Monday, April 13, 2009

Those opinionated children's librarians of yore

It was an odd coincidence that Roger Sutton recently quoted Effie L. Power's outrageous and fairly hilarious statements concerning the reading habits and tastes of the children of various ethnic groups, from Jews to Germans to Czechs. I've been browsing through her 1943 Work With Children in Public Libraries (a revision of a 1930 edition) in preparation for teaching a UCLA GSEIS course on "Library Services and Programs for Children" and find it a fascinating window into the mores and sentiments of the time.

After listing all the many attributes that a children's librarian should possess (knowledge of child psychology and educational principles, interest in sports, natural history, botany, science, etc, being "simple and straightforward in manner, without affectation or brusqueness..."), she adds, "(Children) respond intuitively to youthfulness in others, buoyancy of spirit, and colorful beauty. Knowing this, the wise children's librarian wears pretty clothes and keeps her library room cheerful and bright." I do try to keep my spirit bouyant, but that youthfulness thing is just beyond me these days.

In discussing vocational and professional opportunities, Power states, "There is a need for men workers to aid with administrative problems and with boys' reading." Yep, the poor guys get stuck behind a desk wrestling with paperwork and supervisory problems except when the children's librarians on the floor need assistance with that most thorny of issues - figuring out what to give boys to read.

Even more fascinating is a collection of essays and speeches called Library Work with Children, compiled by Alice I. Hazeltine and published in 1917. From William Isaac Fletcher's famous 1876 article "Public Libraries and the Young" and Caroline Hewins' 1882 survey "Boys' and Girls' Reading" to a 1903 article on "Maintaining Order in the Children's Room" and any number of essays on storytelling, collection development, and the fascinating "Work with Children at the Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library" from 1910, this is an amazing look at library services to children when they were at their most formative stage. I thought that telling stories to kids in the neighborhood playground was a 70's phenomenon, but no - there are not one but two articles on this practice, one from 1901 and one from 1911.

One Clara Whitehill Hunt wrote in a 1913 about the dangers of what she saw as a growing trend toward "harmless" mediocre children's books and a tendency to overprotect and coddle children (" this day when parents are frantically protecting their children from the deadly house fly, the mosquito, the common drinking cup and towel; when milk must be sterilized and water boiled..." - sounds familiar!).

She rages, "And when children of good heritage, good homes, sounds bodies, bright minds spend hours every week curled up among cushions, allowing a stream of cambric-tea literature gently to trickle over their brain surfaces, we know that though the heroes and heroines of these stories be represented as prodigies of industry and vigor, our young swallowers of the same are being reduced to a pulp of brain and will laziness that will...affect their moral stamina, since fighting fiber is the price of virtue." Ouch! Think what she would have said about television, graphic novels, and video games.

Ah, my spiritual ancestors - they were opinionated, strong-willed, sometimes a bit bonkers, and absolutely dedicated to their mission - which they were creating as they went. They make me proud - even Ms. Effie Powers and her bizarre thoughts on collection development (she does have wonderful things to say about a number of other elements of children's services). We've always been an interesting and sometimes controversial group of folks - from the very earliest days.
Photo of the Aguilar Branch courtesy of the NYPL digital collection.


  1. I've always said that our profession really benefited from those amazing early librarians who didn't have many career options available to them in those pre-feminist/Affirmative Action years. Those women could have been running Fortune 500 Corporations or even whole countries, but instead they devoted themselves to creating library services to children.

  2. Hmm. Interest in sports does not describe me. And I wear a lot of black. I knew there were reasons why I am not a children's librarian, despite my lack of brusqueness and my natural buoyancy...