Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Mary Jones and the Great Library War of Los Angeles

Mary Letitia Jones (born 29 June 1865)


Born on 29 June 1865, Mary Letitia Jones was the daughter of a minister, William R. Jones, and his wife, Jane, both of whom had immigrated to the United States from Wales. In the 1870 U. S. Census, four-year-old Mary is living with her family in Wisconsin; by the time of the 1880 Census, the family has moved to Nebraska. 

Mary Letitia Jones,
from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library
Mary Letitia Jones graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1885 and then attended New York State Library School, founded by Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame), where she graduated in 1892. 

After finishing her education and carrying with her a recommendation from Dewey himself, she returned to Nebraska, recruited by James H. Canfield, chancellor of the University of Nebraska. She was hired not only to head the library but to help in the planning of a new library building. By 1895, she was head of a staff of 10 and had doubled the size of the library's holdings. (She also converted the library to the Dewey Decimal system.)

After leaving the University of Nebraska, Jones worked at the University of Illinois and the State Library of Iowa, moving to the Los Angeles area by 1899 to join her family--her father had retired to Pasadena. 

She was soon hired by the Los Angeles Public Library, as an assistant librarian, working with city librarian Harriet Child Wadleigh. When Wadleigh retired, Mary Jones became the city's head librarian. As Nicholas Beyelia notes, Jones was "the first Los Angeles City Librarian working for the Los Angeles Public Library who was both a college graduate and a graduate of library school."

Despite Jones's qualifications and career accomplishments, all did not go well--just five years later, she was asked to resign so that the city of Los Angeles could replace her with a man. Jones refused, noting her reasons in a letter delivered to the library's board of directors:
At first it was my inclination immediately to yield to the request relayed upon me by the president. But, upon reflection, I have concluded that it would not be fitting for me to tender my resignation as the head of a department where only women are employed. When such a resignation is tendered solely on the grounds that the best interests of the department demand that its affairs no longer be administered by a woman. Ever since the adoption of the present city charter, the library has been presided over by a woman with a staff of assistants composed exclusively of women.
Since Jones refused to resign, she was fired. Her firing set off the "the Great Library War." (I love this statement that Jones made to the Los Angeles Times, when she was asked about why she had been replaced by a man: “Those directors seem as crazy after a man as though they were a board of old maids.”

This "war" certainly demonstrates sexism and misogyny--but there is a healthy bit of nepotism and favoritism as well, and of course the usual chicanery, harassment, espionage, and bureaucratic finagling. It engulfed the city, but the war went beyond the city's limits, eventually bringing Susan B. Anthony to town!

Susan B. Anthony, "laying down the law,"
Los Angeles Herald, 13 June 1895

After she was fired, Jones left Los Angeles, at least temporarily. She went next to Berkeley, where she taught at the university for two years, then headed to Bryn Mawr, where she was head of  the library for six years. In 1920, she returned to Los Angeles, where she helped to set up the Los Angeles County Library system. During the first world war, she helped to create a library on a local military base, Camp Kearney. Jones remained in Los Angeles after retiring and died, age 80, in 1946. 

I could write much more here--I always tend to write more than I plan to write! But, truth be told, I would be taking information from the incredibly readable, detailed blog of Nicholas Beyelia, who has posted a four-part series. That's where you need to go to read much more of this incredible story! For the first part of Beyelia's account of the Great Library War ("Have You Met Miss Jones?"), click here.

You may also be interested in Susan Orlean's The Library Book (2018), a book about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed 400,000 books (and damaged 700,000 more). Orlean writes about the library's history, including the story of Mary Letitia Jones. 


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