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Later this month, nearly 20,000 librarians, library workers, and other information professionals will descend on the city of San Francisco for the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA). They will arrive by airplanes, by bridges, and by freeways. But in 1891, when San Francisco played host to the ALA’s first ever West Coast conference (Bertram 2015), the story of their arrival was extraordinary: the ALA commissioned a private steam train to transport over half of the conference attendees on a five-week, round-trip transcontinental train ride.
The Pennsylvania R.R. provided cars from its Pennsylvania Limited, seen in this postcard courtesy Wikimedia Commons
It was an amazing odyssey that would crescendo in a tumultuous scene on the return ride home: an impromptu but official conference session aboard the moving train. Picture the ALA president Samuel Swett Green struggling to keep both his feet and order as association members argued over whether to override a committee vote and change the planned location of the following year’s conference, all while he was waving around a Native American warclub in lieu of a gavel.
“Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west”
Where to host the conference was a recurring controversy. The original suggestion to situate the 1891 conference in San Francisco was itself contentious: at the 1890 Fabyan House conference, Herbert Putnam, then the City Librarian of Minneapolis, submitted a letter charging the ALA with “making excursions” and not accomplishing enough business at its annual meetings (ALA 1890, 124). It fell to John Vance Cheney, a poet recently appointed the Librarian of San Francisco, to convince the conventioneers to travel west the following year.
Cheney opened his address to the 1890 conference with this appeal: “If I wished to show you that this invitation is from a land of beauty, I should point you to that queen city sitting by the gate of the sea; I should point you farther down the coast to that stray bit of paradise, Monterey; or I should point you still farther down to Santa Barbara, where lingers yet the old Spanish language, and where it is always afternoon. And as a contrast to this, I should lead you suddenly to the Yosemite, whose invitation to you is in a voice far kinder than the thunder that rattles from crag to crag of the Sierra Nevada; and lastly, I should bring you to that peak, 15,000 feet high, Sovereign Shasta, bowing to welcome you as you approach.”
“Now if you were a selfish body, California could address you on the selfish side. But I utterly waive that. I wish to put that out of your minds as much as possible. Think first of your duty” (ALA 1890, 125).
Mr. Cheney proceeded to make the case that it was ALA’s duty and responsibility to travel to California; the state needed funding for library buildings and the arrival of the conference would sway the minds of politicians and the newspapers and inspire a library boom. “We have money; we have some books, but we need library buildings. Why, you who sit here in the centres of culture, you who sit here in your old world complacency, know not the need of us who wrestle in the sagebrush and track the yellow sands of the prairie” (ALA 1890, 125).
I’ll allow Mr. Cheney his poetic license, but there is no sagebrush or prairie in San Francisco. However, he did have to fight constant battles to obtain dedicated space for San Francisco’s public library. By 1891, he had managed to move the main branch from an abandoned, fire-prone theater to a wing of City Hall, but space was still cramped and inadequate. When the conference commenced, there were public sessions on the cultural importance of public libraries and another focused on library architecture, both of which held the potential to inspire the funding of library construction (towards that goal, it failed: San Francisco would not have a freestanding Main Library until Andrew Carnegie helped fund its construction in the 1910s).
The librarians of Denver and Chicago both spoke in favor of a San Francisco conference, and Boston’s Charles A. Cutter, the beloved cataloging pioneer still remembered today for his “cutter numbers” spoke up to defend excursions and unofficial business at conferences: “I also come to join in the little talks on the train, in the lobby, and on the excursions, for these talks give us fully as much benefit as anything that goes on at the regular meetings. [...] So I second this motion, because I wish to see a mountain with a snow line, as well as one with a tree line. Also, I should like to see Mr. Cheney wrestle in a sage brush” (ALA 1890, 125).
The resulting vote turned out to be unanimous. As 1890’s ALA President Frederick Crunden said, “Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west” (ALA 1890, 126). The Association was going to California.
