I recently came across a program for the 1936 Maine Library Association conference at Colby College, which was then in downtown Waterville. What was interesting to me was how much from that program could still be relevant today.
Just as there would be today, there were keynote speakers: Miss Alice Jordan from Boston Public Library was brought to the Elm City to discuss “Children’s Books—New and Not so New” and Miss May Massee of Viking Press gave a talk on youth literature “with lantern slides,” which must have been a real audio-visual thrill for those assembled.
An aside: Miss Massee, it turns out, was quite a powerhouse in both libraries and publishing. Trained as a librarian, she served as the first full-time editor of Booklist Magazine. She founded the first two divisions of major publishing houses that were dedicated to children’s literature—at Doubleday in 1922 and Viking in 1933—and worked with many authors we still recognize today, Maine’s own Robert McCloskey and Ludwig Bemelmans of Madeleine fame among them. (source) She also advocated for open library services to all, especially immigrants and minorities, and published books that featured them as well.
Back at the 1936 MLA conference, most delightful of all (to me) was a panel discussion on the “Relation of the Library to the Public” that included one of my forebears, Mrs. Anne Hinckley, Librarian at the Ladies’ Social Library (Blue Hill Public Library’s previous incarnation prior to 1939).
MLA 1936 Panel Discussion.pdf
Mrs. Hinckley’s participation in the panel left behind a script of pre-arranged questions to be addressed, each one identifying who would ask and who would reply. For example, Miss Trappan, Head of the Open Shelf Room at Portland Public Library, asked of Mrs. Hinckley, “What activities are justified to bring borrowers to the library?”
Mrs. Hinckley was also asked “What is the best solution of the problem of duplicate copies of books in much demand?” and “What do librarians think of the librarian in [Sinclair Lewis’] Main Street, who said her first duty was to preserve the books?”
When it was her turn, Miss Trappan got some zingers: “What should be the attitude toward questionable books; not merely salacious books, but also books on heated controversial subjects like communism?” and “How far should public demand influence book buying?”
They saved the oratorical fireworks for last, asking of Dr. Libby, professor of Public Speaking at Colby College: “Is the phrase ‘adult education’ attractive or repellant?,” “How can municipal officers controlling finances be made to realize the importance of the library?” and finally the most potentially damning question of all, “What can you say about the charge that books get slowly into circulation because of prior claims of trustees and book committee?” Oh the humanity, corruption among trustees and committee members!?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not preserved locally and, as much as libraries have been on the side of free speech in history, it’s anyone’s guess how those in attendance at Colby College would have replied. It’s possible that ALA’s modern positions on intellectual freedom issues would seem radical to these Maine professionals pondering thorny topics between the wars and in an era of Red Scares.
The one thing I can say today with certainty is that we all owe the Miss Trappans, Dr. Libbys, Miss Massees and especially for us in Blue Hill, Mrs. Hinckley and Miss Pearson, a debt of gratitude for carving out institutions and a profession that have become integral to our American social fabric.