Oral history interview - Margaret Mary Kimmel

MOLLY KINNEY: It's October 31, 1995. My name is Molly Kinney, and today I'm going to be interviewing Margaret Mary Kimmel, who is a past president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). She was the president in 1982-83. But, we're going to start long before she became the president and talk about when she first joined the American Library Association (ALA) and became involved with ALSC.

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: I first joined ALA when I was still in Baltimore, MD, as a children's librarian at the behest of the coordinator of children's services, Isabella Janette. Ms. Janette was a firm-minded lady and was bound and determined that she would make ALA available to her children's librarians to join for professional growth and development whether we wanted to or not. So I joined ALA, and Ms. Janette got me on a committee. It was a subcommittee working with another division (I think the State Librarian Agency Division on the Troubled Child), and we produced a series of bibliographies. That was my very first ALA committee. Since then, I've been on hundreds of committees for ALA--well, maybe not hundreds, but dozens of committees for ALA--but I still remember people on that first committee very clearly, especially Hilda K. Limper from Cincinnati, OH, and Jane Manthorne from Boston, MA. Jane Manthorn is from an old Boston literary family, and she invited the committee to her family's cottage on Cape Cod for a series of meetings. Barbara Ambler, who was Carolyn Field's administrative assistant at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I were brand new kids on the block, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I worked hard, but it was a lot of fun.

MOLLY KINNEY: What about some of the other committees you've been on that have been a special delight to you?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Well, actually I was on a lot of committees for ALSC. When I started out it was the Children's Services Division, but later it changed its name. One of the committees I remember really very fondly was the Organization and Bylaws Committee because I was most annoyed at being appointed and considered it a terrible chore. I ended up serving two years as chair of that committee though, and I learned an enormous amount about ALA's structure simply because I had to pay attention to how things were organized and how they worked. Sometimes those kinds of committees really have advantages. Isabelle Janette was very generous to those of us that took advantage of her encouragement to join ALA, and she made sure that I got a ticket to my very first ever Newbery and Caldecott banquet. I was a guest of Houghton-Mifflin Publishers, and Mary Kay Harmon was the senior editor and hostess at the table. I don't remember anything about the speeches. I don't remember who won the prizes, and I have no idea who else sat at the table. Because along about two-thirds of the way through the evening, I was listening to all the conversations, barely able to keep my mouth from hanging open, when Ms. Harmon turned to me and in a very deep gruff voice with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, said to me, “And tell me have you read any good books lately?” And I, who had been rather uncharacteristically absolutely silent, started babbling about the book review group at the Pratt Library, and how each of us as children's librarians served for three months on the book evaluation committee. I told her that the material we reviewed was also double reviewed by one of the coordinators and that it was a great learning experience. I told Ms. Harmon that I had just finished this really terrific book called A Road to Sardis by Stephanie Plowman [Houghton Mifflin c1965]. Ms. Harmon then said to me, “What did you think of the book?” “Well,” said I, “It was a wonderful book. I just loved it, but I don't think any kid will ever read it. It's too long. I think the editor should have controlled that author a bit more.” There was dead silence at the table. And then the rest of the people at the table took a horrified collective breath, and I finally realized that something really tragic had happened. Ms. Harmon took the cigarette out of her mouth, fixed me with a piercing glare and said, “I edited that book.” I just sat there in stunned silence for the rest of the banquet. It was a memorable first experience.

I served on two Newbery/Caldecott awards committees before they were split into two committees. It was truly a wonderful professional experience. It was very exciting and thought provoking, and forced one to be able to talk on one's feet about literature. I often think to myself how much those two experiences have helped me as a teacher. I want my students to be able to talk about books, to talk about illustrations the way that those people on the committees talked about them. It's a new vocabulary; it's a new way of looking at things. I found those experiences really very valuable.

Before I was president of the ALSC division, my first major ALA speech was in Dallas, TX, in 1980, and it was an event that will live in my memory forever. It was the first time the Notable Books list was revisited. My good friend Ethel Mannheimer [editor, Horn Book Magazine, 1974-85] was the chair of the committee that had looked at Notable Books lists from 1960 to 1970 and prepared a list. It was a program meeting, and the people who came to that meeting sat at different tables and talked about groups of those books, and I was to give the keynote speech. I was so nervous, but I must have done something right because a year later Ethel, who was the chair of the nominating committee, asked me to run for president of the division. I was grateful then, and I am grateful now because it was a wonderful experience.