Matthews, Northrup and Co., Railroad Map of the United States, 1890, courtesy Library of Congress
“They don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise”
At 7:30 am, October 1, 1891, four travelers, partly refreshed by sleep under the auspices of Jersey mosquitos, stepped over from Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City to the Pennsylvania R.R. station and formed the nucleus of a company of faithful members of the ALA bound for the setting sun conference. In the course of a few minutes a local train brought into view the smiling face of our Secretary, who, being used to the insects of the locality, had without doubt enjoyed a good night’s sleep; and soon the New York and Brooklyn ferries brought in the rest of our party, and at a minute or two before 8 the special train was off — one locomotive, four cars, about twenty officials, and nine tourists. (Johnston 1891, 129-30)
That smiling face belonged to Frank P. Hill, the Librarian of Newark, New Jersey and the new ALA Secretary, succeeding Melvil Dewey. It had fallen to him to somehow move the East Coast-based library establishment west. He settled on a uniquely luxurious travel experience: he reserved an entire train that would tour the librarians across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and back again, with westward stops in Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and an eastward sojourn through the southwest, starting with Santa Cruz, Southern California, a day trip into Mexico and a ride across the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. It cost $250.00 to travel from the East Coast, and slightly less if you were boarding in Pittsburgh or further points west. The fare covered a double-berth in a sleeping car, all meals, side trips, and excursion hotels. Cost-conscious travelers could share a double-berth, or fifty extra dollars would get you an entire sleeping compartment to yourself (ALA 1891, 4). By the time the train pulled out of Chicago, 41 librarians were aboard, or roughly half of the conference attendees, all engaging in professional chatter for the span of the trip. D.V.R. Johnston, Sub-librarian of New York, chronicled the westward journey for ALA, and wrote that “it was understood that each individual possessed at least one new idea on library matters, we all set to work to interchange — a work, by the way, which completely lasted out the trip” (Johnson 1892, 130).
Mr. Hill didn’t book just any train: he commandeered the pinnacle of railroad luxury, the Pullman Palace Cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A published tour itinerary went into detail about the train’s magnificence, declaring it “by universal verdict [...] the handsomest and best appointed passenger train in existence” (ALA 1891, 7). The vestibuled train featured two drawing-room sleeping cars, a dining car, and a “composite smoking car.” The librarians would be accompanied by a “Tourist Agent” and an “Experienced Lady as Chaperon,” furnished by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The composite smoking car was the social nexus of the train ride: “A compartment introduced between the baggage-room and the main saloon is fitted up as a barber-shop and bath-room. A regular barber’s chair and all the paraphernalia of the tonsorial artist are at hand. The rear section of the car is a smoking-room, furnished with comfortable rattan arm-chairs, a lounge, and two writing-desks, each surmounted by a small case of selected books” (ALA 1891, 7).
The sleeping quarters could accommodate both men and women: “The Pullman Vestibule Sleeping Cars composing this train are the best examples of nineteenth century car building. Each contains twelve sections of two double berths, and two drawing-rooms, containing two double berths and a sofa. Inclosed toilet-rooms for ladies and gentlemen occupy separate ends of the car” (ALA 1891, 7-8).
In describing the dining car, the itinerary rhapsodizes that “glistening silver and glassware vie in brilliancy with the spotless linen, and above the tables, in the spaces between the windows, potted plants are placed on shelves set in the hardwood” (ALA 1891, 8).
A Pullman Palace Car, circa 1890s, courtesy the Newberry Library
The train departed from Jersey City on Thursday, October 1st, stopping in Philadelphia to pick up additional librarians (the Boston contingent had arrived on the Boston and Philadelphia Night Express that morning). They would continue collecting librarians in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Fort Wayne. On Friday, October 2nd, they took a long stop in Chicago, so that the passengers could to tour the Chicago libraries, plus an unscheduled stop in Ottumwa, Iowa to spend a few minutes at a county fair running at “full blast” (Johnston 1892, 130). Since Denver, Colorado, was farther west than most attendees had likely ever been, it merited a two-day stay, as it was “one of the most pushing and cultured cities of the plains” (ALA 1891, 9).
