"Mabel Zoe Wilson of Athens, Ohio"

Thur hours: Closed

"Mabel Zoe Wilson of Athens, Ohio"

By now, the number of faculty at the Normal had more than doubled and there was growing dissatisfaction with the library’s lack of organization and professional management. At a special meeting on June 8, 1901, the Board of Trustees acted on "the recommendation of the faculty" and specifically instructed Principal Mathes "to enter into correspondence for the purpose of securing a professional librarian as soon as possible." Mrs. Clothier was to be retained as "Assistant Librarian" through June 1, 1902.

Six months later, at the Board meeting on December 11, 1901, Principal Mathes was able to report success. "Per adoption of a resolution to heed the faculty’s request for a graduate librarian, … he had entered into correspondence with Mabel Zoe Wilson of Athens, Ohio, and that subject to the Board’s approval, he had engaged her for that position." It was then speedily "resolved that Mabel Zoe Wilson be employed as Librarian of the school at a salary of $600 per year of twelve months, she to enter upon her work February 1, 1902."

How Mabel Zoe Wilson, born 1878 in Athens, Ohio, came to apply for a librarian position in the isolated reaches of the turn-of-the century Northwest, as well as how Principal Mathes came to hire her, remains an enduring mystery. Although not a "graduate librarian," she had earned an A. B. from Ohio University in 1900, pursuing a rigorous course of study, including Greek, political economy, and rhetoric. By 1902, she had accumulated four years of undergraduate teaching along with tutoring in a preparatory school, and one year of public school teaching.

According to one account, Mabel Zoe Wilson’s application for the opening at the Normal was a prank instigated by friends, as she had no education or even interest in library work. If true, perhaps Dr. Mathes found her cheekiness as attractive as her academic credentials. Perhaps too, her willingness to come to a new institution at the edge of the nation struck the fancy of a man who only erred as a leader, according to one of his original faculty members, in thinking that his faculty could do anything. Whatever the facts, he hired her, she came, and neither of them ever looked back.

"There just wasn’t a library!"

Mabel Zoe Wilson may have had no training or experience in library techniques, but she obviously knew a proper library when she saw one, and her first reaction to the Normal’s effort to date was one of horror. On February 1, 1902, "there just wasn’t a library!" she was to exclaim many years later. "There was a study hall, a few reference books, a great stack or pile of magazines not shelved in one corner of the room and in some bookcases several hundred, probably 400 to 500 books. Most of the books were a collection of free textbooks provided by the state. A sheaf of bills from book firms and order sheets constituted the records."

Although later in life she was to recall that the collection at that time probably contained about 2,500 volumes, her initial dismay was surely based on finding none of the usual attributes of library organization. Despite the good intentions of her predecessors, the Normal library had become a sadly diminished shambles, incapable of effectively serving the growing student body and faculty. There was no catalog and no other inventory record of the collection. The "sheaf of bills" she found on her arrival constituted the only means of verifying books not found on the shelves. The books that did remain were organized more or less by school department, rather than by any recognized system of classification.

With the aid of Mrs. Clothier, who was re-engaged as assistant librarian through September, Miss Wilson began organizing the books on hand, excluding the textbooks, and creating a card catalog. She began making entries in the "Accessions-books," assigning each volume a unique identifying number and a classification number and entering brief bibliographical details. Using common practice for small libraries of the day, she classified most non-fiction using the Dewey Decimal system, although biographies were grouped by subjects’ names under the letter "B." Fiction was classified as "F", sub-arranged by author, and children’s books were assigned "F" and Dewey numbers preceded by "J." A separate reference section was created, with call numbers preceded by "R." She also prepared, at first probably in longhand, the multiple cards for each title for the new card catalog and marked all the volumes with call numbers so they could be efficiently shelved and located.

