Library Wars

CIRI Blog

Published: December 10, 2012 by Dr. Debra Hansen

Debra Hansen

We’ve been having a minor discussion thread in my history research methods class (LIBR 285) on whether or not library history is boring. I have to admit that when I tell people that I’m studying the history of California librarians it certainly is a conversation stopper. Even my historian husband gets drowsy when I discuss my “exciting” research finds at the dinner table.

As I mentioned in class, my strategy in dealing with this collective yawn is to write about different scandals in the library world, using these controversies to explore the work of turn-of-the-century librarians, most of whom were women. Ultimately, I hope to write a book based on these scandals which I’ve tentatively titled Library Wars.

My library wars took place in the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) between 1880 and 1910, and they were fueled by the rapid feminization and professionalization of librarianship during that time. One of my favorite skirmishes began when the library’s assistant director filed a grievance with the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission against the rest of the library staff. While this controversy occurred in 1908-1909, it originated in 1905 when the LAPL Board of Directors replaced head librarian, Mary Jones, with local writer/editor, Charles Lummis, because—and this is a quote—it was time that the library was run by a man.

Although Lummis had no library training or experience, his salary was twice that of his predecessor, even though Mary Jones had graduated from Melvil Dewey’s State Library School at Albany and had been in the profession for more than a decade. Lummis fueled further unrest among the staff when he hired a local minister to be his second in command. Lummis’s new assistant, Reverend CJK Jones, not only lacked library experience, he had failed the civil service exam that all other library employees had to pass.

As you can imagine, these actions precipitated an all-out war in the library, as the female staff resisted and undermined their new male superiors’ efforts to manage them. After a year of insults and insubordination, the Reverend Jones filed a complaint with the Civil Service Commission. For several months, the commission held hearings on the conditions in the library, during which every librarian as well as Reverend Jones testified.

Local newspapers avidly covered the hearings, running highly charged articles bearing headlines like: “Library Force Shocked with More Revelations” and “Director of Study and Research to Throw Bombshells at Next Hearing—Young Women Also Have Explosives to Offer.” Among the bombshells was the assistant director’s claim that he found an empty whiskey bottle in the staff room.

Ultimately, the Civil Service Commission ruled in favor of the librarians. Within a year the library board fired both the library director and his assistant, replacing them with Purd Wright, a librarian with many years’ experience. Although it wouldn’t be until 1990 that the LAPL would once again have a woman as its head librarian, the library’s staff had made its point in 1909 regarding the importance professional credentials.

Further Reading
Hansen, D. (2000, Spring). A lion in the hennery: Charles F. Lummis and the Los Angeles Public Library, 1905-1910. Vitae Scholasticae, 10, 5-33.

Hansen, D., Gracy, K. & Irvin, S. (1999, Fall). At the pleasure of the board: Women librarians and the Los Angeles Public Library. Libraries & Culture, 34, 311-346.

McCaslin, S. (1990, March). The displacement of Mary Jones. American Libraries, 21(3), 186-191.