Scandal in the Stacks!

Catherine Sturgeon, Children's Librarian, Angeles Mesa Branch Library,
Harriet Child Wadleigh
Harriet Child Wadleigh, Los Angeles City Librarian 1897-1900. Credit: John D. Bruckman's book "The City Librarians of Los Angeles"

Chances are if you have heard of any of the early women City Librarians of Los Angeles Public Library, you may know about Mary E. Foy, the first female City Librarian (1880-1884), or Tessa Kelso, the sixth City Librarian (1889-1895). Yet you probably have never heard of Harriet Child Wadleigh: the eighth City Librarian (1897-1900), who prevailed in keeping her position after the all-male library Board of Directors summarily dismissed her. When faced with an attack upon her character and given no opportunity to defend herself, she listened to her own voice and made it heard. She dared to question the elite male authority of the board and when they attempted to punish her, she fought a most ladylike manner, of course.

Harriet Child Wadleigh was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1851, and was a product of her time: a time when women were constrained in manner and dress, burdened by unrealistic expectations and demands, forced to live a paradox, and denied a voice in a country that was helped being built by her toil. But Harriet did not let this tamp down her curious and adventurous spirit or her confidence in herself, and it did not stop her from developing a rapier sense of humor. She was one of a brave new generation of women that left their homes and sought work as teachers, librarians, nurses, and social workers.

Prior to moving to California in 1884 at the age of 32 to marry George H. Wadleigh (shoe store proprietor, orange grove rancher, and founder of the Los Angeles Fidelity Building and Loan Association), she worked as a teacher and then served as Assistant Librarian at the public library in Springfield, Massachusetts, for five years. She became interested in librarianship following the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia where she encountered the exhibit of Melvil Dewey, “The Father of Modern Librarianship,” and his idea of a library school. Librarianship was at that point a fledgling profession. Harriet was representative of a number of female teachers in the mid- to late-19th century who—discouraged by the pittance-salaries that could not sustain them, physical and mental drudgery, and circumscribed conditions of teaching—found librarianship to be an intriguing and welcome change.

After she and George sold their orange ranch and moved to Los Angeles, Harriet kept busy as a reform school matron, journalist, and clubwoman before accepting the City Librarian position in 1897. She was preceptress at the Whittier State School, a reform school for juvenile offenders that opened in 1891. [The Whittier State School was in continuous operation until it was closed in 2004 and the site is now designated as a California Historical Landmark.] She was then a staff journalist for the Evening Express and was still working there just before she began work at Los Angeles Public Library in June of 1897.

Harriet was named City Librarian on May 21, 1897, by unanimous vote of the Library Board. Her hiring was significant, as she was the first City Librarian with previous library experience. Despite skirmishes with the Board, she accomplished much during her three-year tenure. Immediately after her hire, she quickly addressed a major librarianship debate of the time: open stacks versus closed stacks. This was a hot button librarianship topic, with virulent support for opinions on either side. Harriet wanted to bring about a modern library and was able to convince the board to agree to open access to books. In addition, to relieve the congestion of the cramped rooms in the Central Library (then housed in the old City Hall), two reading rooms were opened. The first branch of the library was established as a reading room and delivery station on Castelar Street in 1897 and a branch reading room with a lecture room annex was opened at the corner of Macy and Garibaldi streets in 1899 (Annual Report of the Board of Directors, 1900, p. 4). Also, under her direction, she sought to systematize the work of the staff and instituted the following: monthly reports by principals of departments, a Fiction Department in 1897, and the Periodicals Department in 1898. She also succeeded in convincing the board to agree to adoption of the “St. Louis System” of reserving books in order to alleviate the lack of fiction and juvenile books whose demand far outweighed supply:

For the purpose of partially relieving this condition, the Board has recently created a class of reservable books, embracing works of fiction which are in great popular demand…any member of the library may have a book of this class reserved for his use by paying five cents…Books for the ‘reserved class,’ are purchased out of the fund created by the fees charged.
(Report of the Board of Directors, 1898-99, p. 5)

Harriet was named librarian at the expense of incumbent Clara B. Fowler. In a move that foreshadowed Harriet’s own removal, the board requested Clara’s resignation and, when it was not forthcoming, declared her position vacant and hired Harriet. When asked why she would not resign, Clara “admitted that she had no intention of giving up voluntarily a good job remunerating her to the extent of $125 a month” (The Capital, 1897). Clara, in turn, had been hired when Tessa Kelso’s resignation had been desired. Mary E. Foy, Tessa Kelso, and Clara Fowler were all involved in a series of conflicts with the library’s board of directors which all ended in dismissal or resignation.

