Everyone knows librarians are just timid, dowdy women who spend all their time in a room full of books perpetually “shush”-ing people, right? Rest assured, we can now say confidently that that stereotype, while not only false and played out, is also wildly historically inaccurate! In her book Cultural Crusaders; Women Librarians in the American West 1900-1917, Joanne E. Passet outlines a thorough, fascinating, and charming history of Progressive Era librarians that gives context to the library systems we enjoy today while also shedding light on the great deal of hard work these women put into starting the US American West’s first libraries.
Library schools started to gain popularity in the late 19th century, around the time that Andrew Carnegie tempered his huge wealth with social services like library creation in the United States. Library education was seen as a good career move for many middle- and lower-class (primarily white) women who could either not afford to go to college or didn’t have the time to dedicate to a longer education. Some women continued their education after college with library school because it offered them a more focused and usable curriculum. Among the career paths available to women at this time, librarianship had appeal because the training was relatively short (up to two years but often shorter), there was no need to command a classroom full of unruly students, and the opportunities cropping up offered new adventures.
With funding for libraries available, the next obstacle to overcome was to supply these prospective facilities with trained, passionate and available librarians. Library jobs in the eastern populated areas of the country were highly competitive (much like the library positions of today) and in order to put their educations to work librarians were compelled to move. In addition to simply having a job, these women often assumed leadership positions in their new libraries because of their unique skill sets and knowledge. Librarians, as the title of this book implies, were responsible for maintaining American culture throughout the developing western states and they did this by providing efficient and usable state-funded centers of knowledge. Passet notes that “libraries had the power to eradicate ignorance, foster good government, and create responsible, intelligent citizens,” and indeed this was the primary goal for librarians of the budding U.S. American West. In order to be successful in these positions, librarians had to be more than efficient, they had to be passionate, outgoing, well read, persistent, and accepting of change.
Sadly, many librarians suffered from boredom, loneliness, and discouragement as western settlers were occasionally distrusting of this free service or saw it more as a meeting hall than an educational resource. Librarians could find themselves in charge of fancy new “Carnegie Libraries” that housed outdated or unappealing materials that were rarely used by the communities they were in. Despite these obstacles, successful librarians could transform their libraries into the cultural centers of their towns through the creation of traveling libraries for especially rural ares and community-building exercises for the more developed locations. According to the book, librarians were often found “working alone, and with inadequate supplies, they took short cuts in the mechanical work in order order to create time for work in the public,” and “while few could be categorized as radical feminists, they did blend feminist ideals with rational values and an ethic of caring as they extended their spheres of influence throughout the region.” Despite many limitations, these librarians were dedicated to the mission of fostering a rich and educated American culture.
Librarians were often unmarried women who lived in boarding houses or with the town’s schoolteachers, and it was not uncommon for these women to bring a widowed parent with them out to the west for a chance at a fresh start. Correspondence with their teachers was a librarian’s own cultural lifeline and a primary source Passet used for her research in this book, so even though the idea of lone rogue librarians leaving everything to pioneer the libraries in the west may seem romantic, it was usually more reserved and monitored than that. Granted, the freedom of being a librarian in the west during this time was unparalleled: women were trained to be respected and valued members of the community, trusted with the task of educating and exposing their neighbors to the literary lifestyle, and they had the option of seeking new work in a huge variety of locations. These “cultural crusaders” pioneered a profession that gave other women a chance to join in academic and educational pursuits as well as create a literary community wherever they went.
If you’re interested in learning more about women during the Progressive Era or the history of libraries in the US, this quick read comes highly recommended for its funny anecdotes, thorough research, and engaging biographies of four of the west’s most prominent women librarians.