The touring party also took its time in the Rockies, stopping to ascend Pikes Peak via a (still operating) cog railway out of Manitou Springs. Ill-equipped for the high-altitude temperatures, the tourists who went to the mountaintop all wore billowing red blankets stamped with the initials of the Pullman Palace Cars. Johnston wrote that “without doubt some thirty able-bodied citizens so wrapped in red blankets that the letters P.P.C. were worn on the small of the back, walking in solemn procession around the mountain top, was a sight for gods and men” (1892, 131). Charles Cutter (who had so ardently defended excursions) continued what was apparently a continent-spanning trend of nearly missing trains with his nearest miss yet. As the cog train began its descent from Pikes Peak, “somebody caught sight of Mr. Cutler [sic] plunging wildly through the snow on the peak and frantically waving his arms. The train was finally stopped in its downhill course, and the panting librarian climbed aboard, saved from a wintry night near the stars” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891).
Manitou Springs – Pikes Peak Cog Railway, circa 1900, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Sadly, the westward passage over the mountains claimed one victim, none other than tour organizer Frank P. Hill. “Some of the more profane say that his lungs, long used to New Jersey malaria, could not stand the pure air of 10,000 feet elevation; but the more thoughtful said that that pressure of work in getting up the trip had exhausted his strength” (Johnston 1892, 132). After meticulously planning the itinerary, the ALA Secretary had to disembark to recover, waiting for the eastward train to pick him back up when the conference had ended. Despite this disappointment, his career prospered, and Mr. Hill later served as ALA President and eventually left Newark to become the head of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Once the train made it past the transcontinental divide, it crossed the Territory of Utah and into the state of Nevada, where the librarians were surprised to find a small public library in the remote and dusty whistlestop town of Carlin. Johnston wrote that it was “like a voice crying in the wilderness, and with one accord we rushed in upon the librarian, and wished him all manner of good luck” (1892, 132).
He also noted that the distinguished travelers impressed many of the residents of sparsely populated Nevada. “For at one of the stations,” Johnston wrote “we overheard a citizen inviting a friend to come and inspect our party, on the ground that ‘it was the smartest lot of people which had ever been seen in the State.’ ‘Are they all from Boston?’ asked the other. “Nop, they are not, for they don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise just the same’” (1892, 132).
One other librarian was waylaid mid-tour, but of his own volition: Samuel Scudder disembarked in Truckee to catch grasshoppers before catching up a day or two later (San Francisco Chronicle 1891). While he did dabble in librarianship at both Harvard and the Boston Society of Natural History, he is better known today for his prolific career as an entomologist and paleontologist, so this should come as no surprise.
When the train arrived in California, it was met by a greeting party in Truckee made up of distinguished California librarians, who delivered fresh salmon, quail, figs, peaches, and grapes to the travelers, who offered in return black coffee and cigars. The easterners and westerners breakfasted together on the ride down from the mountains into Sacramento. They stopped in Rocklin to saw off a heavily-laden branch from an orange tree, which they suspended from the ceiling of one of the rail cars as decoration (Sacramento Daily Record 1891).
The westward passage of the train ended in Oakland. The bay was not yet bridged, so the librarians disembarked to conclude their journey: “A short wait for the ferry, a short ride in the cool fog drawing in from the sea, a twinkling of electric lights and a jingling of bells, the wheels ceased churning the water, and our journey was done” (Johnston 1892, 133).
“Useful and Important”
Mr. Putnam, so offended by excursions, was likely tsk tsking at the conference agenda: no meetings were scheduled to start before noon so that there would plenty of time for sightseeing. There was a banquet with the wealthy and eccentric rare-book collector Adolph Sutro at his Sutro Heights Mansion; there was a (chilly) cruise around the Bay (“they would have had a more enjoyable excursion if a fog had not enwrapped the hills and a cold wind swept the bay and the steamer’s deck” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891); there were tours of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown; a visit to the Stanford family’s horsefarm and the new college they had founded; there were side trips to Oakland, San Jose, and Monterey; there were readings by Poet-Librarians John Vance Cheney of San Francisco and Ina Coolbrith of Oakland. The Papers and Proceedings do list a number of speeches, presentations, and meetings, so it does appear they found at least a little bit of time to conduct the business of the American Library Association. In his historical account, President Green (1913, 230) wrote that “the convention proved to be useful and important, probably exerting no little influence in bringing about the remarkable degree of prosperity in library affairs which disclosed itself to visitors in California at the second conference of the Association held in that state, at Pasadena, in 1911.”