With breathtaking speed, a real library was brought into being. In the Annual Catalogue of June 1902, the school depicted this achievement with a photograph of the well-ordered facility, including the librarian who was guaranteed to be "in constant charge to maintain order and instruct and assist students in the use of books and pamphlets." In September, The Messenger noted admiringly that "Miss Wilson has devoted her entire summer to her work in the Library, with the result that the books are now all catalogued and arranged for use according to the card catalogue system." That year, she was booked to provide a lecture for the Professional Lecture Course on a topic she obviously knew well: "Classification of a Small Library."

Three or four faculty members and Miss Wilson formed the Library Committee, whose task was to review the faculty’s lists of desired purchases for the library. Although the Committee, Miss Wilson later wrote, struggled to "furnish all the different departments with a working collection" with the funds available, the final word was often the Principal’s. "Dr. Mathes very often changed their decisions without warning," an early member later recalled. Still, the collections grew in number and variety. The Messenger of November 1902 called the students’ attention to the new international encyclopedia and "200 general reference books" added to the collection since school opened. Sixty-five periodicals were available, including such staples as The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, and The Century, as well as numerous education and pedagogy titles.

In The Messenger of March 1903, the new librarian wrote that the library had increased to 4,600 volumes "selected to meet the demands of the Normal students in their research work and supplementary reading." She directed students’ attention to the new card catalog and the use of call numbers to organize books on the shelf. Two books at a time could be "drawn out," with the transaction to be recorded by a librarian, and to ensure their return, a fine was imposed after two weeks. She also noted that a new "card catalogue of important articles … prepared by the literature classes" improved access to the magazine collection.

The "inexperienced student," however, was not to be concerned by these profound changes. "With a few minutes explanation concerning the classification and catalogue," soothed Miss Wilson, "any student can quickly find the books he wishes." Indeed, learning to use the library was essential for "when once the resources of a library … are revealed to a student, he will realize the truth of what Thomas Carlyle says, that the true University of these days, is a collection of books and all education is to teach us how to read."

A builder at work

Mabel Zoe Wilson came at a time when, as she later expressed it, "being a builder was the psychology," and her determined application of this principle caused the library to grow rapidly during the next few years. To accommodate the school’s expanding curriculum, there were large additions of books in the areas of history, including "Far Eastern" history, English studies, and the philosophy of education. During 1904/05, a substantial collection of books about the Northwest was added. The reference collection steadily expanded to include many encyclopedias, dictionaries, and "world’s best" collections of essays, literature, and orations.

By June 1905, the Annual Catalogue boasted of a library of 6,000 volumes, 1,000 public documents (secured, according to a reminiscence of the time, "through the kindness of a congressman named Jones"), and "several hundred" pamphlets. Supplementary resources included a picture file containing hand-copied "India ink enlargements of the tiny pictures in the back of unabridged dictionaries." Improvements were made to the library environment as well. "The walls are now a dark green," approved The Messenger in April-May 1905, "which is certainly restful to the eye."

Miss Wilson continued to astonish by the pace of her work. In December 1905, The Messenger marveled that "the Librarian has catalogued almost a thousand new books since the beginning of the school year." More space for the result of her efforts had clearly become an important need by this time, and in 1906, the library shifted the periodicals collection into an adjacent office offered by a faculty member. In 1907, an office at the opposite end was added to the facility to house the reference collection and circulation department. Then, two recitation rooms at either end became available and archways were cut into the dividing walls. By 1909, the library filled the entire length of its floor in the main building.

Mabel Zoe Wilson, said by a contemporary to be "jolly both in and out of the library," was popular with the students, despite her devotion to rules of order and behavior. "She has a merry wit, she’s clever too—but woe to her whose books are overdue!" cheerfully rhymed The Messenger in May 1908. Students admired her for working in the library during vacations and engaging continually in "the study of library methods," as in 1906, when she visited the libraries of the Leland Stanford University in California.

