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Celebrating Pioneer MPL Director Theresa West

By Jill F. and Tobias F. on Mar 1, 2023 12:00 AM

Women’s History Month is a great time to examine the influence of women in librarianship in general, and the role of one woman in Milwaukee Public Library’s history in particular.

Theresa West (1855-1932) was the third library director of the Milwaukee Public Library (MPL), who served from 1893-1896, and was also the first female American Library Association (ALA) president from 1911-1912.

West (pictured at left at Vassar graduation) started working at MPL in 1877 as an assistant compiling the library’s catalog. In that time the library was located in the Academy of Music where Marriott Hotel now stands. All book issues and returns were tracked in one immense volume and a large base burner stove in the center of the room provided warmth to patrons.


West became deputy librarian at the age of 25 in 1880 as the library was moved out of the Academy of Music (pictured at right) and into the Plankinton building on W. Wisconsin Ave. (pictured at left) which featured gas lighting, chained catalog volumes, and no publicly accessible shelves. West became the first member of the ALA from Wisconsin and successfully advocated the creation of a Wisconsin State Library Association which was created February 11, 1891 as the library contended with building fires and a smallpox outbreak.


In 1892 MPL Director Klas August Linderfelt, West’s predecessor, was arrested for embezzling $9,095.06 ($303,886.06 in 2023 dollars) from the library by submitting multiple invoices for the same books. Linderfelt resigned as president of the ALA and was expunged from their list of presidents. Public sentiment at the time was one of pity and regret, but after his trial in which he avoided any punishment, public sentiment turned. Efforts to have him face trial again were stymied after he left Milwaukee, it was rumored he fled to Europe in late July 1892. (The Wayward Bookman)

It was under these circumstances that West became the first woman to direct a large public library in the United States. An article reported The Board of Trustees' thinking about appointing Linderfelt’s successor: “when a librarian is chosen it will be a man of wide experience, probably from a large European library”, “when the time comes it seems to be the plan of the board to put itself in communication with the best libraries in the world and select the best man that can be had whether he has made an application or not”, but also “…the appointment of a librarian will largely depend upon whether Miss West feels equal to continue the work without assistance.” (West to Remain)

A Milwaukee Journal article in 1892 praised Miss West’s work and described some of her job duties; build up the library, buy books, keep records, draft reports, know current library architectural trends, understand library classifications and catalogues, be a business woman and educator, field questions from the public. An accompanying study of women working in libraries found the fifteen highest salaries paid to women librarians averaged $1,000 while 24 men filling similar positions received an average salary of $1,450. (Women as Librarians)

In the May 9, 1893 Board meeting West received 4 out of 8 initial votes for the position of city librarian. Half the Board then voted for the election to be postponed for a year. After that motion failed West was voted in unanimously. City Librarian West campaigned to lower fines to 1 cent a day (worth $0.35 in 2023), doubled the number of books patrons could have checked out at once (from 1 to 2), and saw the library collection grow to 75, 185 items in 1894. (LOWER FINES AND MORE BOOKS)

In 1894 she became member of ALA Council and was nominated for President of ALA. She was elected Vice-President of the Association in 1895 and President sixteen years later. MPL numbered some 10,000 volumes at the time West was hired in 1877 and she saw it grow to some 80,000 volumes by 1895.

In the October 3, 1896 Minutes of the Library Board of Trustees West formally resigned. In response, the Board recorded their appreciation for her, “To her wise and intelligent effort, the Library owes the widening of its sphere of influence in many directions and especially, in that of the vital connection which has been established between it and the Public Schools. Resolved, also, that Miss West has an especial claim to the gratitude of the Board for the work that she has done in connection with the new building.”

West married Henry Livingstone Elmendorf in 1896 and over the next ten years compiled a catalog of manuscripts and autographs in the Buffalo Library, was editor of ALA’s Catalog of Books for Small Libraries, and served as president of the New York Library Association. In 1906 she was appointed vice librarian at Buffalo, a position held until her retirement in 1926. During these years she worked to build cooperation between public and school libraries. She published reading lists and poetry biographies. The best-known, Poetry and Poets, was published by ALA in 1931. (Out of the Stacks)

Kate Huston would be the next woman appointed to the position of library director in 1991, followed by Paula Kiely in 2006, and in 2020 by current Library Director Joan Johnson, the fourth woman to lead the library and the first African American in this role.

Read more about the history of Theresa West and the Milwaukee Public Library at the Central Library. Request information from a librarian.

LIBRARIANS ADJOURN. The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, August 16, 1895; p.2)

Lower Fines and More Books. The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 14, 1894; p.5)

Minutes, regular meeting - Board of Trustees / Milwaukee Public Library Board of Trustees.

Miss West to Remain. The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Saturday, May 06, 1893; pg. 4.)

Out of the stacks: notable Wisconsin women librarians By Fenster, Valmai Kirkham.

Resigns and Weds. The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 4, 1896; p.3)

The Wayward Bookman: The decline, fall, and historical obliteration of an ALA president. American Libraries April 1977. Wayne A. Wiegand. 

Women as Librarians. The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 15, 1892; p.5.)

Annette commented about 1 year ago...
What a great story! I especially like the details about her pay versus the average pay for male librarians.

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