In a repeat of the debate at the 1890 conference, there was a quarrel during the conference’s eighth session over where the Association should meet next. The committee tasked with determining the next host location was divided on the subject. ALA President Green suggested Nantucket, paired with a chartered steamship cruise of the Atlantic Coast (ALA 1892a, 117). But ultimately the debate came down to an impasse between two diametrically opposing ideas: either meeting in Washington, D.C, which was conveniently located for maximum attendance, or at a remote resort, far away from the distractions and excursions of big cities. The choice of Washington won the day, but the anti-city faction was not done raising objections.
Later in the same eighth session, Oberlin College’s Azariah Root moved that the conference not be officially adjourned until the excursion train had arrived in Chicago. The train’s Composite Smoking Car would serve as a traveling conference so that the ALA could issue official edicts thanking every locality that hosted them along the way.
“A Funeral or an Opera Troupe”
The Pullman Palace pulled out from the Bay Area on Monday, October 19th, but it did not repeat its westward itinerary. Instead, the returning librarians traveled south. On the first day they lunched in a Santa Cruz redwood grove. Indiana’s Mary Eileen Ahern (1892, 149) journaled the eastward trip on behalf of ALA, and wrote of this excursion that “a beautiful stream flows through this forest,” but protects the modesty of her traveling companions, saying “I will not chronicle the pleasures and mishaps of the young ladies who enjoyed its pellucid waters.”
After refreshing themselves under the Big Trees, the librarians toured Southern California, starting with Santa Barbara followed by stops in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Pasadena, and La Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles, which, according to their tour itinerary, was an “ideal spot for health, scenery, climate, and pleasure” and “undoubtedly destined to become the social metropolis of the Coast” (ALA 1891, 27). The City Librarian of Los Angeles left a memorable impression on President Green. During a carriage procession through the city, Green (1913, 242) noted that their “span of horses was skillfully guided by the vigorous and sure hand of the accomplished and energetic librarian, Miss Tessa Kelso.”
Finally, the California tour ended with a stay at San Diego’s opulent Hotel Del Coronado, then just three years old. According to Ahern (1892, 150-51), the Southern California adventures included shark sightings, impromptu dances, a border crossing into Tijuana, and one incident in Redlands where an unnamed young women of the touring party attempted to steal a burro.
While all of this touring and sightseeing seems superfluous, it’s worth noting that in many of the stops the train made, the local paper covered the arrival of the librarians as a newsworthy event and mayors and local library officials came out to shake their hands. The tour served to increase the profile of libraries and librarians in these emerging communities when the public library movement was still in a fledgling state. Papers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, and Topeka all covered the arrival of the touring party as if it were a major event.
The train rumbled through the territories of Arizona and New Mexico before turning northeast through Kansas on its way to Chicago. As the trains crossed the southwest, the travelers played “relic-hunter, curio-seeker, and sight-seer” amongst the Native American communities along the rail line (Ahern 1892, 151). Mary Eileen Ahern writes wistfully of evenings spent gathering on the train’s “back porch” — “night after night, as the evening shadows fell, ‘by ones and twos the company came.’” She added that “during the day, this same back porch served as a debating ground, resting place, meeting place, studio, and it was said poetry was inspired on that platform on several occasions.”
It was on the final leg of the return ride, after departing New Mexico heading towards Kansas, that Dr. E.J. Nolan, Librarian of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, moved to reconsider the resolution passed at San Francisco to situate the 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. (ALA 1892, 124-26). While there was an objection that a small group should not be able to override the larger public vote in San Francisco, debate carried on anyways. According to Ahern (1892, 152), it was a lively discussion, with President Green “trying to keep his feet in the swaying car and order at the same time, energetically waving an Indian war club by way of a gavel, surrounded by members, each anxious for his own peculiar views to be adopted.”
