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12 Librarians Who Made or Saved Los Angeles History

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In the librarian history of Los Angeles, Charles Lummis and Mary Foy are two of Los Angeles' better known librarians, though their tenures as librarians were brief compared to their larger roles in Los Angeles.

Known as Miss Los Angeles, Mary Foy was the first woman to be City Librarian, serving from 1880 to 1884. She worked to preserve the city's history in numerous ways, from organizing the Los Angeles High School alumni to organizing the First Century Families. Charles Lummis was never trained as a librarian and only served as City Librarian from 1905 - 1910. His acquisitions on the Spanish and Mexican period of California's history are still held in the library's collection today, and Lummis' own private library became the foundation for the Southwest Museum Library, now part of the Autry National Center's Braun Research Library. At the American Library Association convention in 1906, Lummis founded a briefly-lived tongue-in-cheek organization The Bibliosmiles, a "Rally of Librarians Who Are Nevertheless Human." The organization's motto was "To Keep the Bookdust Off Our Own Topshelves'." (More details about the Bibliosmiles on blog "Library History Buff Blog").

For National Library Week, April 8-14, we remember several of our favorite lesser known librarians who made important contributions to the history of Los Angeles and its libraries. For a larger overview of the libraries in Los Angeles, "The World From Here, Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles" is an excellent summary based on a 2001 exhibit at the Hammer Museum. The stunning catalog includes essays about library building in Los Angeles in the 20th century, noting the Los Angeles Library Association was formed in 1872 with John Littlefield as first librarian.

As City Librarian from 1889 - 1895, Tessa L. Kelso created the first library training class, increased the number of books to 40,000, and established "the first delivery stations to extend service to the growing neighborhoods of Los Angeles." She organized the Association for the Preservation of the Missions, "the first serious attempt to preserve the California Missions," according to George Wharton James. To promote awareness, Kelso held "stereopticon exhibitions," led trips to the Missions, and exhibited mission photographs at the library. When she left the organization, Kelso supported Charles Lummis' Landmarks Club to continue preservation efforts. She once sued the city treasurer because he wouldn't reimburse her expenses for annual meetings of the American Library Association -- the treasurer didn't think it was a good use of public funds. One newspaper editorial concurred, suggesting "librarians should hand out books and type catalogue cards and not attend professional meetings to exchange knowledge."


Kelso hired Adelaide Hasse, who the New York Times called the "Champion Fast Lady Bicycle rider of Los Angeles" in 1897. Hasse rose to national fame when she devised a classification system for Los Angeles government documents, which caught the attention of the newly authorized Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. She was asked to be its first librarian, and later worked for the New York Public Library. Some remember her for her acerbic personality, but she had a drive for excellence and is considered one of the 100 most influential people in library history in the United States. For more on Hasse see "The New Woman as Librarian: The Career of Adalaide Hasse" by Clare Beck.

Mary L. Jones, librarian from 1900 to 1905, was the first Los Angeles librarian to attend library school. Under her leadership the library purchased 500 out-of-print Spanish language books, forming the foundation of the library's California history collection. Her achievements are often overshadowed by the Charles Lummis controversy at the end of her tenure:

The Los Angeles Library's all-male board of directors didn't look fondly on Jones' outreach efforts to women and children. In spring 1905, the board fired Jones and hired Lummis, believing a man was better suited to the position. Jones appealed her case to Los Angeles women's organizations, who pressured the board. Lummis, previously considered a friend to the women's clubs, was banned from attending events sponsored by several clubs. Even Susan B. Anthony, who happened to be in Los Angeles in 1905, offered an opinion: "I wonder why it is that the city of Los Angeles can afford to pay Mr. Lummis one hundred dollars a month more than Miss Jones without even trying him." [Los Angeles Herald, June 1905]. The library board prevailed, and Lummis' appointment stood. Anthony was not surprised: "Of course the man will win, because there's only men to settle it." Jones went on to library positions at UC Berkeley and Bryn Mawr Women's College, returning to Los Angeles in 1913 where she worked in the newly established Los Angeles County Library System.

Miriam Matthews

Another pioneer librarian, Miriam Matthews, was the city's first black librarian, considered the first in California. As the dean of Los Angeles black history, she pioneered in the promotion of Negro History Week beginning in 1929, now celebrated as Black History Month. As early as 1940, she began gathering primary source materials and writing articles on early black history in California. For the city's bicentennial in 1981, historian William Estrada explained that Matthews "led a community-wide effort to install a founders plaque in the Plaza for the city's bicentennial. The plaque correctly lists the names and racial identities of the 44 pobladores." A branch of the Los Angeles Library has been named "Hyde Park - Miriam Matthews Branch Library" in her honor. For the library opening in 2004, Los Angeles Times quoted City Councilman Bernard C. Parks: "Miriam Matthews faced gender and racial discrimination while 'breaking down not the glass ceiling, but the stone ceiling.'"

