Five Major Firsts for Female Librarians

These five women helped shape the libraries of today.

How women throughout history shaped the public libraries of today.

Today, when we go to the library, we expect to see a staff largely made up of women. However, it did not start this way. The first public library as we see it today was founded in 1833 and staffed mostly by men. Women were allowed in to serve children, as that was seen in line with the natural skills they possessed. Still, from the start, women in librarianship strained against these limitations, with several leading the charge to enter positions of leadership and expand the role of the library in society. Here are five women who charged in and became the first to break glass ceilings in librarianship.

Mary Foy 1862-1962

At the tender age of 18, Mary Foy applied for the job of library director at the Los Angeles Public Library. And in 1880, she got it, making her the first female library director. However, the library was not exactly the public institution we think of today. It was housed in three rooms above a saloon, and women were not allowed to get cards or access the books. Eventually, they were allowed to check out materials on their husband’s cards, and a ladies' reading room was set up for them in 1876 without any books in it. Hired to play hostess in this area, Mary also set up a cataloging system and kept the library accounts. She was replaced four years later by Tessa Kelso, another woman. 

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Elizabeth Putnam Sohler 1874-1926 & Anna Eliot Tickno 1823-1896

These two women of means used their time and skills to advocate for libraries. In 1890, they were appointed to the Massachusetts Free Library Commission, the first women to ever be on such a board. As members, they both pushed their separate but complementary agendas. Putnam Sohler believed every city and town should have a library and invest in it, expanding their collections for the good of their community. In her 36 years on the commission, she managed to make that happen. It dovetailed with her work with the Women’s Education Association of Boston, which produced traveling libraries. It was through this work that she met Eliot Ticknor, who was working hard to expand educational opportunities for women. She founded and ran the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, the first correspondence school. Through this, she helped many women with varying degrees of education achieve their desired educational goals. The company even had its own library, a collection in the thousands.

Teresa Elmendorf 1855-1932

Teresa Elmendorf was a trailblazer who pushed and accomplished a series of firsts in her career, including becoming the first female president of the American Library Association in 1911. Her career with the Milwaukee Public Library saw her step into the role of the first deputy librarian in 1880 and as the head librarian in 1892. She was also a committed member of ALA, the first from her city, and, at the national convention, saw that several Eastern librarians had established state libraries. She came back and pushed for Wisconsin to do the same and saw that wish fulfilled in 1891. All this led to her election as president of the organization in 1911. 

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Virginia Proctor Powell Florence 1897-1991

A determined and resilient woman, Proctor Powell Florence became the first African American woman and the second African American to gain a degree in library science. After losing both her parents in 1913, she lived with an aunt who ran a hair salon until she went to college and got a bachelor's degree in English literature. Unable to find a job, she went back to her aunt’s salon until a supportive husband and a love of books led her to apply to get her library science degree. Her intelligence and grit paid off when she got accepted to the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library School in 1922, though with restrictions, including being unable to interact with library patrons. After graduating, she got a job with the New York Public Library in 1927. She spent the rest of her career in librarianship, mostly working as a school librarian. Upon her retirement, she and her husband devoted the rest of their lives to the fight for civil rights.

Clara Stanton Jones 1913-2012

Another breaker of glass ceilings, Stanton Jones counted a number of firsts in her career, including becoming the first woman and African American to become the director of a major library system. Born in New Orleans, it never occurred to her that librarianship was a possibility as she never saw one, but once she noticed an opportunity, she ran with it. She first worked in her native New Orleans, only the third librarian of color hired, and used that job to encourage library use by inner-city residents. She then started at the Detroit Public library in 1944 after her husband’s job necessitated a move. Moving through the ranks, she was put forth as the director of the Detroit Library System in 1970. She got the job, though not without considerable protest and a few staff members resigning. During her tenure, she also became the first African American president of ALA in 1976. She retired in 1978.

These five women broke down barriers to make the public library the space it is today—one where information is searchable, where everyone can feel safe, and positions of leadership are possibilities for women. Their careers are an inspiration and show the strides that the library profession has made during its history and the possibilities for the future. 

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