In December 1908, The Messenger confirmed that Miss Wilson was "spending a year’s leave of absence in Albany, in the Albany Library School." Founded by Melvil Dewey at Columbia University in 1887 and re-located to the New York State Public Library at Albany when Dewey became State Librarian, the School was the most selective and rigorous of the country’s few professional library schools. There, Miss Wilson earned a Bachelor’s in Library Science, the typical professional degree of the day, returning to the Normal in September 1909, at a salary of $90 per month.

In her absence, the library was managed by Miss Ethel P. Revelle, a graduate of the class of 1908, and grew to over 8,000 volumes. By this time, the library fee provided about $1,500 yearly which was "divided pro rata among the various departments, the aim being to keep the library properly balanced by strengthening the weak departments." Donations also continued to be an important source of new materials. In July 1909, Col. John B. Vliet, a former resident of Eastsound, presented the library with a large collection of materials relating to his native state, Wisconsin.

Making distinctions

The library now employed more staff, who were paid at varying rates of $3-$10 per month, but it was not until its Biennial Report to the Governor of December 1910 that the Normal requested funding for a second librarian. The appropriation for 1911/13 permitted the hiring in 1912 of Effie Sands, a graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University who had completed graduate work in library science at the University of Illinois.

By this time, possibly due to the influence of Miss Wilson’s recent professional training, the Normal library differed in important ways from most academic libraries of the day. In particular, there were "open stacks" and fines had been abolished, as had the limit on the number of books that students could check out. In an essay for The Messenger of April 1912, exhorting students to use their library responsibly, she emphasized these distinctions:

"Name all of the big universities you can think of. If you go to any of them, you will find that the shelves are not open to students. I have visited most of the large university libraries in the United States, and I did not find a single instance where the librarian placed the books between himself and the exit of the library, as is done here. A larger per cent of the universities do not allow "Reserved books" to leave the library. Many normal schools do not circulate any of their books outside of the libraries. Very few libraries permit their borrowers to consult, at will, files of magazines or pamphlets. Very few libraries allow students to have books without limit as to number. You will never enjoy another library where you can’t pay fines."

In a subsequent essay, she noted that students could easily avail themselves of library instruction, either by a joining a class taught by a librarian, or by using a manual, "the preparation of which was based on questions asked by students during many years." The six sources of information with which each student should be familiar, she advised, included the card catalog, general encyclopedias, encyclopedias on special subjects, magazine indexes, the pamphlet index, and bibliographies either published separately or included in textbooks or other sources.

"Do not try to become proficient in one day or in one year," Miss Wilson suggested, "but make a beginning. Your sure reward will be a saving of time and energy, an added feeling of power, a closer touch with books, and a keener joy in all literature; for you will ultimately have in your hand the key that daily unlocks new treasures that would have forever remained behind closed doors."

"In the building line we are in need of a library"

As the 1914/15 year began, the School had a new leader, Dr. George W. Nash, the first to have the title of President, and the library contained 14,000 volumes, a remarkable expansion since its first days. From 1,000 to 1,200 volumes were added annually and these were beginning to include "the best editions of the authors, in some instances reprints of first editions." "A fine collection of art books" was also being created. The magazine list included vocational titles like Boston Cooking School Magazine and Northwest Poultry, many teachers’ and pedagogy magazines, such as Journal of Educational Psychology and Elementary School Teacher, and "leading current magazines … of general interest," including McClure’s, Scribner’s, and Harper’s Weekly. For the November Messenger, Miss Wilson contributed a list of library books, all written within the last fifteen years, along with current magazine articles, to help students "get at the causes of the European war."

In December 1914, her column noted that "the Library is beginning to purchase excellent editions of the complete works of the best authors," including Jane Austen, Dickens, Emerson, Goethe, Shakespeare, Thackeray, and Twain. The following February, she reported that "one of the most important book orders of the year was sent from the library this month," including titles in biography, criticism, letters, drama, and poetry from English literature of the 15th to the 19th centuries. In 1916, the library gained a second assistant librarian, Elizabeth Mottman, a graduate of the Normal, and in 1917, Gladys Stephen was the first staff member to be specifically assigned to cataloging.