MOLLY KINNEY: What kind of thoughts did you have when they asked you to run for ALSC president?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Who am I going to run against was my first question, but Ethel wouldn’t tell me. The second thought that went through my head was what Thomas J. Galvin [president of ALA, 1979-80, and former executive director of ALA, 1985-89] always said about being prepared to lose a race but also being prepared to win. I don't think I understood him until that particular election. Being an ALSC president was a great responsibility and a lot of really interesting things happened. Tom Galvin was president, and it was Carol Niemeyer's incoming vice presidential year [president of ALA, 1979-80]. Following the custom started by ALA President Peggy Sullivan, Carol called together the vice presidents/presidents-elect of the divisions. As incoming presidents of the divisions, we were then working not only within our own divisions but we were making contacts with people in other divisions. Two terrific people that I met were Barbara Newmark, now Barbara Newmark-Kruger, who was the incoming president of ALA’s YASD (Young Adult Services Division), now YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association). Barbara was at that time at Cuyahoga County, OH, and I had just come to the University of Pittsburgh as a faculty member. There was a good deal of suspicion between YASD and ALSC but we decided that this was far beneath us. We went on to serve as co-chairs of a program in San Francisco, CA, “Children and Youth and Television.” The other person I met was the incoming president of ALA’s ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries), a woman named Carla J. Stoffle, who later became treasurer of ALA [1988-92] and the dean of libraries at the University of Arizona. Carla and I became very good friends as a result of that experience. As far as what was going on in ALSC, there were no major issues at the time. I found that developing a president's program and making committee appointments were two responsibilities that had the great impact because they lived on far beyond the three years as vice president, president, and past president. Also, when I was ALSC president, the ALA annual conference was in Los Angeles, CA. ALSC had experimented for the previous two or three years with not having a banquet for the Newbery/Caldecott event. The prior ALA annual conference in Philadelphia, PA, included a special Mummers parade as part of the Newbery/Caldecott event.

MOLLY KINNEY: You can't see it reading this interview, but Margaret is banging her head into her hands.

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Well, it was a problem because one wanted to have a celebration and a party and yet keep in the tradition of the dignity of the presentations. The presentations were held in a ballroom and people entered coming down a staircase. Arnold and Anita Lobel came down together, and I remember distinctly Anita muttering beforehand that she was afraid she was going to trip on her high heels making this grand entrance. (Wouldn't that be a grand entrance?) After that, we had the Mummers parade and a party that included Philly cheesesteaks and hoagies, and it just somehow didn't quite seem to fit that particular event very well. So in Los Angeles, we had a banquet and it was a very large banquet. It was one of the largest that they've had up until that time. There have been a couple of other ones since then that have exceeded the attendance but people were really delighted to have a dinner. One of the things we did to streamline the banquet was to cut down the size of the head table. In the past, the head table had been tiered, and there have been as many as four tiers on the head table because the president invited other division presidents and executive directors, publishers, and out-of-town guests. All of those head table people had been sitting up there, and it got to be kind of an event just to get to your place at the head table. So now the only people at the head table were the medal winners, the chairs of the committees making the awards, and me the ALSC president serving as the mistress of ceremonies. I had talked with the executive director, it was Ann Carlson Weeks [executive director, 1982-86] at that time, and we decided that what we wanted for that dinner was elegance. We wanted it to look really good.

So it was in the ballroom of the Hyatt, which was a very large room, and we had almost 1,900 people -- 1,900 of your best friends for dinner. The lighting was really lovely. We had tiered candelabra, which could be dimmed, with flowers in the middle for each of the tables. The people at the tables, however, told me that it was terrible because there was this massive thing in the middle of their table, and they couldn't see each other. But from my vantage point, it was just gorgeous. Marcia Brown won the Caldecott medal that year for Shadow. There had been controversy about it from some people who said that it was not an accurate depiction of Africa. We were all a little nervous that there might be some disturbance, but I think children's librarians as a whole are really polite, and they rise to the occasion even if they don't agree with something. Cynthia Voigt won the Newbery for Dicey's Song, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder winner that year was Maurice Sendak. He sat right next to me, bless his heart, and we were both very nervous.

