In October 12-16 of 1891, the first ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco was held. It was the first conference to be held on the Pacific Coast and 83 people were in attendance, with Samuel Swett Green presiding as president. Even after over a hundred years, some of the topics discussed during the sessions would not be out of place at the 2015 Annual Conference. ALA members talked about library architecture, library administration, the use of libraries in schools, library legislation, and public support for public libraries.
Other topics were more of a reflection of the time, including whether or not to give the public free access to the book stacks in public libraries. Free access to the library shelves was not common yet, but William H. Brett, from the Cleveland Public Library, spoke about his library’s experience in opening the shelves to the public, stating that there was no noticeable increase of theft and books were not being misplaced. Brett also shared that, “The advantages gained have been first, the greatly enhanced value of the library to its users. The importance of being able to look over the books upon any subject is obvious to every student and reader, and can hardly be overestimated.”
Another concern brought up at the conference was the spread of contagious diseases in libraries. While today librarians and patrons might worry about catching a cold or the flu from another person, librarians of 1891 worried about the spread of scarlet fever, diphtheria, small pox, measles, and typhoid fever, to name a few. Gardner Maynard Jones reported the results of a questionnaire circulated to librarians about their experiences and precautions. There were some librarians who didn’t believe that books were spreading diseases. Mrs. M.C. Norton, of the Minneapolis Public Library, reported, “We have had but one case brought to our notice where it was claimed by the family that the poison was carried to them through books from the library, but that was mere conjecture.” Still, libraries took steps to stop the spread of infection during outbreaks by disinfecting or replacing books, or by even stopping circulation.
The San Francisco conference wasn’t all work. For many who lived in the east, the Annual Conference was an opportunity to tour the country. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company would carry many of the attendees west, providing drawing-room sleeping cars, a dining car, and a composite smoking car (only for gentlemen), which included a barber shop. A Tourist Agent was provided to lead the group, assisted by an “experienced lady as chaperone.” The tour book set an itinerary for the long journey, leaving from Boston and stopping at cities for sightseeing and rest, such as Denver “one of the most pushing and cultured cities of the plains,” Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento.
Newspaper articles followed their progress and adventures. The San Francisco Chronicle told of how Charles A. Cutter, of the Boston Athenaeum, was almost left behind by the train on Pike’s peak. The train was moving before someone “caught sight of Mr. Cutler [sic] plunging wildly through the snow on the peak and frantically waving his arms.” Thankfully, the train stopped before Cutter was left behind. The Chronicle also told of S.H. Scudder’s habit for catching grasshoppers and other specimens during the journey to San Francisco.
While the conference was attended by less than a 100 people, it was the start of ALA holding the Annual Conference along the west coast. Considering the grand tour and adventures some of the librarians had, it is little wonder that the ALA has returned to San Francisco at least 10 more times since 1891, making it one of the more popular cities for the conference.
When you’re in San Francisco for the 2015 Annual Conference, remember to document your experiences with photographs, videos, meeting minutes and agendas, session handouts, programs, and more! These will become valuable donations to the archives in the future, so stories of your own adventures in San Francisco can be told!
1. Papers and Proceedings of the Twelfth General Meeting of the American Library Association, (Boston, 1891), pg. 34, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.
2. Ibid, pg. 37.
3. Ibid, pg. 36.
4. Tour of the American Library Association to the Pacific Coast, (Philadelphia, 1891), pg. 7-11, Record Series 5/1/1, Box 1, Folder: San Francisco, 1891, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.
5. “The Librarians,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 1891, Record Series 5/1/1, Box 1, Folder: San Francisco, 1891, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.