Monday, March 7, 2011

Our History is Our Strength, Theresa West Elmendorf

March is National Women's History Month and the National Women's History Project is using the slogan "Our History is Our Strength" to promote the month this year. What a terrific slogan! It would also be a great slogan to promote library history. The ALA Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship (COSWL) is helping to celebrate National Women's History Month this year.  Perhaps that is something the ALA Library History Round Table (LHRT) might consider doing in the future. Women, of course, have played an essential, if not dominant, role in American library history. In recognition of National Women's History Month I thought I would feature Theresa West Elmendorf (1855-1932), the first woman president of the American Library Association (1911-12). In the June 1911 issue of the Public Libraries magazine there was a report on the 1911 conference of the American Library Association at which Elmendorf was elected President of ALA. It said this about Elmendorf: "Mrs. Theresa West Elmendorf, the first woman to be honored by the association with its presidency, comes into the office by right of achievement greater than that of any other woman in the library field and of an equal grade with that of any man.  Her wholesome, sympathetic attitude toward library work and workers has been a distinct contribution to the craft and her freedom from personal ambition has made her a valuable aid in developing the power of the A. L. A.. Her election to the presidency is a well-earned, a well-deserved honor, marking an epoch in which the A. L. A. honored itself in honoring her." Although that statement was somewhat sexist, it acknowledged the high esteem in which Elmendorf was held by the library profession. In this photograph of ex-presidents of ALA, Elmendorf's status as the first woman ALA president is glaringly evident.   Elmendorf served as Librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library (when she was Theresa West), the first woman director of a large public library, and as Vice-Librarian of the Buffalo Public Library. In 1951 she was one of 40 of America’s most significant library leaders selected by the Library Journal for inclusion in a “ Library Hall of Fame". She was among the first inductees into the Wisconsin Library Hall of Fame in 2008. The photograph of Elmendorf shown above is from the article "Pioneers of the Library Profession", by Josephine Adams Rathbone, The Wilson Library Bulletin, June 1949.

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