Miss “Public Libraries” Mary Eileen Ahern

Last issue of Libraries magazine.
The last issue of Libraries magazine.

Festschrifts are a common way to honor someone in academia, and line the shelves of many academic libraries. They typically contain academic essays related to the person’s life work, contributed traditionally by the person’s former doctoral students and colleagues. But what about a Festschrift that’s instead full of nothing but praise for the person being honored gathered from common workers in their field, and furthermore isn’t for an academic, but instead for a public-service librarian? This is the final issue of Libraries magazine, honoring one Mary Eileen Ahern.

When Ahern retired from the editorship of Libraries journal at the age of 71, not only did the rest of the editorial team decide to end the magazine, they devoted the last issue of the journal to her and filled it with testimonials and gratitude, including an essay from Melvil Dewey (in the height of his spelling reforms). Here’s a sample of some of what’s in the issue:

So I say to Miss Ahern, as she lays down her editorial pen: Your periodical has been an inspiration to literally thousands of workers in the library field; some mere beginners but also to many others who have grown old in professional library service. You have always stood for the highest ideals; you have constantly championed what seemed the right course, even though it might not be the popular one toward which the crowd seemed to be hurrying. You have invariably stood for full and free discussion of every mooted question and have claimed the right to look at it from various angles. You have refused to accept obiter dicta without rigid scrutiny. You have been fearless in the championship of what you thought to be the right. You never courted favor at the expense of your convictions [1].

Miss Mary Eileen Ahern lead a tremendous life of hard work and service to the library profession. Like many early female librarians, Mary Eileen began her career as a school teacher and later moved in to library work. Her first library job was Assistant to the Indiana State Librarian in 1889, after 7 years of teaching. In 1893 she was promoted to State Librarian. Despite these years of service in the Indiana State Library, when the political powers changed in 1895 she lost the position of State Librarian [2]. Out of work, she decided to go to library school.

Katharine Sharp with Melvil Dewey and other librarians
Mary Ahern and other librarians at an unknown event, c. 1900. Caption on the back reads: “Mr. Brunden, our host, Miss ‘Public Libraries’ Ahern; Mr. Dewey (with the Placid look upon his face); Miss K. L. Sharp; Miss M. McIlvaine.”

After 6 years of library work without the advantage of professional training, Mary Eileen Ahern attended the the Armour Institute in Chicago, where she studied under May Bennet and Katherine Sharp, and graduated in 1896 [3]. She seemingly never forgot her time there, as in 1921 she donated $100 dollars to the Katharine L. Sharp memorial, which is approximately about $1200 in today’s money [4].

While attending library school Ahern was approached by representatives from the Library Bureau, who had decided to produce a new journal directed towards small public libraries, and were looking for a head editor [5].  Ahern accepted the job, and the first issue of the new journal Public Libraries (later renamed Libraries) was published May 1896. The magazine would be published continuously for the next 35 years, with her as both editor and frequent contributor. Her name became synonymous with the publication, so much that the anonymous captioner of the photo to the right labeled her “Miss ‘Public Libraries’ Ahern.”

Mary Eileen Ahern visiting with an unknown child while in France in 1919.
Mary Eileen Ahern visiting with an unknown child while in France in 1919.

Mary Eileen Ahern was active in the Library War Service during World War I, in charge of fundraising for Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin [6]. In 1919 Miss Ahern went abroad to inspect the work of the Library War Service in Paris, which was still underway after the end of the war and keeping the servicemen busy while they waited to come home. As donations and support for the program was flagging after the armistice ending the war, her time abroad and information on the good the library service was doing for servicemen helped keep the public interested [7]. While abroad she also took the time to find the final resting place of a soldier for his mother, who wrote thanking her.

Your looked and longed for letter reached us yesterday and we cannot express to you our appreciation for what you have done for Fryar and for us. It was a hard blow to fall after those long weary months of waiting and hoping and your cablegram was the first personal thing we heard about dear old Fryar – and now we year from you just where he is lying makes us realize that he has some individual care during his last days [8].

After her tour abroad Miss Ahern went back to her extensive visiting of public libraries and attending national and local library conferences, including a record of perfect attendance from 1893 to 1931 for all 40 ALA Conferences held between those years [9].

If you’d like to read more about Mary Eileen Ahern’s work, check out the last issue of Libraries magazine, which has been digitized in full. Miss Ahern’s papers are also available for use at the ALA Archives, and selections mentioned in this post have been digitized.



1. Koch, Theodore W.,  librarian, Northwestern University Library. Libraries, Vol. 36, No. 10, Dec. 1931. pp 436-7. From the University of Illinois Library.

2. Dale, Doris Cruger. “Ahern, Mary Eileen (1860-1938).” Dictionary of American Library Biography. 1978. pp 5-7.

3. Ibid.

4. Letter from Mary Eileen Ahern to Miss Frances Simpson, April 28, 1921. From the Katharine L. Sharp Memorial Correspondence, Box 1, Folder “General correspondence about Sharp Memorial Committee A-Z 1914-1918.” University of Illinois Archives.

5. Dale, Doris Cruger. “Ahern, Mary Eileen (1860-1938).” Dictionary of American Library Biography. 1978. pp 5-7

6. Ibid.

7. Hansen, Harry. BOOKS DISPEL ENNUI FOR U. S. DOUGHBOYS; Chicago Woman Tells How Library Body Is Serving Soldiers Abroad. Chicago Daily News, Feb. 26, 1919. From the Mary Eileen Ahern Papers, ALA Archives.

8. F. Hutchinson to Miss Mary Eileen Ahern, April 30, 1919. From the Mary Eileen Ahern Papers, Box 1, ALA Archives.

9. Dale, Doris Cruger. “Ahern, Mary Eileen (1860-1938).” Dictionary of American Library Biography. 1978. pp 5-7

Updated on