Now Ann Weeks had said to me that I needed a script, but I was a fairly arrogant associate professor at that time. I was used to talking on my feet to groups of people. But, thank God, she insisted that I needed a script. My first line was, “Good evening my name is Margaret Mary Kimmel.” I don't think that I would have been able to get through that first line without having it written down. Maurice Sendak, sitting next to me, told me through the entire dinner how nervous he was. About midway through the main course he told me that he often threw up on occasions like this, which did nothing to dispel my nervousness. I said to him that I was specifically hoping that he would not do that on this particular occasion. I asked him why he got nervous and he said because he didn't like to do these things. He asked me why I got nervous, and I said basically I do like to do these things, but not for 1,900 of my best friends.

One of the things that I was most worried about was introducing the international visitors who were there, including two Japanese gentlemen, one of whom was a major publisher in Japan and whose name was Katsumora. Now that's not a particularly difficult name even for an ignorant Pennsylvanian but I was practicing saying Katsumora, Katsumora, Katsumora. We got through the dinner. Mr. Sendak did not throw up, and I got up and said to him, “Well here I go.” He knew how nervous I was, and I said Katsumora one last time. Mr. Sendak then leaned over and said directly into my ear, “Be sure you don't call him Kamikaze.” Now if he hadn't said that he had this predilection for throwing up, I might have socked him because I think it was a particularly nasty thing to say just before one got up to introduce an international visitor. Well, we got through that all right. One of the parts that I liked best about being ALSC president was being the presider of that Newbery/Caldecott banquet. I've always envied the Academy Awards, which I've watched religiously not because I want a gold statuette but because I've always envied those people and their thank you speeches. So, since this was in Los Angeles and since this was probably the closest I was ever going to get to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I took the opportunity while the head table filed out to get into the receiving line to make my Academy Award thank you speech. “And I thank Isabella Janette at the Pratt Library for giving me my first professional job, and my mother and father for all their encouragement, and Tom Galvin for his support, and the nominating committee for nominating me president, and all the committee chair people who worked so hard in ALSC.” It was wonderful. Now it was a perfectly reasonable time killer because I had to do that, but besides that people just seemed to respond in the spirit in which it was given which was a lot of good fun, and it was just wonderful.

MOLLY KINNEY: I'm very glad to hear that because I've heard bits and pieces of that story before but never quite the whole thing. The Newbery/Caldecott banquet seems to be the most public thing that ALSC presidents do. But I’m sure you had another agenda, several maybe.

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Well, frankly, there were a lot of things going on. The ALA as a whole was involved in strategic planning, beginning to develop their first strategic plan. The operating agreement was the big brouhaha of the day. The relationship of the divisions to ALA as a whole occasioned innumerable conference calls. The other major event that colored my vice presidential and presidential years were a change in executive directors. Mary Jane Anderson left [ALSC executive director [1974-82] and Ann Carlson Weeks was the new director.

MOLLY KINNEY: Is there anything else about the climate at ALA? I joined ALA about the same time that you were the president, and it seemed as though that the divisions had much more autonomy then I think than they do now. Do you agree or disagree?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: The relationship of the divisions to each other and to ALA really changed with this operating agreement. Basically, I think that the chickens are coming home to roost because some of the divisions are very independent, and I think they're more independent now than they were before.

MOLLY KINNEY: Do you think so?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Yes. I mean, I think that there are some things that divisions are held responsible for that they weren't at that time. Divisions like the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) who have their own national conference do make money. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) also makes money on those independent conferences. For the divisions, the conferences prove that you're strong enough to exist on your own. If you're strong enough to exist on your own, then in some ways you're threatening to the parent organization. I suppose this is an issue for ALSC, but for me being the president of ALSC was also an opportunity to see the contribution of the larger organization.

My contact with those other division presidents was extremely important to me professionally. I went from being the ALSC division president to a presidential appointment as a member of the ALA Council Committee on Accreditation. In order to accept this appointment, I gave up my past presidential year in ALSC. There were people within the division that felt I owed that extra year and that experience to the division. I talked about it with several friends, and then I made my own decision. I thought then and I think now that I'd do it again. I think that what I gave the division as a member of the Committee on Accreditation, a standing committee of the ALA Council, was something that they had not had before and that was a visible presence and a voice. I served on this committee at a very significant time in library education. Actually those two positions, the election as president of ALSC and the ALA presidential appointment on the ALA Council’s Committee on Accreditation, were back-to-back turning points in my professional career. They really gave me knowledge of the association and a confidence in my own contribution that I don't think would have happened otherwise.

