Monday, October 6, 2014

Amercan* (for American*)

Librarianship is often remarked upon, or even flat-out ribbed, over its vast array of acronyms, one of the first and foremost, of course, being "ALA." The American Library Association was founded in Philadelphia 138 years ago today by an impressive group of men, including Justin Winsor, Charles Ammi Cutter, Samuel S. Green, James L. Whitney, Fred B. Perkins, Charles Evans, Thomas W. Bicknell, and Melvil Dewey. Its first female president was Theresa West Elmendorf, who served in that role from 1911 to 1912 (she had also presided over NYLA in 1903 and 1904). ALA's second female president, Mary Wright Plummer, quickly followed in her footsteps and the position has been trending toward the distaff side ever since. Plummer was a young Indiana Quaker when she moved with her family to Chicago in 1873. She studied at Wellesley College and took the first library class taught by Mr. Dewey at Columbia University. In 1890, she began training new librarians at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and created a library school there in 1895. She published Hints to Small Libraries and Training for Librarianship, along with a work of poetry called Verses; she also wrote several books for children, such as Stories from the Chronicle of the Cid. In addition to heading ALA in 1915–16, Plummer had also been the president of the New York Library Association, the New York Library Club, and the Long Island Library Club. She invented the idea of "library ethics," which she outlined in a speech to the Illinois Library Association called "The Pros and Cons of Librarianship." I was so curious what these might have been, and to compare them to our current gripes and glory, that I went and fetched a copy from my own library's basement stacks. She didn't use bullet points, but her point was eloquently made in twelve pages of single-spaced text. I was particularly struck by this relevant passage: "Let us take the case of a catalog card. It may be beautifully and legibly written or printed; it may have its words and sentences separated by the proper number of millimeters; its construction may be according to the A.L.A. rules or the Cutter rules or the Library school rules, and it may yet contain some blunder of ignorance that would make a librarian blush to find it in his catalog. And that kind of cataloging is what is going to tell against librarianship as a profession..." Upon her untimely death from cancer in 1916 (three years, I might note, before American women got the right to vote), in a memorial at the New York Public Library, Caroline Weeks Barrett recalled the time that Plummer had asked her, "Do you really believe in personal immortality?" When Barrett replied in the affirmative, Plummer continued, "What to you is the 'unanswerable argument' for such a belief?" And Barrett, who had just before that "been thinking of her tremendous vitality," told her simply: "You are." It was a touching tribute to a remarkable woman who would clearly live on in the hearts and minds of her grieving colleagues, and whose influence is still felt in the library profession today, especially the American Library Association. There were 22 examples of today's typo in OhioLINK, and 496 in WorldCat.

(Portrait of Mary Wright Plummer, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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