Tessa Kelso: Sinful City Librarian

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Tessa Kelso, city librarian 1889
Tessa Kelso: Sinful City Librarian

Banned Books Week offers the opportunity to introduce one of the most colorful librarians in city history and her battle with the moralistic mugwumps of fin de siecle Los Angeles.

Publicist and journalist Tessa Kelso didn’t have a library background when she became the sixth City Librarian in 1889, but by the time she left six years later, she had transformed the Los Angeles Public Library into a true metropolitan library. In her first year, she oversaw the tremendous move to more spacious digs in City Hall, and by the end of her tenure, the collection had grown sevenfold, and circulation soared from 12,000 to 330,000. She did this by breaking the rules, or at least the perceived wisdom: she abolished membership fees and agitated for open stacks, at a time when both of these now-common ideas were radical. She also established the first systematic training of any type for library employees.

Historian John D Bruckman described Kelso as “Tough, practical, and dedicated, possessor of a large and liberal vision coupled with a healthy contempt for fussy detail, this thoroughly unconventional woman well supplied the energetic leadership which the moment required.” Her unconventionality helped her accomplish great things while making her a galvanizing public figure. She was an early and vocal advocate of women’s rights and refused to hew to the time’s traditional gender roles. She defied convention by wearing her hair short—with no hat!—and smoking cigarettes without shame.

As the library’s collections grew in size, they also became more sophisticated. In 1893 the library purchased a large number of “French books,” including the controversial novels of Jean Richepin, who was truly bohemian: he had been a lover of Sarah Bernhardt, a collaborator with Massenet and a very close friend of Rimbaud.

Because the new purchases were in French, they stealthily set up residence in the collection without incident. It took about a year for them to be discovered by investigative journalists at the LA Examiner, which gleefully publicized (and presumably translated) this harbinger of continental attitudes. Editorials fueled a sensation among those worried about moral standards in the City of Angels. Rev. J.W. Campbell, the pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, was so disturbed by the danger posed by the novels that the very next Sunday he publicly offered the following prayer:

“Oh lord vouchsafe thy saving grace to the librarian of the Los Angeles City Library and cleanse her of all sin and make her a woman worthy of her office.”

Steeled from her professional experience in publicity and journalism, Miss Kelso wasted no time in nipping this public scolding in the bud in the modern Californian way: She sued.

Using the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives database available at the library, one can see, in the original August 25, 1894 edition’s section “AT THE COURTHOUSE,” a headline screaming


Possibly employing double entendre, the Courthouse stringer reported that this “decidedly novel action was commenced ... yesterday afternoon by Miss Tessa L Kelso, the librarian of this City, (against JW Campbell from whom she seeks) to recover damages in the sum of $5000". Using an innovative approach to the slander charge, Miss Kelso averred that, as City Librarian, she managed “a large number of young female subordinate employees” and that the library is “daily visited by hundreds of young ladies hence it is indispensable” that she should be a “person of unblemished moral character and any impeachment of her character would mean that she was not fit for her office and even occupation”. Therefore, an unblemished moral character is not just a qualification but a requirement of the office of city librarian, thus any “impeachment of her moral character is to impose a disqualification which her office and profession peculiarly requires.” Kelso pointed out that she was not a member of the pastor’s church, where it was common to pray publicly for morally backsliding members and by doing so imply that they were in a state of moral turpitude. Therefore, the public prayer for her was not a sign of loving concern, it was a scurrilous attempt “to injure and defame... tending to diminish the confidence of the public (in the City Librarian).”

In December 1894, the pastor tried to get the suit cast out, with his lawyers suggesting that it was a common custom to offer up prayers for all public officials and “since no one was without sin, none should object to being prayed for.” The plaintiff's attorneys pointed out that “in a court of justice infidels stood upon the same footing as the members of the … religious denominations” and, despite prayers for national politicians such as Senators or the President, “under the circumstances, prayers for the city librarian were quite superfluous.”

Obviously favoring the legal over the religious approach, in April 1895 Judge W.H. Clark refused to dismiss the suit. Under the quasi-biblical headline “HE MUST ANSWER,” the Judge pointed out that Mr. Campbell should explain himself in Court and “Upon the trial the truth of the innuendo is for the jury to decide.”

The case received national attention as a test of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech—in this instance, a speech of the religious variety—which had paradoxically stemmed from an attempt to have books removed from the library collection.

Thus the lines were drawn. Kelso noted that she was a not a scholar of French and that censorship was exercised by the Book Committee of the Board of Directors of the Library. The Book Committee was “zealous and painstaking in their endeavors not to admit any improper book and have at all times solicited from the patrons of said library suggestions and criticisms to aid them.” Meanwhile the pastor’s congregation expressed “sympathy and support in this unwarranted attack against him”, noting that “the greatest care should be exercised against the introduction of immoral publications into the library, and because it would necessarily endanger the moral purity and welfare of the young and old and exert such a corrupting influence upon the public”, that the pastor was indeed just doing his moral duty to “protest negligence” that had allowed such a book on the shelves and thus throw Los Angeles into a precarious state of sin, whether they could read it or not.

Unlike a great novel, though, events in real life often have a promising beginning only to quietly fade away. A mere two months later, in June, a small note appeared in the L.A. Times:

“The fact has not been mentioned in the press that the case which promised to become a cause celebre, has been dismissed on stipulation, with the preacher disclaiming anything prejudicial to the character of the “fair plaintiff” and exonerated her for any liability in the costs (of court).”

Apparently, the concern to defend the fragile moral standards of Los Angeles from an assault by French bohemians faded quietly when the Pastor and his congregation realized that they would have to put their money where their mouths were—it seems the church settled and even paid the legal bills for the “fair plaintiff”. Kelso had won the battle, and not only that: in the spirit of Banned Books Week, it should be noted that, despite the kerfuffle around the ‘French novel”, the works of Richepin quietly remained in the collection and even today you can find his works in the International Languages Department.

Tessa is also the namesake of our TESSA: Photo and Digital Collections of the Los Angeles Public Library