Happy 135th, ALA!

Q. What were the forces behind the founding conference of the American Library Association?

A. Then, as now, the impetus to get together was to improve library services, or to use the language of the time, to promote “efficiency and economy in library work.” In the spring of 1876, there was an anonymous letter in the Academy, published in London. Frederick Leypoldt reprinted the letter in his Publishers Weekly, and it was noticed by others, including Melvil Dewey, who traveled from Amherst, Massachusetts, to New York to meet with Leypoldt and R. R. Bowker. After much correspondence (and telegrams—the telephone having been patented just a few months earlier), a printed call sent by a small committee (Justin Winsor, Boston Public Library; William F. Poole, Chicago Public Library; and Lloyd P. Smith, Philadelphia Library Company; Melvil Dewey, Secretary) to about 1,000 libraries and librarians. Those accepting the call received an admissions card:
1876 Admission card to Librarians' Convention
Meeting in conjunction with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 made sense, and a “Convention of Librarians” was held October 4–6 at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. At the end of the meeting, according to Ed Holley in his essay “ALA at 100,” “the register was passed around for all to sign who wished to become charter members,” making October 6, 1876, ALA’s birthday.

In attendance were 90 men and 13 women, among them Justin Winsor (Boston Public Library, later Harvard), William Frederick Poole (Chicago Public Library, later the Newberry Library), Charles Ammi Cutter (Boston Athenaeum), Melvil Dewey, and Richard Rogers Bowker (Publishers Weekly, and later Library Journal). Attendees came from as far west as Chicago as well as from England.

The aim of the Association, in that resolution, was “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” The topics on the advance program published in the American Library Journal, now Library Journal, continue to be familiar:

  • “A Universal Catalogue: its Necessity and Practicability”
  • “The Preservation of Pamphlets”
  • “Personal Intercourse and Relations between Librarians and Readers in Popular Libraries”
  • “The Modes of Construction Appropriate to Public Libraries”
  • “Some Popular Objections to Public Libraries”
  • “Qualifications of a Librarian”
  • “Copyright in Its Relations to Libraries and Literature”


In other words, enabling the discovery of library holdings, preserving the ephemeral (which today includes digital formats), customer service and readers’ advisory, library buildings--possibly to include how library facilities must be transformed to support how libraries have evolved into community centers or learning commons, advocacy, and library education. The last topic could be put in our programs today, as is.

The small group that gathered in Philadelphia succeeded in establishing enough of an organization to hold a meeting in New York City in 1877, and in 1879, ALA received a charter from Massachusetts. The organization was not large, with the “headquarters” being wherever the Secretary was, specifically in Dewey’s Library Bureau office, 32 Hawley Street, Boston. It wasn’t until 1909 that ALA moved to Chicago, with its first paid executive secretary, Chalmers Hadley.

(Note: I appreciate the timeliness of this question from a Brazilian colleague, as well as the assistance of Valerie Hawkins and George Eberhart with suggestions and the illustrations.)

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