Louise Payson Latimer: Pioneer of Library Service to Children in Washington, DC

Portrait of Louise Latimer, 1914, painted by Suzanne Warriner


Most children’s book connoisseurs have heard of New York Public Library’s Anne Carroll Moore, if only for her outspoken opinions on what was not good literature (including E. B. White’s Stuart Little). Many know of Boston Public Library’s Alice M. Jordan, whose name graces a BPL collection of rare books. Louise Payson Latimer — Director of Work with Children at Washington (DC) Public Library from 1919 to 1948 — may not be as familiar a name, but she, too, deserves a place in the pantheon. And following the ALA Annual conference in DC in this centennial year of her directorship, it seems like a good time to make that case.

Before I knew her name or role as the third (and longest-serving) leader of children’s services in DC, I fell in love with the gorgeous books in DC Public Library’s Illustrator Collection. This collection now consists of 20,000+ primarily nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American books, many of them first editions. Latimer initiated this collection to address frequent requests for hard-to-access visual material and to preserve a valuable format destined to disappear due to its enthusiastic readership. Most of the titles were painstakingly acquired as donations from sources as varied as the Library of Congress (it didn’t start collecting children’s books until the 1960s), the 1942–1943 Victory Book Campaign (titles deemed of no interest to soldiers), her own library’s discards, and friends. In 1948, after Newbery winner Rachel Field’s death, her husband donated Field’s collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century broadsides, chapbooks, and other ephemera to Latimer’s project. (Field’s cousin Clara Herbert had been Latimer’s predecessor in the children’s department and ultimately became the library’s director.)

As the current head of youth services at DC Public, I learned this — and much more about this kindred spirit, who clearly loved visual narrative as much as I do — when the library prepared to close for a three-year renovation in 2017. It fell to me to organize the collection for storage, and I discovered boxes of Latimer’s scrapbooks containing decades of newspaper clippings and correspondence from around the country — as well as four bound volumes of her neatly typed staff presentations, university lectures, and Horn Book and Library Journal articles.

A personality brimming with vitality began to emerge: someone who valued intellectual rigor, sensitivity to audience, a quick wit, and above all, high-quality books. Her objective for staff was to “serve the young people of Washington with the best reading possible.”

Latimer assumed the mantle of Director of Work with Children at a time when service to young people was still being defined and when the library — and city — were reeling from the effects of World War I. Noncompetitive salaries, a month-long closure due to an influenza epidemic, and the disruption inflicted on every municipal agency due to the war caused a ninety percent turnover of library staff in 1918. Latimer’s predecessor Clara Herbert commented on the demands of the job: “Anybody with her hat off in the children’s room is besieged with questions.” There was a need to start over with training, school outreach, and a fresh vision. Latimer managed all of this without ever neglecting her first priority: connecting patrons with the best in children’s literature. She sought ways to get books into settlement houses, correctional institutions, and hospitals, and to children with disabilities.

She was an innovator in library administration. Imagine reference work before the internet or even before card catalogs had multiple access points. I have read, for example, that fiction was not shelved by author; it seems people found books by bookcase number — a daunting task. One recurring question that apparently vexed staff was identifying books by particular illustrators. Latimer explained the problem in a 1943 talk to library administrators:

 

“During and after the first World War…the card catalog did little in subject headings, the Wilson Children’s Catalog did not exist, there were almost no indexes. Hence unless the material fell in the shelving in obvious classification, knowing the contents of the books was the only way…I began to make a finding list of the books in our collections. This got in my blood and I gradually went further and tried to enlarge it by listing worthwhile illustrators of books we did not have.”


She listed the folks who came to the children’s room with questions: this included, in addition to parents and teachers, “artists, costume and stage designers, editors, and window dressers.” To help those seeking visual information or inspiration, Latimer created Illustrators: A Finding List in 1919; if, for example, visitors wanted pictures by N. C. Wyeth, they would be shown a list of twenty-five books, from Parables of Jesus to Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Initially it included “American and foreign illustrators whose work seems of sufficient merit” and was confined to “books in English and in print.” She lost no time in suggesting to director George Bowerman that they acquire the books by the 800+ important artists she had identified; thus, the Illustrator Collection (still extant but currently in storage during the main library’s renovation) was born. Thinking the list might be of national use, she published it with Faxon in 1927, later updating it by adding an author list. This project would define her legacy, but it was far from her only accomplishment.

