The Great Library War of 1905, Part 1: Have You Met Miss Jones?

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
Mary L. Jones

This blog post series looks at the history of the 1905 firing of Mary L. Jones as Los Angeles City Librarian. It reveals the sexism that influenced the library’s Board of Directors and shaped their decision to actively place a man, Charles Fletcher Lummis, at the head of the Los Angeles Public Library; their decision would set off a firestorm across the city.

Mary Letitia Jones was born on June 29, 1865 in Bristol, Wisconsin. Her father, a Methodist Minister, relocated his family to Nebraska where Mary attended school. When she graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1885, she sought to enter the New York State Library School as a way to satiate her lifelong love of books. While at library school, Jones became a protegee of Melvil Dewey (librarian and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System), who became a friend, mentor and, later, one of her strongest advocates.

Jones graduated from library school in 1892 and returned to Nebraska where she was hired as one of the librarians at the University of Nebraska; over the next five years, she worked as a librarian at the University of Illinois and the State Library of Iowa. In 1899, she ventured west to join her family in Pasadena where her father had retired. In February of that same year, she landed at Los Angeles Public Library, serving as assistant librarian under Harriet Childs Wadleigh, Los Angeles City Librarian. When Wadleigh retired in May 1900, Jones stepped up and was hired as the City Librarian. 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.

A Group of Librarians at St. Louis Fair including Mary L. Jones, 1904

A Group of Librarians at St. Louis Fair (1904) including Mary L. Jones. Photo: ALA Archives.

It’s not clear how much influence Jones had during her time as assistant librarian but it is noteworthy that Los Angeles Public Library began to expand with Jones’ presence. During Wadleigh’s final years, Los Angeles Public Library began to implement satellite locations with small library reading rooms appearing in buildings around town. When Jones assumed the post of City Librarian the satellite locations and delivery stations (locations outside of the library where library books could be delivered and checked out) were also springing up throughout the city. Circulation and services increased under Jones and the existing Board of Directors was pleased with her progress:

“the board feels that great credit and praise are due to the librarian and her assistants for the high standard of efficiency maintained and the splendid record in this library the past year.”

Within a matter of months, however, changes in city leadership would dissolve the rapport between Jones and the board.

December 1900 saw the end of Fred Eaton’s term as Los Angeles City Mayor and Meredith P. Snyder went on to assume the role for his second term (he had preceded Eaton). Along with this change was the appointment of an entirely new Board of Library Directors and among this new batch was lawyer and politician Isidore Bernard Dockweiler. Dockweiler, a member of one of the LA’s most prominent families and the namesake of Dockweiler State Beach had previously served as President of the Library Board in 1897 and 1898, under Snyder’s first term. He returned to the board on April 2, 1901 and within two months had actively encroached upon the administration of Mary L. Jones.

Image from Los Angeles Herald, Number 183, 2 April 1901

Los Angeles Herald, Number 183, 2 April 1901. California Digital Newspaper Collection