however, and it was she who was asked to write the section on “Library Work with Children” for ALA’s 1914 Manual of Library Economy.
In 1916, the Training School became the Carnegie Library School, and soon courses of study for school librarians and general librarians were added. But it remained preeminent, under the new name, as a wellspring of work with children. In school and library conjoined, Pittsburgh had talent in depth.
One of the special students in the Training School had been Cleveland’s Effie Power—about to move from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to St. Louis and back to Pittsburgh, where she eventually became one of Olcott’s successors. For her successor as head of children’s services in Cleveland, Power recommended Caroline Burnite, from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library and the Training School faculty. At that time, in 1904, the Cleveland Library’s great expansion was just beginning; by 1915, the library exuberantly reported a juvenile circulation of “thirteen times as many books as there are children in Cleveland of the reading age.” They got those books from the new branch libraries, where the children’s rooms averaged more than seventy seats (and some had over a hundred); but they borrowed them, as well, from far-flung stand-alone collections.
With her Pittsburgh experience, Burnite also established a Training Class for Children’s Librarians—where, students testified, her standards and beliefs, along with her commanding presence, marked them for life.
All the pathfinders were serious about children’s reading. Up with the classics, down with popular fiction. Down with fiction, up with nonfiction. Burnite thought, simultaneously, of the one and the many. “No books weak in social ideals should be furnished, provided we do not lose reading children by their elimination.” So some “mediocre” books should remain, from which children could be guided upward; the “reading ladder” was her idea. Similarly, older boys and girls should graduate to adult books as soon as they were ready, and every children’s room was provided with some. A boy reading an Alger-like sea story, for example, might be introduced to Captains Courageous—as, aptly, “the story of a rich boy who fell overboard from an ocean liner and was picked up by the crew of a fishing yacht.” The sequence concludes with Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, which Burnite describes as “difficult reading…[to] be used with discrimination.”
It’s become commonplace in recent times to characterize early librarians and editors as “guardians” or “minders” interested only in foisting middle-class standards on their charges. Rather, they saw good books as a path to freedom—a way of broadening minds, deepening sympathies, sharpening perceptions. Midway in the Burnite years in Cleveland, William Brett was killed in a freak streetcar accident and Linda Eastman, by his side at the time, became his successor—the first woman to head a major city library. In 1919, Burnite resigned to get married, and Effie Power returned to Cleveland for a second, golden stretch as head of children’s work.
In Pittsburgh, Power had a complement in Elva S. Smith, a serious woman of letters. Smith had graduated from the first training class in 1903, with varied California experience behind her, and she immediately became a presence as instructor in the school and cataloger at the library. Over the next four decades, Smith taught everything in the juvenile field—book selection, cataloging, bibliography, history of children’s literature and development of children’s work—and ultimately became head of the children’s department. She wrote the book, literally, on cataloging children’s books and compiled a remarkable syllabus, with full bibliographies, for the teaching of children’s lit from King Alfred to Kipling. The History of Children’s Literature, first published in 1937, was reprinted by ALA as late as 1980. Her students—in the library world and in publishing—were legion.
While Elva Smith was mining the past in Pittsburgh, Effie Power was looking ahead. “Our task is to reach all the children,” she said at ALA in 1925, and “to establish permanent interests; to train them to read books and to love books; and to relate their use of books and their general reading to their lives.” The next year she launched the Book Caravan, bringing the mobile library from the countryside to the city. “It…has a value as publicity when seen passing through the streets,” Power wrote, as well as usefulness in “carrying library materials to the indifferent.” Library administration and librarian training were specialties of Power’s; and Pittsburgh library school students routinely did their practicums in Cleveland. So did others, by choice—among them Mildred Batchelder, the future ALA children’s specialist, then a student at the New York State Library School. Unsurprisingly, Power was tapped by ALA, in 1930, to write the first textbook on Library Service for Children.
The 1920s was a period of relative plenty when children’s librarians, consolidating their gains, began to exert influence outside their immediate communities. They had money to spend, or withhold, for books, and publishers listened. They had social concerns, as well, and the ability to advance them. In those interlocking areas, Power was, well, a power. When she protested racist usage in Doctor Dolittle, the author and publisher made the desired change; when she questioned Langston Hughes, whose work she had championed, on a harsh phrase in an essay, he found a solution satisfactory to both of them.
The combination of past and present in children’s librarianship can be encapsulated in Smith’s scholarship and Power’s activism.
The last scene brings most of the principals back on stage—writing or editing the kinds of books they wanted kids to read. Books of traditional literature, mainly: collections of fairy tales and folk tales, of myths and legends; anthologies of poetry; compilations of holiday verse and lore. Olcott was the most prolific, turning out some two dozen volumes over the years, but Smith and Power contributed their share. All told, children’s librarians had produced almost ninety children’s books by 1929, including some original fiction, according to Children’s Library Yearbook Number One. Several of the other authors hailed from Cleveland or Pittsburgh, or both.
Singly and together, Cleveland and Pittsburgh created children’s services from the ground up, and then showed others how. It was an inspired work—inspired, it’s fair to say, by the children. A 1922 report from a Cleveland branch reports on a neighborhood “two-thirds Hungarian, with an admixture of Bohemian, Jewish, Italian and American borrowers—good readers all.”