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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Women and Libraries

I spoke last Saturday as part of the year-long centennial observance of the founding of the local library system. Our first library began in West Tampa, which then was a separate municipality, in 1914. That sturdy, classic building still remains in use on Howard Avenue, slightly north of I-4.

The event planners told me last fall that they wanted this celebratory luncheon to be in March because that is Women’s History Month, and they wanted me to draw attention to the crucial role of women in libraries. Not only are women the vast majority of librarians, they also were arguably the majority of library founders. Even though they lacked the vote, it was women, much more than men, who lobbied local governments to establish public libraries.

My first font of knowledge was History of Libraries in the Western World (1965). It traces libraries from ancient Alexandria through the Middle Ages, when semi-literate monks used parchment to preserve libraries by copying manuscripts, handwriting and decorating texts that they didn’t necessarily understand. Then came the printing press and increased secular production, including maps and explorers’ books that informed Europeans of the existence of a New World.

The first permanent settlement of Europeans in what now is the United States was under Pedro Menendez de Aviles at St. Augustine in 1565 -- but even we Floridians often forget that we were first. The reason, I think, is that Catholicism discouraged literacy for the masses. Not only was there no library in St. Augustine, neither it nor the Pensacola end of Spanish Florida even had a newspaper. For more than two centuries, from 1565 settlement onwards, no newspaper recorded events in Spanish Florida: the first was the East-Florida Gazette, an English-language paper that began in St. Augustine in 1783, the year the American Revolution ended. That lack of reading, recording, writing, and archiving meant Florida lost its first-place in American history, and everyone thinks Massachusetts was first. (We also tend to skip Virginia, which also preceded Massachusetts -- but which, although not Catholic, valued money more than books.)

In contrast, the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632 began Harvard College in 1636, naming it for its first book donor. By 1640, Governor John Winthrop had a personal library of at least a thousand books – but I told the audience that I’d lay odds that it was Margaret Winthrop who selected and brought them. Like many other couples, he went first to decide whether or not he wanted to stay in the New World, but she and similar women were not excess baggage to be passively shipped later. Instead, women were the ones who closed down European property, decided what to take and what to leave, and then shepherded children, servants, and even livestock across the sea.

Margaret and John Winthrop were so emotionally close that they worked out an ESP system of communication. Unaware of time zones, they agreed that at five o’clock every day, each would stop what they were doing and think of the other. Yet Governor Winthrop was no feminist or freethinker: he banned Lady Deborah Moody from Massachusetts because her theology did not exactly match his. After he called her “a dangerous woeman,” she took her property and people, went south, and built the colony of Coney Island.

* * *

Of course ordinary people were not welcome to borrow books from affluent families such as the Winthrops, and more than a century passed before the formation of subscription libraries. The first may have been Benjamin Franklin’s, in Philadelphia in 1731. Members paid a fee to belong to the library and borrow books. Women ran some of these “lending libraries:” two that I know of for sure were Mary Katherine Goddard in Baltimore and Elizabeth Peabody in Boston.

Like a number of colonial women, Goddard published a newspaper: indeed, it was her paper that first revealed the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. When the postal system began after the Revolution, she would run Baltimore’s first post office – and all the while, she sold and loaned books. Elizabeth Peabody was similar: she ran a subscription library within her Boston bookstore and also published the first work of her brother-in-law, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

She opened her bookstore in 1840, and meanwhile – almost entirely unacknowledged – the first free public library seems to have begun in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833. The Boston Public Library, in contrast, did not begin until 1858, as the first free libraries were in rural areas, not cities. Founded by young people who moved from the coasts to the Midwest, by 1876, there were enough of them that the American Library Association began in Philadelphia – in conjunction with the nation’s celebration of its 100th birthday.

* * *

Things moved quickly after that, and the first school of library science began at New York’s Columbia University in 1887 under the leadership of Melvil Dewey – creator of the Dewey Decimal System. Columbia, which had begun as King’s College prior to the Revolution, did not admit women, but Dewey successfully lobbied trustees to make an exception for the Library School. He “actively recruited women as inherently suited... The natural qualities most important in library work,” he said, “are accuracy, order (or what we call the housekeeping instinct), executive ability, and above all earnestness and enthusiasm.”

