The Library History Buff

Promoting the appreciation, enjoyment, and preservation of library history



 Postal Librariana

Library History


Highlights in the History of the American Library Association
Serving America's Libraries and Librarians Since 1876

This digital exhibit highlights significant milestones in the history of the American Library Association . The exhibit includes images of postal and other artifacts from my personal collection. The article "ALA and Its First 100 Years, 1876-1976" by Doris Cruger Dale in Milestones to the Present: Papers from Library History Seminar V (Gaylord Professional Publications, 1978) was helpful to me in preparing this exhibit. The article was based on a slide presentation previously given by Dale. Links to additional information which are in red and underlined are provided throughout this exhibit.

The first national meeting of America's librarians took place in New York City in 1853. Although plans were made at the meeting to create a permanent association, those plans did not come to fruition and it was another 23 years before librarians came together for another national meeting.

America's librarians next gathered in Philadelphia in 1876. This is the point were Melvil Dewey stepped on the stage of American librarianship. Dewey along with Frederick Leypoldt, editor and publisher of Publishers' Weekly, and Leypoldt's partner Richard Rodgers Bowker were the initiators of a conference of librarians that took place in Philadelphia in October, 1876. The events that led up to the conference were chronicled in a scrapbook which preserved the correspondence between those planning the conference. Edward G. Holley in Raking The Historic Coals: The A.L.A. Scrapbook of 1876 (Beta Phi Mu 1967) discusses and reproduces much of that correspondence. Unfortunately, the scrapbook which is one of the most important artifacts of ALA history can't be located at this time. Wayne A. Wiegand's biography of Melvil Dewey Irrespressible Reformer (American Library Association 1996)does an excellent job of covering Dewey's role in the meeting. The major outcome of the convention was the creation of the American Library Association.

The 1876 Conference/Convention of Librarians took place at the same time and in the same city (Philadelphia) as the Centennial Exposition of 1876. This is a ticket to the exposition.




The actual location of the meeting in Philadelphia was the Pennsylvania Historical Society. The 90 men and 13 women who attended the meeting were invited to a reception on the evening of October 6, 1876 at the Historical Society. This is a reproduction of that invitation.





During the early years of the American Library Association, the headquarters of the Association was wherever the unpaid elected secretary of ALA was located. From 1876 to 1890 this was Melvil Dewey. Dewey provided free space for the Association in his Library Bureau offices at 32 Hawley Street in Boston for a period.

The Library Journal was established in the same year as the American Library Association and served as the official organ of the Association until 1908. The ALA Bulletin which started in 1907 became the official organ in 1908. This envelope was mailed in the 1880s.





This postal card was  was mailed on October 21, 1884 by Dewey in his capacity as Secretary of the American Library Association to Ainsworth Spofford who was the Librarian of Congress and a member of the Executive Board of ALA. Dewey indicates that the Executive Board will meet in Cambridge, MA on Oct. 29, 1884 and will decide on a place and time of the next ALA conference. At the time Dewey was Librarian of Columbia College in New York.



ALA met in Milwaukee in 1886

ALA met in San Francisco in 1891 It was ALA's first meeting on the West Coast.











 In 1893 ALA met for the first time in Chicago. The meeting was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. Melvil Dewey was serving as President of ALA. ALA had an exhibit at the Exposition which was located in the Government Building. This postal card depicts the Government Building. Alexander Rudolph introduced the Rudolph Continuous Indexer at the meeting.





ALA met in Denver in 1895








ALA met in Waukesha, WI in 1901. This photo shows the conference attendees in front of the Wisconsin Historical Society building in Madison, WI. They traveled by train to Madison from Waukesha for "Madison Day" which included a tour of the Historical Society's new building. This image is from the Digital Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.






At the Waukesha conference, the attendees were given an elaborate medal. At the top of the medal was a pin-back badger followed by a ribbon similar to those on military medals and finally there was a copper colored medallion. The medallion, which is in my collection is shown here. Someone probably took the medal apart for the attractive badger pin. A complete medal is located in the ALA Archives at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.





The 1902 ALA Conference was in Magnolia, Massachusetts. A small pin was given to attendees at the conference.




James Ingersoll Wyer served as Secretary of ALA from 1902 to 1909. When he mailed this envelope in 1903 he was serving as director of the University of Nebraska Library in Lincoln, Nebraska.






ALA Met in St. Louis in 1904 in conjunction with the World's Fair.







On April 22, 1905, ALA opened an office at 10 1/2 Beacon Street in Boston. Edward C. Hovery was hired as the first paid executive officer. On September 1, 1906 the office was moved to 34 Newbury Street, Boston. This envelope which was mailed from 10 1/2 Beacon Street in 1906 contained the final announcement for ALA's Narragansett Pier Conference. It was at this conference that Charles Fletcher Lummis founded The Bibliosmiles, a tongue in cheek organization that was a "Rally of Librarians Who Are Nevertheless Human". The Bibliosmiles had their own seal,  badge,  grip, and password as well as an anthem and official adult beverage. The Bibliosmiles also convened at the next four ALA conferences.


The ALA Bulletin which became American Libraries, the official publication of the ALA started in 1907.  As part of its centennial celebration in 2007, it created a blog called A CentenniAL Blog. An online timeline of its 100 year history which included many great illustrations of ALA's history is located here.

