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Mildred Batchelder: The Power of Thinking Big

In brief, the children’s library movement was touched off by Caroline Hewins, at the Hartford Public Library, who passed the torch to Anne Carroll Moore, at the New York Public, and Alice Jordan, at the Boston Public. Bertha Mahony Miller, founding editor of The Horn Book, sought guidance from both of them. Principal allies were pioneering children’s book editor Louise Seaman Bechtel and editor-publisher Frederic Melcher, sponsor of the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

On the library scene, Moore and Jordan had counterparts at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. For all of them, bringing children and books together was a Cause, not just a career.

This series focuses on three notable librarians of the succeeding, or second, generation: Virginia Haviland (1911–1988; see  January/February 2011 issue), Augusta Baker (1911–1998; see May/June 2011 issue), and Mildred Batchelder (1901–1998).

Nobel or Pulitzer, Newbery or Caldecott or Batchelder—fame is an award in your name. In time, it may be the one thing you’re famous for.

Mildred L. Batchelder presided over children’s and young people’s affairs at the American Library Association, in one form or another, for thirty transformative years. At her retirement in 1966, her librarian constituents established a prize in her name for the best translation of a children’s book each year—a fit recognition of Batchelder’s long and serious interest in books as cultural bridges. Whatever else the prize may have accomplished, it’s kept Batchelder’s name current.

To keep knowledge of a career alive—especially the career of someone who might be described as a functionary, with mainly offstage achievements—takes something more: it takes a biography. Batchelder’s Boswell is Dorothy J. Anderson, who worked with Batchelder at ALA headquarters and made her the subject of a PhD dissertation at Texas Woman’s University in 1981. Interviews with Batchelder herself are the chief source of information—and “Batch” was known for speaking her mind.

Mildred Batchelder was born in the old industrial city of Lynn, Massachusetts, northeast of Boston, in 1901, the first of three daughters. Her father was a prosperous businessman, a sportsman, and a genial host. Her mother, a former teacher, took the girls to lunch and the theater in Boston. The Batchelders lived well. But both parents had high expectations of their children, and gave them responsibility accordingly.

In Batchelder’s childhood, “the most exciting place in the world” was “Rocky Island” off the Massachusetts coast—a complete island at high tide, surrounded by saltwater marshes at low tide—where the family spent every summer. There, it was up to Mildred and her sister Ruth, three years younger, to fetch a hundred-pound block of ice from shore. The two little girls also had the freedom to set off on long rowboat journeys to “secret places.”

It sounds like an idyll, out of a children’s book. Could Batchelder actually have been a “small and sickly child,” as she describes herself? Yes: this is the genesis, it appears, of the woman who was afflicted, in midlife, with a painful and crippling form of arthritis and bore it with so little fuss that people hardly noticed her physical condition.

Cut, then, to the New York State Library School at Albany. Batchelder had gone to Mt. Holyoke College, an exacting Seven Sisters school, where she felt unprepared academically and socially. She decided to become a librarian, she told Anderson in her frank, self-mocking way, because she liked seeing college catalogs addressed to “Mildred Batchelder, Librarian” when she was helping in the high school library.

After a one-week course in school librarianship from one pioneer, Mary Hall, a slightly longer course in public-library children’s work from another, Clara Hunt, Batchelder signs up for a month of practice work under Effie L. Power in Cleveland—site, she’s heard, of some of the best children’s services in the country.

Power’s plan for the month reads like a syllabus: one week in the central library; a week in each of two contrasting branch libraries; attendance at the long monthly book selection meeting; an assortment of social events.

Batchelder had gone to Cleveland uncommitted. In her life-story, there’d been no reminiscence of childhood reading, no tribute to a beloved book. The month in Cleveland, with its enthusiastic, humorous, bookwise librarians, decides her. “How could anyone not rush into work with children after an experience like that?”

It’s not, of course, the equivalent of professional experience. So Batchelder takes a giant step when, with her new library degree, she goes to Omaha as supervisor of children’s work at the main library, four branches, and thirty-two grade schools. (“Mildred Batchelder would be a good gamble,” Effie Power had assured the director.)