Among those opposed to Washington hosting the conference were Dr. William Poole, who objected because it was “too hot” and “because in the South there were few libraries” (ALA 1892, 125). Frank P. Hill, who had been retrieved by the return train after recovering his health, also objected, and felt that the Association could override the vote in San Francisco whenever it wanted. Colonel W.H. Lowdermilk, a DC-based bookseller, and Miss E.W. Sherman of the Library Bureau, defended the “devoted librarians” in the south who were striving to improve circumstances there, and felt situating the conference in a place they could attend was for the best, and would help promote the cause of public libraries in the South. A compromise of sorts was reached: a motion was carried that the “first sessions of the conference would be held at some quiet resort, preferably Annapolis” before moving into Washington (ALA 1892, 125).
That evening the train stopped in Kansas City, where the tourists disembarked to sleep at the Midland Hotel. Nearly five weeks into their travels, the party must have had a strange look to them: Ahern (1892, 152) wrote that “as the long line of carriages wended its way to the Midland, speculations were heard on the streets as to whether it was a funeral or an opera troupe.”
The 1891 Conference was officially adjourned after a meeting in Chicago, though many librarians stayed on until the train arrived on the East Coast. Ultimately, the tour covered a total distance of 8,116 miles through 12 states and three territories (ALA 1891, 31).
And as for the 1892 conference? It was ultimately moved to a resort hotel in Lakewood in northern New Jersey. Of the 260 attendees of the 1892 conference, only three came from Southern states (ALA 1892b, 104). But there were day trips to Baltimore, Washington, and post-conference excursions into Virginia.
As for California, the American Library Association would not return until the Pasadena Conference of 1911. That time, Frank P. Hill did make it all the way west. The industrious Herbert Putnam, by then the Librarian of Congress, did not (ALA 1911, 282).
- Ahern, Mary Eileen. 1892. “From San Francisco to Chicago.” In Papers and Proceedings of the Twelfth General Meeting of the American Library Association, 148-53. Boston: American Printing and Engraving Company. https://books.google.com/books?id=65xJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
- ALA (American Library Association). 1890. Papers and Proceedings of the Eleventh General Meeting of the American Library Association. Boston: Library Bureau. https://books.google.com/books?id=FtoDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false
- —. 1891. Tour of the American Library Association to the Pacific Coast. Under “1891TourBook,” http://archives.library.illinois.edu/e-records/index.php?dir=ALA%20Archives/0501001a/
- —. 1892a. Papers and Proceedings of the Twelfth General Meeting of the American Library Association. Boston: American Printing and Engraving Company. https://books.google.com/books?id=65xJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
- —. 1892b. Papers and Proceedings of the Fourteenth General Meeting of the American Library Association. Boston: American Library Association. https://books.google.com/books?id=65xJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
- —. 1911. Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-third Annual Meeting of the American Library Association. Chicago: American Library Association. https://books.google.com/books?id=-mobAAAAMAAJ&dq=editions%3AM1mxxUKIEEkC&pg=PA282#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Bertram, Cara. 2015. “Tour of the ALA to the Pacific Coast,” American Library Association Archives (blog). http://archives.library.illinois.edu/ala/tour-of-the-ala-to-the-pacific-coast/
- Green, Samuel Swett. 1913. The Public Library Movement in the United States, 1853-1893. Boston: The Boston Book Company. https://books.google.com/books?id=Ui9VAAAAYAAJ&dq=Public%20Library%20Movement%20in%20the%20United%20States%2C%201853-1893&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Johnston, D.V.R. 1892. “From New York to the Golden Gate.” In Papers and Proceedings of the Twelfth General Meeting of the American Library Association, 129-33. Boston: American Printing and Engraving Company. https://books.google.com/books?id=65xJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Sacramento Daily Record. 1891. “The Book People: How the Library Association Was Received.” October 12, under “1891 Scrapbook,” http://archives.library.illinois.edu/e-records/index.php?dir=ALA%20Archives/0501001a/
- San Francisco Chronicle. 1891. “The Librarians: They Are All Ready for a Busy Week.” October 12, under “1891 Scrapbook,” http://archives.library.illinois.edu/e-records/index.php?dir=ALA%20Archives/0501001a/
The Librarian of Congress recently resigned. The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrait of James Billington’s time in office. Dr. Billington, a historian and Russia scholar by background, was nominated to the office by Ronald Reagan in 1987.