She responded to teachers’ regular requests for a good book geared toward young people about Washington, DC, by writing one herself. She used the wealth of primary source material in the library, and it is not only impressive scholarship, but compelling reading — she kept her audience in mind. In Your Washington and Mine (published by Scribner in 1924) quotes enliven the storytelling, as when Abigail Adams describes her new life in the executive mansion (lacking both stairs and firewood), citing “the great unfinished audience room I make a drying room of to hang up the clothes in.” During the Civil War, 150,000 soldiers filled an area normally inhabited by 61,000; sensory details pull audiences in: “Here men, heated from drilling, gathered about the park’s famous old springs; here could be heard bugle-calls and sentry orders, and also presently the moans of passing wounded soldiers.” A nuanced and prescient chapter, “Political Servitude of Residents,” delves into the longstanding lack or imbalance of federal funding vis-a-vis taxation as well as the issue of suffrage: “One is stunned…that it should be the only nation left in the world today which denies representation in their government to a large group of its citizens.”

Recognizing a gap in library literature on “children’s department organization and the principles underlying work with children,” she stepped up with a volume on the subject. Latimer’s The Organization and Philosophy of the Children’s Department of One Public Library (Faxon, 1935), the first on the topic, outlines best practices born from her experience, ranging from rigorous staff development that started with a reading list of two hundred titles to thoughts on “reading for credit” (not a fan) and advocacy for an attractive space: “A confused room makes for discipline problems; a beautiful room quiets children.”

 

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Latimer became well respected nationally. When the Newbery Award was a mere five years old, she presided over the selection of Will James’s Smoky the Cowhorse. In presenting the award in Toronto in 1927, she said drily: “The hero of the book which is crowned tonight is neither of the two heroes perennial in literature since stories first were told…man and his dog…At last the horse has been captured breathing, loyal, heroic.”

Like her counterparts in Boston and New York, Latimer was known for the strength of her convictions. One of her scrapbooks, titled “Controversial Matters,” includes her 1929 struggle with Archbishop Curley regarding didactic children’s books written by clergyman Father Finn. Curley was furious that Latimer wouldn’t add Finn’s titles to the children’s collection. Pressed for comment, Latimer stated: “We have not placed Father Finn’s works in our library because we do not consider them of sufficient literary merit….We consider Father Finn’s books of the Sunday School type.” Although pressure continued, there is ample documentation, including letters from Catholic teachers and Catholic University professors, citing Latimer’s longstanding emphasis on inclusivity and her initiative in reaching out and purchasing books they recommended. Latimer had high standards for the library collection and didn’t back down, even in the face of a very public, very ugly smear campaign (played out in the pages of the Baltimore Catholic Review).

 

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Nearing the end of three decades at the library, Latimer had the opportunity to revisit the work that had initially excited her: illuminating illustration. Recognizing her expertise, Horn Book editors Bertha E. Mahony and Beulah Folmsbee asked her to help produce what became a 527-page volume: Illustrators of Children’s Books, 1744-1945. (Three subsequent volumes complete the set.) With pages finished with burnished gold and copious images throughout, the magnum opus has been called “a landmark in the story of bookmaking.” In addition to historical overviews in the first section’s ten essays, one can discover Howard Pyle and contemporaries through Robert Lawson’s eyes or discern Lynd Ward’s thoughts on the value of picture-book art in creating “eye-appetite” in children. A second section provides biographies of 350 illustrators alive at the time.

Latimer’s contribution is a third section — a bibliography of over eight hundred illustrators and an author index. The research that she and assistants undertook to unearth bibliographic information for books that often did not include it is indicative of her admonition to staff: “Nothing worthwhile in all the world is done save by taking infinite pain. Don’t leave the infinite pain for someone else to take.”

Mahony’s preface states: “This book could hardly have come into being without the help of Louise P. Latimer.” The scope of Latimer’s amazing Illustrator Collection is evident throughout the volume; there are fifteen artists listed for Dickens’s Christmas Carol, twenty-one for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. There is a Huckleberry Finn rendered by Norman Rockwell, a Moby-Dick by Rockwell Kent. Latimer writes: “Examining many of the listed books has been a revelation, a treat, and an education.”

 

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A distinguished career serving children, parents, educators, diplomats, journalists, artists, national colleagues, bureaucrats, and presidents culminated in retirement in 1948. But Latimer’s belief that that what librarians have to offer young people is the culture within themselves, developed from ongoing immersion in excellent literature — and her standards for training, outreach, and collection depth — continue to inspire and inform children’s librarians in the District of Columbia. Let’s give Latimer the last word: “Knowing books is the sine qua non of children’s work.”

Wendy Lukehart
Wendy Lukehart is the youth collections coordinator at DC Public Library and a regular contributor to Kirkus and School Library Journal. Passionate about illustrated books, she has served on Caldecott and Sibert committees and chaired an ALSC pre-conference on art in picture books and a president’s program on visual thinking.
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A T

“Your Washington and Mine” caught my eye at Capitol Hill Books the other day. I’ve been enjoying it so far and googled the author to find out a little more about her. What an interesting story! Thanks for the informative (and curiously well-timed) article.

Posted : Jul 01, 2019 10:37


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