She’s systematic, energetic. Early on, she develops a quasi-professional training class for her staff. She’s enterprising. For Children’s Book Week, she puts out a multi-page booklet extolling the library’s collections and encouraging parents to build home libraries. A second year, she adds a special event in concert with the Woman’s Press Club of Omaha. This is the mid-1920s, when children’s library work outside the major cities was still in its infancy, and Batchelder herself was only twenty-five.

She’s also making contacts, keeping touch. Long before the term came into use, Batchelder was an assiduous networker. She sends a copy of her Book Week pamphlet to Clara Hunt, and reaps praise for her interesting, unusual book selections. She depletes her savings to attend a distant ALA meeting. On a trip home to Massachusetts she takes a detour to Toronto to meet Lillian Smith, the distinguished head of children’s work. “She was tremendously impressed,” Anderson writes, “with the way Lillian Smith personally helped little libraries throughout Canada in their book selection, the way she trained staff, and the way she encouraged other organizations to recognize children’s library work.” Augurs of Batchelder’s own later endeavors at ALA.

After three years, she decides to leave Omaha—having done, she tells the director airily, “all I can here”—and takes a position as children’s librarian at the St. Cloud (Minnesota) State Teachers College (now St. Cloud State University). It’s the first such position in Minnesota, an uncommon position anywhere; but for Batchelder it has promise. “Meeting with teachers and children in groups and individually, [she] worked out innumerable ways for them to involve the library in what they were doing.”

In what would become a pattern, she promptly writes an article for Elementary English Review describing the program—the first of many, many articles in professional journals and compendiums that publicized her ideas and beliefs.

But she and the college librarian had disliked each other from the start, and given Batchelder’s forwardness, it was hardly surprising that she was fired after the first year.

Her next position, at the Haven Intermediate School in Evanston, Illinois—a progressive school in a well-to-do, progressive community—gives her the opportunity that she had envisioned at St. Cloud: to make the library the center of the school.

Batchelder tells everyone—not only children—about children’s books. She passes along word of new books to teachers, gives talks about children’s literature to young mothers. And, again, she puts her views in writing: while “the classroom teacher has only one year…to create interest in reading,” she writes, “the librarian continues her contact with a particular child from the first grade until…high school.”

Making a name for herself, she’s also making new, strategically placed friends. Carl Milam, executive secretary of ALA, has a daughter at the Haven School, and Batchelder becomes a regular guest at the Milam home. Visiting ALA headquarters, teaching summer courses at Indiana University, she extends her acquaintances. As hospitality chair for the school library section at the 1933 Chicago ALA conference, she meets colleagues from all over; by year’s end, she’s a member of the executive committee: an insider and a prospective leader. At the 1934 Montreal conference, the idea for the school library program is hers.

Montreal is memorable for another reason, too. Hearing a “very distinctive, lowish, strange” voice, Batchelder turns around and beholds the magisterial Anne Carroll Moore—a small figure, she recalls to Anderson almost fifty years later, with “weird looking hair and [a] dull old red dress on her thin body.” “Oh, you old witch,” she thinks, the start of a lasting aversion. For persons who came to know and admire them both, there were many similarities between them, from absolute confidence in their own judgment to the ability to charm when they wanted to.

After eight years, the highly regarded Haven School librarian made it known that she was ready for “bigger challenges,” and in November 1935 Carl Milam named Batchelder ALA’s first school library specialist.

What did that mean? During Batchelder’s thirty years with ALA, the organization went through a number of reorganizations, and each time Batchelder’s responsibilities and prerogatives shifted. But in many respects the die was cast at the outset when she functioned, along with children’s library specialist Jessie Van Cleve, as an investigator, reporter, and adviser.

Together, Batchelder and Van Cleve attended local and regional conferences. They looked in on school and public libraries in New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio, and set up meetings with school, public, county, and parish libraries. In some cities, school and public libraries had had no previous contact with one another; at a time when school library development lagged far behind public library children’s work, coordination was a top priority.

Another was affiliation with other national groups interested in children. On a visit to Washington, Batchelder and Van Cleve established contacts with such organizations as the National Education Association and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. There was the prospect of joint undertakings; at the least, libraries would be in the picture.

