State Libraries: A Special Issue of Information & Culture

CIRI Blog

Published: August 27, 2012 by Dr. Debra Hansen

Last week I completed an article on James L. Gillis, California State Librarian from 1899 to 1917. The article is part of a special issue on the history of state libraries that will appear in the February 2013 issue of Information & Culture. There will be two articles on California’s state library as well as essays on the state libraries in Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas, and Washington. State libraries are painfully neglected in library history literature, and this volume promises to make an invaluable contribution.

I’ve been wanting to write about James Gillis for many years and jumped at the chance to have an article in this groundbreaking collection. Many consider Gillis to be California’s most influential state librarian, and he is credited with modernizing and professionalizing the institution. But what intrigued me about Gillis was his lack of professional knowledge or experience prior to his appointment as state librarian. In fact, Gillis’s selection as state librarian was based solely on his connections within the Southern Pacific Railroad (he was a former employee) and the Republican party.

My article examines the extent to which politics controlled state library appointments in the late 1800s and how Gillis, at the beginning of his administration, continued this tradition. Gillis had engaged in fierce politicking to win the state library post, and once in office he fired the existing staff and replaced them with the relatives and friends of his railroad and political benefactors. These new employees included the governor’s cousin and the stepdaughter of Henry Huntington’s assistant, not to mention Gillis’s own daughter, Mabel.

Yet within a few years Gillis became disillusioned with patronage politics and began advocating for governmental reform. In my article, I outline the factors that contributed to Gillis’s transformation, most notably the ideals of California’s Progressive movement and pressure from library professionals, including Melvil Dewey, New York State Librarian, and Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress. I was particularly impressed with the role that the California Library Association played in changing Gillis’s attitudes and how CLA was able to involve the new state librarian in the professional community.

So although Gillis began his state library career as a political hack, he would use his position not for personal gain but to improve libraries throughout the state. He expanded and professionalized the state library, created the state’s first civil service rules, and established California’s earliest library school. His crowning achievement was the creation of the statewide county library system that we all know today.

The Online Education Database recently posted a list of the “25 Libraries We Most Love,” recognizing the service of perennial powerhouses such as the New York Public Library and the San Francisco Public Library. I’m sure James Gillis would have been gratified to see the California State Library listed among this select group and to know that his vision of library service continues to this day.

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