Dr. Billington was also the latest in a long line of white men to hold the office (the thirteenth, to be exact). I’d like to see the next nominee chosen from a diverse pool of experienced, professional candidates that can bring something different to the role – not an inexperienced political appointment. As the Times piece highlights, the Library of Congress is in need of tech-savvy and knowledgable leadership. This is important.
I’ve also seen it going around the social internet that there’s only ever been one “real librarian” as Librarian of Congress (L. Quincy Mumford, 1954-74). I had always heard that the Librarian of Congress was usually a historian, so I assumed that factoid was true. But since I’m a librarian, I decided to research it. Turns out, it’s not.
The historical tipping point from which the Library of Congress expanded from being a small Congressional reference collection into a national library was 1864 (under the leadership of Ainsworth Rand Spofford), which coincided with the national public library movement, slightly predates the establishment of the ALA, and the point at which “librarianship” became a distinct and specific career path. That was 151 years ago. Counting from then until now, the sitting Librarian of Congress has had professional library experience prior to their appointment for 101 of those years.
Why is this important?
If we let the narrative be that the Librarian of Congress isn’t usually a “real librarian,” we’ll get another non-librarian – even if we’re protesting that fact. We should highlight the fact that the non-librarians who have served were the exceptions, not the norm.
The reason Mumford is being credited as the only “real librarian” to serve as Librarian of Congress is the assumption that in order to be a librarian, someone has to have an MLIS. What makes a person a librarian? It can’t just be having the degree:
- There are plenty of people with an MLIS who don’t consider themselves librarians.
- There are a lot of working librarians who don’t have an MLIS degree.
- There are other library professionals who are knowledgeable and vital who have neither the degree nor the word “librarian” in their official title.
And it can’t just be having it in their title.
- There are plenty of unemployed or underemployed librarians. They are still librarians.
- There’s a pretty wide range of titles out there (with and without the word librarian in them).
So what does it come down to? I’d say knowledge and skills in library services (and what a wide range those services can be! And there are plenty of specialities) and a dose of self-identification.
Obtaining an MLIS is one way librarians gain knowledge and skills and develop a sense of identity. It is one marker of experience and ability. But it is not the only one, and not the only way.
Let’s get back to the question of Librarians of Congress, and whether they were “real librarians.”
Quick history lesson: while libraries are an ancient concept that date back to the origins of writing (there is evidence of Sumerian libraries), “librarianship” as a modern American profession didn’t develop until the mid-to-late 19th century. As the public library movement caught hold, the earliest full-time librarians mostly came from a wide range of backgrounds (there was no degree in “library sciences”). “Library schools” started with Dewey’s school at Columbia College, but an advanced degree – the MLS and its variations – did not appear until well into the 20th century.
So we can’t judge whether or not the early Librarians of Congress were “librarians” by whether or not they had an MLIS. They only way we can judge whether they were “real librarians” is by checking whether or not they had library or related experience prior to their nomination.
Here’s the full list:
- John Jay Beckley, 1802-1807
- Patrick Magruder, 1807-1815
- George Watterson, 1815-1829
- John Silva Meehan, 1829-1861
- John G. Stephenson, 1861-1864
- Ainsworth Rand Spofford, 1864-1897
- John Russell Young, 1897-1899
- Herbert Putnam, 1899-1939
- Archibald Macleish, 1939-1944
- Luther Evans, 1945-1953
- L. Quincy Mumford, 1954-1974
- Daniel J. Boorstin, 1975-1987
- James Billington, 1987-2015
When the Library of Congress was first established, it was a small reference collection for the use of the members of Congress. Librarian of Congress was not a separate position, but just part of the responsibilities of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. That covers Beckley and Magruder. We’ll leave them completely out of this reckoning.