To foster school library development, Batchelder compiled statistics demonstrating the lag, identified librarians in the vanguard, and highlighted their work in ALA publications and on-site consultations elsewhere. One library staff member recalled her vividly: “She was so authoritative and full of suggestions…some of the staff dubbed her ‘Mother-God.’” As Anderson scrupulously reports, Batchelder’s style was not to every taste.

She knew no boundaries for children’s books, no limits for librarians as champions of books. What were Latin American children reading? With the assent of executive secretary Milam, letters went out to ministers of education in Latin American countries, and Batchelder was dismayed when the answer was mostly textbooks. She also decried the portrayal of Latin American countries in American children’s books. And she found an all-embracing cause: “Librarians,” she wrote in her report, “believe that the best children’s books of all countries should be made available to the children of all countries.”

The Latin American Project, as it came to be called, began in the late 1930s when European prospects were bleak and American attention turned to our putatively Good Neighbors to the south. But Batchelder pursued it with equal zeal after World War II, when she was also engaged in projects for European reconstruction. Internationalism was a cause she could advance, on her own hook, from whatever ALA post she held.

When Jessie Van Cleve died early in their partnership, Batchelder succeeded to her position. Both had devoted half their time to Booklist; thereafter, Batchelder worked full time as chief of the school and children’s library division, which embraced young people’s work. But because children’s work in the public libraries had its own strong leadership, Batchelder continued to focus most of her attention on school libraries.

In that area, she was a visionary.

Being in Chicago also meant being in the orbit of the University of Chicago graduate library school, its galaxy of scholars, its programs and publications. For the Chicago compendium The Library of Tomorrow (1939), Batchelder was asked to contribute a chapter along with such notables as the director of the New York Public Library, the Librarian of Congress, Carl Milam, and Lillian Smith. Whereas Smith wrote in inspirational generalities, Batchelder titled her piece “School Library Service: 1970,” and created a place, peopled with students: “In addition to the students searching for books for personal needs, a 10th grade teacher, a 7th grade boy, and a girl from the primary grades were each assembling books to take to their classrooms…” A small girl, bearing poetry books, “was also looking for transcriptions of A. A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson reading their own poems. Milne records were supplied, but to the girl’s surprise, Stevenson had lived before the day of radio recording.”

And so it goes, for a day in the school library of the future—foretold with humor, drama, and the attention to audiovisual resources for which Batchelder also became known.

In the immediate postwar period, revolt against authorities perceived as authoritarian struck ALA and other professional associations. Carl Milam, under fire, resigned in 1948. For the next three years, the restive school library section agitated and plotted for the status of a division, separate from the children’s and YA librarians. And once they were up and running, they summarily fired Batchelder: they had their own leaders now, and those leaders (if not the entire membership) wanted to run their own show.

However Batchelder felt, she was not one to skip a beat. For a 1953 issue of Library Trends devoted to school libraries, she wrote a long, substantive article on—ironically—“Public Library Influence on School Libraries.” Expanding on the theme of complementary strengths, she pointed out that “public libraries have materials on various sides of a question.” Intellectual freedom had become another of her active pursuits.

To pinpoint her activities in the succeeding years is almost to pick at random, or to put in a thumb. In the international sphere, there were projects to make select foreign books available for American purchase and to identify suitable books for translation. On the domestic front, there was a campaign to gain passage of the groundbreaking Library Services Bill. In her own speaking and writing, Batchelder pressed for reforms to broaden the education of children’s and school librarians.

But always and forever, she was interested in people—talented, capable, zealous people, both to fill library posts (ALA was a clearinghouse) and to replenish the ranks of ALA committees, chairmanships, offices.

At the 1957 New York Library Association conference, Dorothy Broderick was a novice trying vainly to get a book selection discussion going when “a pert little lady, dressed in black, and carrying a cane” came to her rescue with a pithy remark. A dialogue ensued…and “An Entangling Alliance Was Born,” as Broderick titled her tribute to Batchelder on her retirement.

In a recent conversation, Broderick also recalled Batchelder saying, of her, “I want that one!” Did she recruit or dragoon others that way? I asked. “Everyone.”

