When Gertrude Darlow joined the Los Angeles Public Library in October 1893, there were less than twenty employees. During her thirty-plus years with the library, she worked under seven City Librarians, including legends such as Tessa Kelso, Mary L. Jones, Charles Fletcher Lummis, and Everett Robbins Perry. She worked in all the Los Angeles Public Library (main) locations except the first one in the Downey Block. This means that she worked at City Hall, the Hamburger Building, the Homer Laughlin Building, the Metropolitan Building, and the current Central Library through the years. She was a poet, a stellar book reviewer, a master at matching readers to books, and likely the most traveled library worker across Southern California in the early twentieth century. Let me introduce you to the charming Gertrude E. Darlow.
Gertrude Ellen Darlow was born July 22, 1864, in the London borough of Richmond Upon Thames. She moved to Los Angeles in 1893 with her parents. During her first year here, she attended the Los Angeles Public Library Training Class. Her thesis, "Aspects of the Library Question, Education vs. Entertainment," was so well received that it was reprinted in the Los Angeles Herald. She made a passionate argument in her thesis that reading for entertainment was just as important as reading for education.
The desideratum, then, is to induce the reading public to find their amusement in the higher grades of literature, to persuade them to exchange their shadow for substance, to select from the library menu such substantial fare as would strengthen their mental and moral fiber.—Gertrude Darlow's thesis, reprinted in the Los Angeles Herald, July 7, 1893
Thankfully, Tessa Kelso's 1893-94 annual report of the library gives us an idea of Miss Darlow's workload during her first year as an attendant. Attendants were each assigned different sets of tasks. Darlow's specific tasks that year meant that she filed newspapers (the library received 116 daily or weekly titles from around the world at the time, including multiple copies of local newspapers); she cut, stamped, and labeled current magazines (numbering 200 weekly or monthly titles, many that were ordered in multiple copies); made magazine covers out of duck cloth to protect the magazines that circulated for home use (231 covers were made during that year); and worked four hours each day on the delivery desk (aka circulation desk), all for $30 a month (equivalent to approximately $1000 a month in 2023).
Miss Darlow was a poet, in addition to her work at the library, and her poems were printed in local newspapers as far back as 1901. They often featured current events. One of the earliest examples I found dealt with the assassination of President McKinley, which was published just five days after his death. The Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Graphic were ardent fans, and her poetry appeared on their pages throughout the early twentieth century. Other poem topics included suffrage, the La Fiesta de Los Angeles, and World War I. Apparently, she was a big fan of Robert Burns—in the span of eight years, she wrote four different poems about the Scottish poet. On at least one occasion, she also recited one of her Burns poems in front of an audience of 1500 who, according to the Express, showed a "hearty response."
Miss Darlow advanced from her position as a library attendant to become the head of several departments. By 1899 she was in charge of the Classification Department. In 1906, Charles Lummis created the General Literature department, which held all circulating books besides Fiction and Juvenile (aka adult non-fiction) and put Darlow in charge. In November 1911, City Librarian Everett Robbins Perry placed her in charge of the newly created Circulation Department, which was the merger of the Fiction Department with the General Literature Department. These were some of the largest and most public departments of the library. It's a testament to Miss Darlow's abilities that several City Librarians created new departments and put them into her hands. But Miss Darlow's real superpower was putting books into people's hands.
Gertrude Darlow was a voracious reader in a town full of people who loved to read. The library was the perfect place for her reading habit, and making specialized book recommendations to individuals was her strength. Her patrons agreed. By 1910 she was being requested to speak about new and/or worthwhile books at various women's clubs throughout southern California. Speakers on a variety of topics were often invited to club meetings, but literacy and self-improvement were favored topics. [One local example of this connection was the Hollywood Woman's Club, which opened the Hollywood Public Library in 1906.] Newspapers asked Darlow what was being read at the library—early twentieth-century Angelenos favored fiction, literature/dramas, and books on philosophy and occultism. World War I also brought readers to the library looking for fiction and non-fiction that dealt with the war. [The library responded to World War I in many ways.]
In 1917, Everett Perry created the Department of Literary Advancement, and again, Gertrude Darlow was put in charge. The work involved "speaking to clubs on behalf of the library." She usually presented 10-minute book reviews (sometimes six or more titles if time allowed) and provided a reading list so attendees could find the books at the library. In addition to reviewing new and noteworthy books, she also spoke about books relating to a specific topic, such as Russian literature or Belgian writers and dramatists. Newspapers listed her upcoming engagements and often offered summaries of her most recent engagements. She was variously described as charming, "an ever welcome and popular speaker," and possessing a "wonderful vocabulary and beautiful flow of words full of wisdom and logic."
Definite results in the circulation of better books can be traced to the free public lectures on books given each week by Gertrude Darlow to capacity audiences.—[Public Libraries, December 1925]
The Department of Literary Advancement was short-lived but had improved circulation. In August 1919, Everett Perry reconstituted the General Literature Department (which contained non-fiction books that did not fit into other departments), and once again, Gertrude Darlow was put in charge. The first year back in the position, she noted that she "spoke on 45 occasions before local clubs and organizations and gave two book reviews each month in the lecture room to a constantly enlarging audience. The book reviews were repeated on the same day before the Library School." The workload of running a large department and finding time to read all of the books she was reviewing seems like an incredible amount of work for anyone. During that year, her forty-five speaking engagements were spread out across the southland, including downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Pedro, Highland Park, Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Redondo Beach. In February 1923, Miss Darlow asked for and was granted a year-long leave of absence from the library. Although she continued to deliver book reviews all around Southern California on behalf of the library until 1933, she never returned to work full-time. Gertrude E. Darlow died November 10, 1949, and is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Many of the books Miss Darlow reviewed, to such great effect, for clubs and organizations can still be found at Central Library. I placed a dozen of these books on hold to see if they might appeal to me almost one hundred years later. Surprisingly, many did. Some were written by authors popular in Los Angeles long ago, such as Hamlin Garland. He may be best known for his Middle Border books, but Miss Darlow chose his books about psychic exploration (Mystery of the Buried Crosses) and his relationships with other literary figures of the day (Roadside Meetings) for her reviews. She was also a fan of biographies. She felt that, in addition to the "colorful history" of someone's life, biographies could also teach about the times in which the person lived. Through her reviews, I was introduced to the fascinating life of singer Taylor Gordon, an African American man born in White Springs, Montana, in 1893. Mr. Gordon moved to New York at 17 and published his 1929 autobiography, Born To Be, while he was part of the Harlem Renaissance. She also reviewed Great American Band Wagon by Charles Merz. The book was reviewed by Time magazine when it came out in 1928. They called it a "whimsical review of U.S. eccentricities, from ukuleles to kewpie dolls." I'm thoroughly enjoying the book so far and am thankful Miss Darlow suggested it.