Elizabeth Martinez was a librarian in East Los Angeles during the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. In a recent ALA article, Martinez remembered the event as she marched with a library contingent to protest the disproportionate number of Mexican-Americans dying in the Vietnam War. When the police tear-gassed the crowd, she and her colleagues fled to the nearest library for safety. At the time, she was assigned to a federal grant called "The Way Out Project" which provided relevant programs in the Chicano communities and to the African-American communities in South Central Los Angeles. She was a member of the late 1960s Committee to Recruit Mexican American Librarians, which led to Cal State Fullerton's Mexican American Library Training Institute. Later she co-founded REFORMA, an organization established in 1971 to advocate for the library needs of Spanish speakers. In 1976, Martinez established the Chicano Resource Center at the East Los Angeles Library, one of four Los Angeles County Library ethnic resource centers. She then led the Orange County Library system and the Los Angeles Public Library system and became executive director of the American Library Association.

Mayme A. Clayton at UCLA Library, 1973 | Los Angeles Times photographic archives, UCLA Library

One favorite academic librarian was Mayme A. Clayton, who like Miriam Matthews, collected Black Americana. She began her library career at USC's Doheny Library and later worked as a law librarian at UCLA. While at UCLA, she was a consultant and founding member of the Afro-American Studies Center Library. Along the way, Clayton combed flea markets and used-book stores to assemble her collection, which is said to rival that of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center. When asked what motivated her, she replied, "I wanted to be sure that children would know that black people have done great things and at the time I didn't see anyone else saving the history." Clayton's personal collection is now housed in the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City. It includes 30,000 rare and out-of-print books, films, records and sheet music, and photographs and memorabilia.

For UCLA students and alumni who studied in the Powell Library, another academic librarian Lawrence Clark Powell will be familiar. UCLA Librarian from 1944 to 1961, he was also the founding dean of its library school. This "highly gifted wordsmith" authored over 100 books, many about books and the West. UCLA has more on this much beloved Angeleno.

George Watson Cole outside of his Pasadena home, 1932 | USC Digital Library, Collection of Title Insurance and Trust/C.C. Pierce Photography Collection

George Watson Cole was Henry Huntington's first librarian and "one of the most productive bibliographers at work in America during the first quarter of the twentieth century." According to Cole biographer Donald Dickinson, "By 1914 Huntington had established himself as one of the two or three leading book collectors in America." Books flooded into Huntington's 57th Street mansion in New York. As his staff checked in the books with an informal system, Huntington never knew exactly what the collection held. Huntington hired the 65-year old Cole in 1915 and for the next nine years, he catalogued the thousands of books Huntington had purchased and supervised the move of this enormous library from New York to its new building in San Marino.

Edwin H Carpenter has been described as "a special kind of librarian," as well as a low-key bon vivant, a collector, a bibliographer and a meticulous scholar. He earned his Ph.D from UCLA in 1949 and then his library science degree from USC in 1950. As a UCLA undergrad, he began his library career as a page in the Los Angeles Public Library and then became a reading room attendant at the Huntington Library in 1946, beginning a life long association with the Huntington.

Dr. Carpenter on cover of catalog of his books for sale by Dawson's Book Shop

In his later years, he volunteered as the Huntington's receptionist, answering phones, greeting visitors and entertaining listeners with countless stories about Henry Huntington. Carpenter's accomplishments, like many of the librarians here, are way too many to list but are described in his oral history "Education of a Bibliophile". Among Dr. Carpenter's contributions to Los Angeles history is Early Cemeteries of Los Angeles (Dawson's, 1973).

One of Carpenter's longtime friends, Tom Owen, was a consummate public reference librarian and walking encyclopedia of Los Angeles history. Although never officially a librarian, Owen worked as a clerk-typist and library assistant at Los Angeles Central Library for over 40 years. "Wherever he was stationed, he provided quick and thorough answers to questions from lofty scholars, intense authors, ignorant newspaper reporters or bored schoolchildren with equal attention, kindness and sheer delight in sharing some tidbit of knowledge." (obituary, Los Angeles Times, April 12, 2000). In addition to answering questions, he helped build the library's historic photo collection and worked with the Los Angeles Conservancy to preserve the Broadway theater district. According to historian Nick Curry, both Ed Carpenter and Tom Owen spent countless off-duty hours after the library fire replicating the materials at the Huntington Library "to fill in gaps seared in the city library shelves," Los Angeles Times (2000).

These are just a handful of librarians who have worked tirelessly to preserve city and county history. We are inspired by our Los Angeles librarians -- past and present -- who are the unsung heroes of our local history. While some people may perceive the role of librarian is just to organize books on shelves, many work to preserve the freedom of information, encourage literacy, and archive and share the region's history. To all these qualities librarians add a layer of flexibility, responding to the ever changing needs of society.

If we had our choice, every week would be National Library Week.


Top: A 1932 library-training class led by librarian Helen Vogelson. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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