The first actual full time “Librarian of Congress” was George Watterson. The position was separated from the Clerkship since Congress had recently purchased Jefferson’s personal library to replace what was destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Dealing with that influx of books required a full-timer. Watterson was a lawyer by education, a writer by craft, and a newspaper editor by trade. He did not work in a library or similar institution prior to his appointment. All the major decisions regarding the library were made by a congressional committee, not by Watterson. Watterson was not a “real librarian,” but “librarianship” was not an independent profession in his era.
Watterson was followed by John Silva Meehan. He was a printer. While Librarian of Congress, he was not allowed to choose books – those decisions were made by the Congressional committee chair – and the LOC was small, still intended only for congressional use. So Meehan wasn’t a librarian, either, but the Library of Congress wasn’t really a library (yet), and like Watterson, librarianship was not considered an independent profession when he was appointed.
Stephenson was a physician who continued his medical practice even after his appointment. So…not a librarian. At all. And not a good appointment (that one was on Lincoln).
But Stephenson’s successor was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who had previously served as Assistant Librarian of Congress. Voila! Previous professional experience. This also coincided with the national public library movement, which saw “librarianship” as a standalone profession become a reality. Under Spofford’s leadership, the Library of Congress grew into a genuine national library. Even after he was replaced as Librarian of Congress, Spofford continued to work as Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress. He was clearly a longtime, dedicated library professional.
We can chalk Spofford up as the first “real librarian” to serve as Librarian of Congress, and his term also marks the beginning of the Library’s modern era.
John Russell Young was a political appointment with a background in journalism, business, and politics. He only lasted two years before his death. Not a “real librarian.”
Herbert Putnam was Librarian of Congress from 1899-1939. He’s the innovator of the Library of Congress Classification System, which arguably makes him on par with Dewey for widespread influence on library science. Before his post with the Library of Congress, he was head of the Minneapolis Athenaeum, head of the Minneapolis Public Library, and Superintendent of the Boston Public Library – at the time, the largest public library in the country. He was also a very active early member of the ALA.
Putnam was clearly a “real librarian.” One of the most influential in American library history.
Archibald Macleish was a writer and poet. Not only was he not a “real librarian,” that was exactly why he was nominated. According to the LOC’s biography of Macleish, “Roosevelt proclaimed that the job of Librarian of Congress required not a professional librarian but ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’” The ALA protested his nomination, but it passed Congress by a wide margin. This was the first clear, intentional shift away from appointing librarians to be Librarian of Congress.
Luthor Evans is a different case than Macleish. He was a political scientist by education, but he was director of the LOC’s Legislative Reference Service for six years before his appointment, and served as Acting Librarian of Congress when Macleish was absent. So he had six years of leadership experience in a library before he was appointed. LOC’s Evans biography also states that he “plunged into technical library issues.” I’d say that would make Evans a “real librarian” and not just a political appointment.
Mumford had an MLS [correction, 2/24: a BS in Library Science], worked for a long time at NYPL and Cleveland Public, and served as President of the ALA before his appointment as Librarian of Congress. Definitely a “real librarian.”
Boorstin is a tricky case. A Rhodes Scholar with a law degree, he had a long and successful academic career as a professor of history. Impressive, but not librarianship. But he also was the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, a significant cultural institution not unlike the Library of Congress in scope. You could argue he had comparable, relevant experience. However, ALA protested Boostin’s appointment, so I’ll put him down as not a “real librarian.”
Boorstin was followed by Billington. Not a “real librarian.”
So if we start counting with Spofford’s term – when the Library of Congress actually became a national library – we have four “real librarians,” and four who were not, and 101 out of 151 years with librarian leadership.
I think it’s a mistake to conflate having an MLIS and being a librarian. If the best candidate has had noteworthy practical and administrative work in a library, museum, or archive, that’s more important than the right master’s degree.
In addition to impressive professional credentials, it would be thrilling to see a candidate who brings a different life experience to the role than their thirteen white male predecessors.
We shall see.