MOLLY KINNEY: So you also served on the ALA Council Committee on Accreditation?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: I was chair for two years on a standing committee on library education, College Libraries Section (CLS), now called the Committee on Education, and I was chair for two years of the Advisory Committee of the Library Personnel Resources (OLPR). I think education for the association is a major issue right now, but more than that it's a very slippery topic because it's difficult to know how to go and what to do with it. Divisions wrestle with this and many of the divisions have education committees, and they wind up doing things like developing a syllabus for teaching whatever the responsibility of that division is. Well, no Library and Information Studies (LIS) educational program wants somebody else to prepare a syllabus for them, thank you! But it is the responsibility of the professional constituency to provide competency statements with which educators can either agree or disagree. It is in their purview to do those kinds of things. I think that the issues in education for the American Library Association are as significant as they are for LIS programs in very different ways.

MOLLY KINNEY: You're a bit concerned about this because…?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: I’m concerned about educational issues because there's been a major change in personnel. Margaret Myers, who has directed this office for years, has left the association; and I'm not quite sure what direction this will take. Although I'm not on the committee now, as a member I’m concerned about it.

MOLLY KINNEY: We seem to have gone from the past and then through your presidency to talk about some issues that are of concern to you and I'd like you to talk about the future of library service to children.

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: From my vantage point as an educator, the need for people who are concerned about how children acquire knowledge, about reading, about books, about listening and life, about information in whatever form it takes--the need for us in the society--is more than it's ever been before. I think that we need to work with all of those other adults who are concerned. I see our contribution as being unique in that--I guess I don't know how else to explain it--but I see us as keepers of the story in the same way that storytellers are keepers of tradition. I don't mean tradition in an anachronistic sense, but in a sense of long-term memory of keepers of hopes and aspirations, of things that don't quantify or measure easily. Now that's a really tough order, and the people who are recruited to this field I think sometimes go into it for a whole variety of reasons. I've met some very remarkable people, present company not excepted, who have for one reason or another fallen into it. But I've seen some other people drop into it because they are dropping out of other aspects. I see people who are working with and for children who are constrained by bureaucracies, including the home-grown kind, the library kind. They are constrained with the library bureaucracy that says, “But who will mind the desk?” They are also constrained by bureaucracies outside the library, communities that fail to support libraries, and education efforts that are looking only for accountability in strict measurable terms. So, if I were to talk about the future it would be both about need, a desperate crying need, and about constraints. I think that what I'd like to be able to do is to work towards a cadre of people with enough intestinal fortitude that they could take hold of the aspirations and surmount the constraints.

MOLLY KINNEY: And do you suppose it's possible to format a cadre within ALSC?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: I'm looking for it. If I can't do it within ALSC I'll do it wherever I find those folks.

MOLLY KINNEY: Okay. I want to finish this interview by talking about mentoring because you've been a wonderful mentor for me and for the many other people whose lives you touch. So, could you talk about mentoring new librarians through ALSC?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: It's probably one of the most important roles that individuals within the division could have. It far surpasses serving on the Boy Scouts committee or the committee on organization and by-laws or even the membership committee which I happen to think is a really great way to get started within the division. I think that people who work with children get a great deal of satisfaction out of watching the wonder that happens before your very eyes with the kids. I think that these same people don't always take the time to look for that same reward when they're working with adults who are concerned with children. We have to be concerned about the number of people that we touch and we have to work with adults. I think that the mentoring is partly by example. I think that it's important for ALSC people to work in the larger ALA community. I think it's a mistake for people to work only within the division. And I think that it's really extremely important for those of us who have been there and done that to encourage other people to do it, to encourage people to run for office even if they don't make it, to give names to current officers so that people can get a chance. I think it's really important to pass on those golden professional opportunities.

I think it's a real mistake for senior people to take positions on the Newbery and Caldecott Committees. The late Harriet Quimby, a former coordinator of children’s services at the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY, once told me--and Harriet was a wonderful person, a wonderful mentor--that there was a kind of unwritten law on the part of the leaders (I won't call them the big heads but they have been generally), that they would not accept a position on the Newbery/Caldecott Committee more than once every five to ten years because it was necessary for other younger up-and-coming middle-level people to be on those kinds of committees. Because those experiences are so intense, it's not like working on another committee. It's that close, intense, inner examination of what you think is important. Those experiences are major factors in a professional life and are really important.

