Magazine article American Libraries

"My Dear Aunties." Recollections of Mr. Dewey's School

Magazine article American Libraries

"My Dear Aunties." Recollections of Mr. Dewey's School

Article excerpt


"We went to the reception at Mr. Dewey's last night. Had a very pleasant time. All the library school and staff were invited and there was a houseful. He has a very nice comfortable home. He used to entertain the school often but has had so much illness in his family of late. His only boy had an accident with his knee and has had three operations with it and has now a stiff knee for life. I recommended osteopathy. Mrs. Dewey is a very gracious lady."

The time is March 1900. The place is Albany, New York. May Springer, a young student at the New York State Library School, was writing home about this social event. A graduate of Franklin College, Franklin, Indiana, she had come to Albany the preceding October to study library science.

"They have a billiard table on the top floor, which attracted a good many. We had some music and some light refreshments and a nice social time. It was good to see people in their good clothes. They look so different."

Her host, Melvil Louis Kossuth Dewey, then 49, had brought his library school to Albany from Columbia University 10 years before, after differences with the university over coeducational facilities and personality clashes that had become unresolvable. Known then as the New York State Library School, it returned to Columbia in 1926. His 42-page booklet, Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, was published shortly after he graduated from Amherst College in 1874. Strangely, only 1,000 copies were printed, as though this was an idea that was not here to stay.

May Springer's letter was one of 10 she wrote while at the school. Collected and saved by her two aunts in Indianapolis, the letters (all of which start with "My Dear Aunties") were discovered only recently. Her mother died a week after her baby's birth in 1873, in a bleak spot in Wyoming, where her father, a young Indiana Volunteer veteran, was a telegrapher for the Union Pacific Railroad. Thus it was that she was brought to Indianapolis to be raised by her father's sisters. She received her library science degree in 1900.

The 1901 handbook of the New York State Library School outlined specifically the admission requirements. In addition to age and marital status, applicants were asked to designate the state of their health as "4 = very delicate; 5 = delicate, but able to work; 6 = fair; 7 = good; 8 = very good; 9 = perfect." Note: no question as to gender.

Prospective students could not help but be impressed with the selectiveness of the admissions board, and the demanding schedule in prospect: "Students are advised to limit their daily work to eight hours and to exercise outdoors at least one hour daily."

At a San Francisco library meeting a few years earlier, Frank P. Hill, a Newark, New Jersey librarian, spoke of the virtues of attending the school: "The very elect go there. No drones are admitted, or, if they do get in, soon find the pace too fast and quietly retire.... It keeps librarians and assistants on their mettle all the time. One good library school woman will put more snap into a staff than any amount of scolding, flattery or A.L.A. conferences. "The time will come, and that soon, when trustees will no more think of taking an inexperienced person for librarian or assistant than they would of engaging the services of a mining engineer to erect their building.

"To librarians I would say: Steer clear of the library school unless you are fully prepared to answer all manner of questions." Whether May Springer ever read those lines is doubtful, but surely she would have been undaunted in her ambition.

The early handbook proposes four factors in the making of a good modern librarian: "natural qualification, good education, professional training and experience." One assumes these factors hold true today, while costs for professional training have risen considerably: "total tuition, lecture and incidental fees for the entire course of two years are: for residents of New York state $80, for nonresidents $100. …

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