The beginning of Harriet’s serious trouble with the board seems to have begun with Miss Long and the Civil Service Examinations. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times (March 11, 1899), Anna Long was accused of having prior knowledge of the questions that were to be asked on the Civil Service Examination. Library attendants had filed charges against Miss Long and the board called a hearing. With the exception of one board member, William F. Burbank—who made his displeasure with the proceedings known before leaving—the board members were clearly biased toward the defendant and openly hostile to the complainants. Harriet was accused by Miss Long’s attorney of coaching the witnesses. Miss Long was exonerated and the board came to the conclusion that Harriet was the instigator of the claim, had coached the witnesses, and was trying to thwart the board in some way.

Nine days following the article on the Long incident, an article appeared in The Record with the headline: “Mrs. Wadleigh Must Go! The Ultimatum of the Library Trustees Who Blame Her for Recent Troubles” (The Record, March 20, 1899). The Board had demanded Harriet’s resignation at 3 o’clock the afternoon before, giving her until noon the following day with which to comply. The reasons given for her dismissal were executive incompetence and failure to maintain discipline among the library attendants. A Los Angeles Times article (March 23, 1899) noted that “it has been no secret in the City Hall that most of the library attendants have little respect for the members of the board: in fact, the reason given by the members for dismissing Mrs. Wadleigh was that she was unable to control ‘the girls’ and prevent their criticizing the actions of the board, an impossible task under the circumstances.” The board was scheduled to retire the following week and be replaced by a board made up entirely of new members selected by Mayor Fred Eaton.

An article in the Los Angeles Times (March 22, 1899) entitled “Revenge Achieved” outlined the events of March 21 at the meeting of the board. Harriet was summoned and she read the board a letter (see below) explaining why she could not comply with their wishes, as “compliance would be tantamount to an admission of gross inefficiency or misconduct on my part, and not being open to a charge of either character, I would be lacking in self respect should I give it color by yielding.” The board then declared her removed “for good cause” and announced the appointment of Charles Dwight Willard, editor of the Evening Express, as City Librarian. Board President Isidore B. Dockweiler stated it thus:

“Mrs. Wadleigh was elected during the pleasure of the board, and it was our pleasure that she should be removed” (Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1899).

What the board members did not expect was the flurry of articles in the local newspapers (Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles Record, Los Angeles Times) and out-of-town newspapers (Riverside Press, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Call, San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego Tribune) condemning their actions. Not all of the articles condemned the Board—a few attacked Harriet or simply agreed with the Board—but the vast majority of ink was used in public sympathy for Harriet. The Los Angeles Herald posted a series of caricatures of the situation and the article titles summed up public opinion: “A Contemptible Proceeding,” “A Summary Proceeding,” “Revenge Achieved,” “The Library Coup d’Etat,” “Will Not Resign: Mrs. Wadleigh Refuses to Abdicate on Demand,” and “Will Fire the Board: Mayor Eaton to Terminate the Library Farce.”

By March 23, 1899, three days after the Board demanded her resignation, Harriet had reported to the library every day and worked her usual hours and usual duties and C. D. Willard wisely refused to step into the position. According to a Los Angeles Times article, “The Library Row” (March 23, 1899), “it was on everybody’s tongue, and that was that the board, instead of intending to act for the public good of the library, had in its last hours of official existence created an opportunity to show its personal feelings, and endeavored to settle upon some individual the blame for a condition in the library which is not calculated to make the board’s administration considered a model one.”

Despite the public and mayoral outcry and the failure of their attempt to place Willard as librarian, the Board continued to hold meetings and declare resolutions in the last week of their reign. They again announced a replacement, Miss Celia Gleason, the first assistant librarian, putting her, like Willard, in a very awkward position. One thing that the Board had not taken into account was that the City Librarian was required to be bonded because of the control of city monies, and neither Willard nor Miss Gleason were qualified. More special meetings of the Board ensued and during the regular meetings Harriet would arrive and seat herself as the clerk of the Board and the directors would pretend she was not present and address their remarks to Miss Gleason. The day after Willard refused the position and Miss Gleason declared clerk pro tem but could not fulfill it as she was not bonded, President Dockweiler, by his own vote and two of the other directors, declared himself City Librarian for the brief remainder of the Board’s term, prompting another caricature and more ink in the Herald under the title, “A Great Spectacle”: “The board of library trustees continued to make themselves ridiculous. Yesterday three members of the board held a session and voted chairman as librarian to hold the position down for a period of six days without salary” (Los Angeles Herald, March 24, 1899).