He was right, and statistics complied at the school’s 30th anniversary showed that 94% of its graduates were women. Most of the nation’s librarians, of course, were not graduates of library schools but instead often were self-educated, as many colleges still refused to accept female students. Worse, in many small communities, the position of librarian was viewed as something of a charity instead of a profession. The library boards that hired them viewed themselves as “assisting…widows and spinsters with no other means of support.”

Electing those library boards often was the first introduction that women had to voting and holding office. In many farming areas, women were more literate than men, and some men were smart enough to allow their input on libraries. Minnesota serves as one example: the legislature granted women the right to vote for library board candidates and to hold those offices themselves in 1898, but complete voting rights waited until the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920.

Yet despite often being the best-informed women in their communities, librarians were not especially active in the movement for the vote. Generally cautious and well aware of the power of their mostly male political bosses, they did not even vote for themselves in their own organization. It was not until 1990 that a woman was named as executive director of the American Library Association. At that point, 80% of its membership was female.

Although these women were not particularly assertive on behalf of themselves, they were assertive about libraries, and women played a huge role in promoting them. Reputable historians estimate that the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs (GFWC), in conjunction with Andrew Carnegie, were involved in the founding of three-fourths of the nation’s librarians. It was a coincidence of social movements and timing that is nearly singular in American history.

* * *

Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who became extremely wealthy in the steel industry. He followed the methodology of worker exploitation denoted by the era’s term for these men: Robber Barons. In 1892, conditions at his steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania reached the point of a strike; the governor sided with business and called out the state militia to force workers back to their toil. A pitched battle between these men resulted in a dozen facilities, mostly workers.

Despite the damage to his reputation because of that, Carnegie was more progressive than other Robber Barons. He did not engage in the Gilded Age’s ostentatious display of wealth, and he was especially supportive of education, particularly adult education via libraries. He endowed his first in his hometown of Pittsburgh in 1881, established more in the British Empire, and gave the first grant for library construction to an American city with which he had no personal connection in 1891. That was the year after the formation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Women’s clubs had begun as early as the 1830s, with the first originating as “study clubs.” No college in the world admitted female students until Ohio’s Oberlin did in 1833, but that precedent was not quickly followed. Women in every state struggled to gain access to tax-supported higher education: the worst was New Jersey; it had no college, either private or public, open to women until 1917.

Women in study clubs hired professors to teach them, or guided themselves through courses in everything from ancient Athens to modern botany. As the end of the 19th century neared, though, enough colleges had opened their doors to women that many clubwomen moved from “study” to “civic improvement” clubs. By 1890, when the GFWC began, there were some 5,000 such local clubs across the nation. The South, as usual, was a bit late, but the Tampa Woman’s Club began in 1900; the Tampa Civic Association in 1910 (despite its gender-neutral name, it was all women); and the Woman’s City Club soon after. All belonged to the Florida Federation of the GFWC, and one of the GFWC’s top goals was public libraries.

Thus the connection to Carnegie’s funds – and after the Homestead strike, to a division between these well-intended but largely Anglo women and the often-immigrant men who belonged to labor unions. A book called Carnegie Denied: Communities Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants, 1898-1925 details the many municipalities that rejected Carnegie’s “tainted money.” Most such communities were in the North, however, and only one chapter of the book dealt with the South. The only Florida city cited as having turned down a Carnegie grant was Pensacola, which was far from a union town.

Unlike Pensacola, West Tampa was one of very few Florida municipalities that had a strong labor presence: indeed, most of its residents were unionized cigar makers from Cuba who held leftist views. And yet, West Tampa preceded the City of Tampa in accepting Carnegie’s “tainted money:” it opened its library almost four years ahead of the “Anglo” library downtown. Why this seeming contradiction? That question perplexed me, so I started digging into original documents. The story will continue next week.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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