Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Klas A. Linderfelt, Tragic Librarian

In July, 1886, the American Library Association held its annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Klas A. Linderfelt, Librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library, played a prominent role in making the attendees of the conference welcome. Linderfelt arranged for an elaborate excursion after the conference, an ALA tradition. In appreciation for his efforts in arranging the excursion, those who participated gave him a small gold plated book inscribed “From the A.L.A. to K.A. Linderfelt In grateful recognition. Milwaukee, 1886”. Six years later ALA accepted Linderfelt’s resignation in disgrace as President of the ALA. The rise and fall of Klas Linderfelt is an American library tragedy.

Linderfelt served as the Director of the
Milwaukee Public Library from 1880 to 1892. The construction of the new public library and museum building in Milwaukee in 1897 was due largely to Linderfelt’s initial planning efforts. He was one of the founders of the Wisconsin Library Association (WLA) and was elected its first president in 1891. Linderfelt was an authority on library charging/circulation systems and he implemented an innovative charging system at the Milwaukee Public Library. He was also an authority on library cataloging and was the author of Eclectic Card Catalog Rules which was published in 1890. Linderfelt was active in the American Library Association (ALA) and served as a councilor from 1883 to 1891. In 1890 he was elected vice-president of ALA and in 1891 he was elected president.

In 1892 Linderfelt was arrested in Milwaukee for embezzlement. At his trial he was found guilty, but his sentence was suspended. Under the threat of additional charges, he fled to Europe where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1900. As a result of Linderfelt’s conviction for embezzlement, ALA expunged his election from their official records. Linderfelt also resigned as President of the Wisconsin Library Association leaving the Association leaderless. The story of Linderfelt's demise and ALA's treatment of that occurrence has been well told by Wayne A. Wiegand in a two part article in American Libraries in March and April, 1977 entitled "The Wayward Bookman: The Decline, Fall, and Historical Obliteration of an ALA President". As Wiegand noted in his article, "It seems only appropriate that the Association acknowledge reality and admit that K. August Linderfelt served as its president from October 16, 1891 to May 22, 1892."
Wiegand also noted that, "Librarians ought to remember Linderfelt, if only to provide some balance against the too-frequent eulogistic treatment accorded the Winsors, Pooles, and Deweys of Library history." In other words, celebrating library history includes acknowledging the bad and the ugly as well as the good.

There is an informal group of the past presidents of the Wisconsin Library Association that holds a breakfast meeting on the Wednesday morning of the Association's annual conference.  An urn with ashes (not human) was created to represent Linderfelt in absentia. The newest past president takes custody of the urn after the meeting and keeps it until the next meeting.

Linderfelt inducted into the Wisconsin Library Hall of Fame on October 22, 2009 in recognition of his role as a founder of the Wisconsin Library Association and his contributions to librarianship in Wisconsin and the nation prior to his resignation as President of both ALA and WLA. He is also included in the Dictionary of American Library Biography.

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