After considerable debate and discussion on possible locations, the ALA Executive Board voted on June 27, 1908 to locate the headquarters office in Chicago. On May 17, 1909, the Chicago Public Library offered a room in the library for use by ALA without cost to the Association. On September 1, 1909 the ALA Office opened in the Chicago Public Library. Chalmers Hadley was hired as executive secretary. In his book The Politics of An Emerging Profession: The American Library Association, 1876-1917 (Greenwood Press, 1986), Wayne Wiegand does an excellent job of recounting the events leading to the selection of Chicago as the headquarters city of ALA.


In 1911 ALA met in Pasadena, California. This postcard which announces the travel arrangements for the conference was mailed on March 2, 1911 by Purd B. Wright of the Los Angeles Public Library. James Wyer, President of the Association and Director of the New York State Library, was unable to attend the conference because a fire had destroyed most of the library and its collection on March 29, 1911. At the conference ALA elected the first woman as president. As stated in Public Libraries: "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."


James George Burwell Utley served as Secretary of ALA from 1911 to 1920.  While at the Chicago Public Library the address of the Association was 78 E. Washington Street. Katherine Sharp at the public library in Gary, Indiana received this postal card acknowledging receipt of her $3.00 dues for 1915.





When the United States entered World War I, the American Library Association became a major participant. It created the Library War Service under the direction of Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress. From 1917 to 1919, Utley also served as executive secretary of the War Library Service. During this period the ALA headquarters was relocated to the Library of Congress where the War Library Service was administered. The bookplate to the left was one of several placed in books provided to soldiers and sailors during World War I.





This envelope was mailed to Utley at the Library of Congress but was received after the ALA office had been moved back to the Chicago Public Library.







In 1920 Carl Hastings Milam became executive secretary of ALA, a post he held for 28 years. In 1924 ALA moved to the ninth floor of the new John Crerar Library in Chicago where free space had been made available. The John Crerar Library is now part of the University of Chicago library system.





ALA celebrated its 50th anniversary in Philadelphia in 1926 at the Drexel Institute.







ALA met in Toronto, Ontario in 1927. It had met previously in Montreal (1900) and Ottawa (1912). It met again in Toronto in 2003. An attractive name tag was given to attendees of the first Toronto conference. Nix didn't actually attend the conference even though some would say he looks old enough to have done so.



In 1929 ALA moved into larger quarters in the McGraw Hill Building at 520 North Michigan Avenue. This envelope was mailed to Carl H. Milan at this address from Russia in September of 1944. It has been censored by postal  censors.






In 1946 ALA moved into the Cyrus McCormick mansion at 50 East Huron Street which it had purchased for $175,000. The mansion had 35 rooms, a beautiful staircase and an ornate reception area. This image of the staircase is from the International Harvester Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Image ID: WHi-46487.









ALA celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1951 in Chicago with the theme "The Heritage of the U.S.A. in Times of Crisis".


In 1957 the National Book Committee, a joint committee of the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council, recommended the establishment of a National Library Week.  The first National Library Week was observed May 16-22, 1958 with the theme "Wake Up and Read". It has continued every year since 1958.  In 1974, the American Library Association became the sole sponsor of the event. To see more National Library Week themes illustrated on postal meters click here.

In 1959 the ALA Council on the recommendation of the Executive Board voted to move ALA's headquarters to Washington, D. C.. However, that vote was overturned by the membership.

The McCormick Mansion was razed in 1960 to make way for a larger building. On November 12, 1960, ground breaking for the new building took place. The new building was dedicated at the Chicago conference of 1963. This 1960 postcard has a rendering of the proposed new building. The message below is on the back of the postcard.





In 1962 ALA sponsored an exhibit titled "Library-21" at the Seattle World's Fair also known as "The Century 21 Exposition". The exhibit highlighted technology in the future of libraries. This is a microcard produced by The Microcard Corporation for the exhibit.






ALA celebrated its centennial at the 1976 conference in Chicago.






ALA also met in Chicago in 1978 as reflected in this special postmark.





In 1977 ALA entered into an agreement with a developer to exchange property on its Huron Street site for six floors of new office space. ALA’s new headquarters was dedicated October 27, 1981.

A first day of issue ceremony for the America's Libraries Stamp was held on July 13, 1982 at the ALA Conference in Philadelphia. ALA President Elizabeth Stone had worked to get the stamp issued. This cover is signed by both Stone and ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth. An article about the America's Libraries stamp and the 1982 Library of Congress stamp appeared in the August 2007 issue of American Libraries.




With the establishment of ALA's headquarters in Chicago, ALA held its midwinter meeting of Association boards and the ALA Council in Chicago at various hotels. A pattern eventually developed where the midwinter meeting was held in Washington every four years with the inauguration of a new President.  Dissatisfaction with Chicago's winters led to a break in this tradition with midwinter meeting being held in cities with warmer climates starting with San Antonio, Texas.



ALA met in San Francisco in 1987, a favorite location for ALA members.





ALA Goal 2000 "Equity on the information superhighway", ALA's strategic plan for 1995 was reflected in the meter slogan on an envelope mailed on January 13, 1998.


ALA met in Chicago again in 2000, 2005, and 2009. It has held its annual meeting in Chicago on thirteen occasions in all.






 Postal Librariana

Library History


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