A formal request was then made to Harriet for the library keys and she declined to surrender them, according to the Express (March 24, 1899):

“I absolutely decline to turn over the keys to you, Mr. Dockweiler,” said the lady with emphasis, and “further wish to say that I refuse to recognize the demand on the ground that you have failed to observe your own laws. The board has declared that I am no longer librarian, it is true, but it has not shown that ‘good cause’ which its laws demand and which right and justice demand. Until that time I maintain that I am still librarian, and a mere resolution voted does not alter the fact.”

In response to a Herald interview, also on March 24, Harriet responded to questions as to what position she would take now that “the board had, to its own satisfaction, completed the work of supplanting her.”; The reporter asked, “But Mr. Dockweiler is now the librarian?” to which Harriet quipped, “Yes, they wanted a man, and now I presume they have got one.”

At this time, Mayor Eaton began to talk again of removing the board and for three days the articles chronicled his threat, the board’s indignation, and then the mayor changing his mind, variously explained as not having enough time for the city council to act before the board “died naturally,” the board claiming they all had come to an understanding, and the mayor claiming that the board was going to justify its charges against Mrs. Wadleigh. On April 5, 1899, resolution of the situation came from City Attorney Walter F. Haas, who declared that Harriet was still legally the librarian and had not ceased being the librarian in the 16 days of strife: “Mrs. Wadleigh Wins” (Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1899). At a meeting of the new library board, Harriet was retained upon the opinion of Haas. The city attorney provided a lengthy report on her legal status, condemning the board for their actions, which he deemed illegal. He declared that since Harriet was paid monthly, she could only be discharged at the end of the month and for good cause; good cause being “misconduct in office” or “gross immorality.” The old board had removed her to their satisfaction on March 21 and therefore had refused to pay her salary, which the new board unanimously agreed to pay her. She was vindicated and reinstated.

4 City Librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library. Left to right: Mary L. Jones, Mary E. Foy, Harriet Child Wadleigh, Althea Warren. Photo taken at the home of Mrs. Wadleigh, 1415 S. Hope St. (April, 1934)

4 City Librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library. Left to right: Mary L. Jones, Mary E. Foy, Harriet Child Wadleigh, Althea Warren. Home of Mrs. Wadleigh, 1415 S. Hope St., Los Angeles. April 1934. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Harriet would remain as librarian until her retirement on May 1, 1900. She recommended that her assistant, Mary L. Jones, be declared librarian, and the board agreed. Mary Jones would be the first Los Angeles Public Library librarian graduate of a library school, the Albany Library School of the State University of New York. Unfortunately, Miss Jones’ education and previous library experience would not be a deterrent to the whims of the library board with whom she would do battle. It should be noted that Harriet was a vocal supporter of Mary Jones when she later went through her own “Library Wars.”

Following her retirement from the library, Harriet remained active, continuing her charter memberships in the Friday Morning Club, Ruskin Art Club, and Women’s Athletic Club; serving as a member and as vice president of the California Library Association, as President of the Civic League, as a committee member in charge of the YWCA home on Loma Drive, and as an executive committee member for the Women’s Progressive League. On December 5, 1911, Harriet and other members of the Women’s Progressive League were pictured in a Los Angeles Times article (December 6, 1911), “Women Capture Voting Record.” Harriet and the others were on duty for “more than sixteen hours consecutively,” and over nine-tenths of the women they registered voted.

Harriet continued to crop up in newspaper articles, but with less contentious fodder than during her Los Angeles Public Library tenure. On her 90th birthday, she was “feted by scores of friends,” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times (August 24, 1941), and was “bright-eyed, alert and displaying a keen sense of humor.” Her recipe for longevity was “stop worrying”: “‘The way I look at things,’ she said, “is that you should study anything that worries you. If it can be stopped, then stop it, and if it can’t be stopped, well, then, why worry?’” Perhaps this is how she remained so calm and centered during her trials with the library board. Harriet died on February 25, 1947, at age 96. She lived her life as an example of how a woman could overcome the restrictions placed upon her by society with self-respect, dignity, and humor. She cherished her individuality and refused to be ground under or held down. She did all of this while being, in the truest sense, a lady.