I reflect on people who have been very influential in my life. Peggy Sullivan is somebody that comes to mind. I've never been Peggy Sullivan's best friend and she's never been mine, but I respect her ability enormously. It was because of Peggy Sullivan that I got my first teaching job at Catholic University because she saw in me something that she thought would make a good teacher in a classroom. It was Peggy Sullivan who introduced me to Tom Galvin. Tom Galvin was a major mentor in my life. It is his fault I'm at Pitt. He dragged me here by the scruff of the neck, kicking and screaming, because he had been the associate dean at Simmons and then came here as the dean. He said to me that as a teacher I must have a PhD. You will come to Pitt and get it. I said, “I don't want one. I can live without it, believe me Tom.” He said you will come here. You will get a PhD. Damned if I didn't, and here I am 16 years later still on this faculty; and I never would have predicted that. I was ready to head back to Boston. But as they say it takes 20 minutes to go any place in Pittsburgh, and you can't do that in Boston.

MOLLY KINNEY: That's true, it's just 20 minutes. Is there anything else that you would like to tell me about ALSC or yourself, or your role within the organization, or ALA?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: I found some of my best friends in ALSC, and although I haven't been on a committee within the division since I was its president, which is a long time ago, I have been very involved I think in what's going on because I've known presidents. I've paid attention to what they're doing and this is still where my heart is. I've done a lot of other things within the association here at the university, but I've been teaching storytelling for 20 years. It doesn't seem possible, but it is.

MOLLY KINNEY: Maggie ever since I've known you you've been somebody who has been very passionate about your work and you've managed to fire up a lot of librarians. Would you please close this interview by discussing your passion for serving our children?

MARGARET MARY KIMMEL: Well perhaps the best way I can do that is to tell a story. Several years ago--I keep saying several years but in fact it passes farther and farther back into my memory--I was invited to a Midwestern town, to a big university in the Midwest, to do a literature festival. The day before the literature festival the three of us who were speakers were invited into the city schools. The other two speakers were authors Jean Craighead George and Judy Delton, who have written piles and piles and piles of books for kids. On the other hand, I have so far managed to produce one thin book for sensitive, perceptive children everywhere, but it doesn't take you very far on a day’s worth of book talking. So they talked about their books, and I did what I usually do when I go into a foreign environment, I tell stories. I always take magic with me, and I usually keep it behind my ear because that's the easiest place to carry it in case you don't have a pocket in your jacket. I take the magic from behind my ear, and I blow half of it out into the classroom, and then I use the rest of it to draw a magic circle. In the third grade classrooms we visited, I told the story, a story that everybody would recognize about a master baker who made the best soda biscuits in the seven counties around because she used a very special kind of baking soda called sody, sody, sody sallyraytus. When the story was finished, I'd wind up the magic circle and blow the rest of the magic out into the classroom and tell the children that it was always there in case they ever needed it. We visited five schools and we visited every single classroom second through fifth grade. It was an exhausting day, but a lot of fun. The next day was Saturday’s conference. The conference went very well, and people clapped politely after speeches, and we autographed books. I think it was a lot of fun. When I got back to Pitt I had a Monday night class and as I got in to the house the phone was ringing. The voice at the other end asked me if I had been in her city schools the Friday before and had I told a story that had something to do with magic and music, and I said yes. Well, she said it seems that something really awful has happened. In one of those third grade classrooms, there was a little boy named Michael. He had left that Monday morning to go to school with the neighbor who usually took Michael to school and dropped him off on his way to work, but Michael never got there. When they found him, he was holding the hand of the neighbor who had overdosed and died. Michael and the neighbor were sitting inside a magic circle, and Michael was singing sody, sody sody sallyraytus. We talked a lot that night, the psychologist and I, about the nature of story and magic and what it means to kids. We agreed that it would be best if Michael would let somebody, his mother or the psychologist, tell him the story in the magic circle, but if he wouldn't then I'd come out. Well, by the end of the week Michael had, with the resilience that kids do have, was back in school and doing just fine. I think of him often and every time I teach a class or I make a speech. I think of him particularly, and I give him to the people who are listening to be haunted by him as I am. It was serendipity that I was in that school, that I told that silly story and that I wove that magic circle that he could use how and when he needed it. I think that if I have passion for what I do it is because of that child and all the children that ever were that I don't even know about who are touched, informed, transformed by story, and we owe it to them. I think that ALSC as an association, as a division, helps to transmit that power, but the power really resides in us. It's ours, and it's our responsibility to give it, to give it away to make sure that those kids have it, to make sure that those librarians are doing what they should be, to make sure that parents understand.

MOLLY KINNEY: And with that we'll end.