ALA's 110th Annual Conference, to be held this month in Atlanta, will mark the Association's return to a site it first visited nearly a century earlier. The 1899 Conference, ALA's first gathering in the Deep South, drew 215 participants to the town that Bryn Mawr College Librarian Isabel Ely Lord called "that southern city of the open door."
No doubt the Atlantans who hosted the 1899 conference would have appreciated the utilitarian, practical message of this year's Conference theme, "Kids Who Read, Succeed"; for the city of Atlanta, then as now, was especially interested in at least the material aspects of "success." The ALA conferees who came to Atlanta in 1899 found precious few traces of the near-total destruction that Atlanta sustained toward the end of the Civil War. In 1899, as now, Atlanta was a forward-looking, booming city of commerce, not the least bit reticent about promoting itself. It was the capital, or so it often proclaimed, of what Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady called a "New South." And though Grady died prematurely in 1889, the 1899 ALA conferees would likely have been familiar with his and Atlanta's New South propaganda.
Gone with the wind were the moonlight and magnobas-a romanticized, vaguely medieval way of fife that existed more in fiction than in fact, and not at all in Atlanta. "New South" Atlanta was a city of newcomers and new money (much as it is now), a city that abandoned the romance of history (except as a tourist attraction) for the romance of real estate and the art of the deal.
Yet Atlanta was also becoming a center of higher education, technology, entertainment, and culture. Although Emory University did not move to Atlanta from Oxford, Ga., until 1919 and Georgia State University was not founded until 1913, Agnes Scott College, Atlanta University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Oglethorpe University, and Spellman College were going strong by 1899.
Communication was big business then as now, with Atlanta boasting the third largest telegraph office in the nation. As the thriving unofficial capital of the New South, Atlanta was an appropriate choice to host one of the most important industrial expositions of the 19th century-the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895. It was during a small meeting at this exposition that local librarians proposed Atlanta as the site of the 1899 ALA conference.
Thus it was that Atlanta prospered in the 1890s and welcomed the opportunity to host national conferences like the ALA meeting. The conference was thoroughly documented by the local newspapers. Front-page articles complete with engravings of prominent visiting librarians and coverage of session topics, agendas, and presentations in minute detail welcomed the conferees. It may be that news was slow that week, or perhaps Atlantans were truly interested in the esoterica of library theory and practice at the turn of the century. A more likely explanation of the coverage the conference received is that in May 1899 the city was still excited about the recently announced Carnegie funding of Atlanta's first free public library, which was to incorporate the collection of the Atlanta Young Men's Library Association. The deed to that collection was turned over to the city at one of the conference sessions by Eugene M. Mitchen, president of the YMLA and Margaret Mitchen's father.
In fact, the hottest topic of the conference program was the emergence of the free public library. In 1899 alone Andrew Carnegie gave over $2.4 million toward the establishment of such libraries, and he was unanimously elected an honorary member of ALA at the Atlanta conference. Speaking at the second session of the conference, Melvil Dewey himself said that historians would note the end of the 19th century as the beginning of a new era in library service and philosophy with the advent of numerous free public libraries. …