"We are nearing the 15,000 mark," Miss Wilson wrote in The Messenger of October 1915, with "one hundred twenty-five magazines with which we are all familiar, or should be, and five daily papers." To further promote library use, she posted on the library bulletin board titles of books considered "the best of a certain group." Often, she added vital facts such as that "the students of only a few institutions of higher education have as free access to reference books" as students at the Normal, and that "the use of books by students has increased to over sixteen times as great as that four years ago."

By 1916, the library facility was feeling the effects of years of sustained growth. Growth space created by completion of the annexes to the main building in 1902 and 1907 was completely filled. Space was so limited that backfiles of periodicals were stored in an airless, unlit attic, library instruction was carried out in the auditorium rather than in the library, and "the Librarian’s office was a chair and a desk behind a bookcase." The Library of Children’s Literature, established in 1905 and now numbering about 1,000 volumes "wandered through five different rooms in the building" before settling into an available room on the floor below the library, where the library’s cataloging department also had to be located.

In May 1916, The Messenger reported that the Board had presented a plan for "extensive improvements to the school plant," including an auditorium building which would also house a library to accommodate 500 students. The Board report of the following year again noted that "in the building line we are in need of a library," especially in anticipation of enrollment increases "when the institution returns to its normal condition" following the war.

The students emphatically agreed. The Weekly Messenger of January 27, 1917, reprinted a report from the local American-Reveille describing a library where "desks are crowded to accommodate 150 students at one time, and every day there are hours when more than 300 students are clamoring for books and a place to write. The cases for the books are crowded so closely together that a fat person has no chance whatever in circulating among them. … The hubbub created in the Normal library is next to the noise in a boiler room."

As the war persisted during the next few years, no progress was made towards a new library. In 1917, the Board did take note of the library’s war effort. "The Library has collected books for the soldiers’ camps to the number of 1,000" and "a shelf of new books, magazines, and pamphlets relating to the war is kept on display continually. There is also a display, changed every week and kept up to date, of food bulletins, posters, pictures, pamphlets, magazine articles, and even substitute food materials." Miss Wilson, The Weekly Messenger reported in March 1918, "has a service flag all her own." In January 1919, she was at Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, assisting in organizing the camp library of 52,000 volumes.

The influenza outbreak of 1918/19 caused severe disruptions in the lives of the students as well as in school routine, including a closure of six weeks’ duration during the fall quarter. Female students, who largely relied on the community for housing and work, were particularly hard-hit. "It required a brave heart," the Dean of Women reported to the President in January 1919, "not to think that all was lost." Two of the many women students living on their own or in housekeeping arrangements, and thus exposed to "loneliness, overwork, and incorrect habits of living," were placed in the library as "student-helpers."

As the institution returned to normal during the 1919/20 school year, the library offered over 22,000 volumes of books and 150 periodical subscriptions. A steady rate of acquisitions now approaching 2,500 per year, as well as increasing enrollment, continued to push the library’s capacity to the breaking point. By 1922, the average attendance per hour in the library was 400 students. The staff, now consisting of the Mabel Zoe Wilson, one cataloger, two circulation desk assistants, a stenographer, and three student assistants, was hard pressed to operate efficiently.

In her background report for the 1921/23 Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Miss Wilson summarized the outstanding deficiencies: "(1) No floor space not occupied; (2) Over half of the library not lighted; (3) Ventilation impossible, because of crowds of students; (4) No aisles between tables; (5) Only one aisle in which people can pass; (6) No private office for librarian’s work or consultations; (7) Students study under strain because chairs can be placed NOWHERE except between cases and back to back."

In her estimation, stack space for 75,000 books was required along with a reading room with a minimum capacity of 400 students, and a periodicals storeroom for 1,000 titles. The library also needed an office for the librarian, a large assembly room for library instruction, conference rooms, workrooms for cataloging and repair/receiving, more lavatories, a separate area for the circulation desk, and space for the juvenile library capable of housing 5,000 volumes and seating 100.