As a culmination of her international work before retirement, Batchelder secured a five-month leave of absence, in 1965, to study the problems of books in translation more closely. She had made her first European trip in 1961, as a delegate to the International Federation of Library Associations meeting in Edinburgh, where translation of children’s books was on the agenda. She’d used her contacts with foreign publishers to make the ALA exhibit of children’s books at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, an international array—one seen by unaccustomed multitudes.

Her 1965 trip, to eleven countries, was both a triumphal tour of the European children’s book world, with return visits to persons she’d hosted in Chicago and invitations from prominent authors, editors, librarians, et al., and an investigation into the perplexities of translation. On her earlier trip, she’d been dismayed to discover multiple copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the shelves of children’s rooms almost everywhere. She’d been surprised to learn that Swedish children’s librarians looked askance at the Snipp Snapp Snurr books, while Dutch librarians had no use for Hans Brinker. Now, she could explore corrective measures. How to make sure the books selected for translation were each nation’s best?

As soon as she finished delivering her impassioned report at the ALA conference that summer, a translation award in her name was proposed—a choice, made-for-TV moment. It was highly unusual, too, for such an award to be named for a living person—and consequential, in the aftermath, for someone as thoroughly alive as Batchelder.

Once the retirement festivities were over, she was free to go where her inclinations led.

Charlemae Rollins, the crusading African American children’s librarian in Chicago, was an old Batchelder friend and concern—someone whose mistreatment in the South Batchelder had vehemently protested. When the third edition of Rollins’s historic booklist, We Build Together, came out in 1967, the Batchelder name joined the roster of illustrious contributors.

For a time at ALA, she had tended to library-trustee affairs. In 1969, at the behest of the American Library Trustee Association, she researched and wrote a comprehensive handbook that amounts to what-every-trustee should know.

As a member of the committee for the May Massee Collection, established at Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University) shortly after the celebrated editor’s death, she provided a meticulous critique of the proposed catalog.

But her longest and deepest commitment, in the children’s book world at large, was to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. Before her retirement, she had proposed that the Kerlan add foreign-language editions of the Newbery and Caldecott winners at the core of the collection. Soon, she decided that Batchelder winners should join them, and she not only donated her burgeoning collection but also solicited contributions of the foreign-language originals. In time, she drew upon her vast knowledge of individuals and institutions to petition for anything that might advance children’s book research at the Kerlan.

She also promoted the Batchelder prize—or “the Batch,” as she called it—in a variety of ways, including suggesting books for possible translation. (To her great regret, she had only schoolgirl French.) As always, she wrote articles and spoke. On one such occasion she was interviewed by a reporter for the Evanston Review. How could librarians keep up with foreign books, it was implied, as well as all the others? “They must read more and faster,” Batchelder replied. Enthusiastically: “It can be done.”

—Barbara Bader

Heartfelt thanks to Dorothy Broderick and Mimi Kayden for reminiscences and to Heather Wade at the May Massee Memorial Collection, and to Karen Nelson Hoyle at the Kerlan Collection, for research assistance.

A special shout-out to Dorothy J. Anderson, not only for her indispensable dissertation but also for passing along the touch-true Evanston newspaper story with its disarming photo.

Back to the Beginning

In the capsule history of the children’s library movement that has appeared with this series, I made the usual obeisance to the New York Public Library’s Anne Carroll Moore and her mentor Caroline Hewins, in Hartford, and to Alice Jordan, of the Boston Public Library, and her local coterie.

What about us?! a Pittsburgh librarian protested. She was right: as the career of Mildred Batchelder illustrates, advances were made outside of the northeast sphere of influence, and even in resistance to it. Main Street’s Carol Kennicott may have found Gopher Prairie, Minne-sota, a cultural wasteland, but to the young Batchelder, the children’s library at St. Cloud (Minn.) State Teachers College was a treasure house.

A fourth installment in this series will center on the Pittsburgh and Cleveland libraries and feature prominent librarians of both the first and second generations. Anne Carroll Moore pronounced one of them—not her cherished Hewins—“the first great children’s librarian.”

About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.

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  1. […] the librarian the award was named after. I learned some more about Batchelder recently reading this article by Barbara Bader in The Horn Book Magazine. It’s part of a series the magazine’s been […]

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