“The First Convention of the Kind”: The 1853 Librarians’ Convention

Letter of support for the convention.

Before the first American Library Association Conference in 1876, there was the 1853 Librarians’ Convention. The idea was first presented in 1852, in Charles Norton’s Norton’s Literary Gazette and Publisher’s Circular, though it would take another year for the idea to take root. After much correspondence a group of librarians put out an official proposal for a convention in May of 1853. The proposal, “Call for a Convention of Librarians”, was published in Norton’s Literary Gazette, stating:

The undersigned, believing that the knowledge of Books, and the foundation and management of collections of them for public use, may be promoted by consultation and concert among librarians and other interested in bibliography, respectfully invite such persons to meet in convention at New York, on Thursday, the fifteenth day of September, for the purpose of conferring together upon the means of advancing the prosperity and usefulness of public libraries, and for the suggestion and discussion of topics of importance to books collectors and readers.[1]

Around eighty gentlemen attended the convention in New York, with delegates coming in from as far away as California. Professor Charles C. Jewett, of the Smithsonian Institute, opened the convention as the president and laid out what might be considered an unusual agenda for the following days by saying, “We have no peculiar views to present, no particular set of measures to propose. We meet without preparation. No order of business has been arranged. Our proceedings must be spontaneous as our meeting.”[2] Jewett also marked the event as “one of peculiar interest. This is the first convention of the kind, not only in this country, but so far as I know, in the world.”[3]

The proceedings were published in Norton’s Literary Register.

Despite the unstructured nature of the convention, they were able to discuss a wide range of important topics in the profession. This included cataloging systems, distribution of public documents, international exchanges, literature and periodical indexes, and public libraries becoming “a matter of the greatest importance to the future welfare of our country.”[4]

There were indeed lively and productive discussions about the profession. Unfortunately for the attendees, this would be their only meeting until 1876. While the librarians meant to meet again as they adopted a resolution stating that “the Convention be regarded as preliminary to the formation of a permanent Librarians’ Association,”[5] it was not to be.

There were several reasons contributing to the librarians’ failure to meet again. The president, Professor Jewett, left his position with the Smithsonian and was no longer in a position of authority. Charles Norton ran into financial difficulties and was no longer able to take the cause of librarians as he had before. In 1857, the nation was faced with a financial crisis. And then in 1861, the Civil War broke out, with the following years of Reconstruction.[6]  With all of these factors working against the fledgling association, it is little wonder that the next national meeting did not occur for another twenty-three years.

The first national meeting of librarians did not break out into an instant success, but it planted the idea in librarians’ minds of the benefits of such a convention. It succeeded in getting librarians interested in meeting to exchange ideas, learn new techniques, and to meet others within their profession. Librarians also made lasting friendships as a result of the convention, and corresponded with each other and visited other libraries more often than before.[7] And maybe more importantly, it laid down the groundwork for the formation of the American Library Association in 1876.


[1] Proceedings of the Librarians’ Convention, (Cedar Rapids, reprint 1915), Pg. 5, Record Series 97/1/21, Box 2, Folder: Proceedings of the Librarians’ Convention, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 13

[4] Ibid., p. 37

[5] Ibid., p. 62

[6] Dennis Thomison, A History of the American Library Association 1876-1972, (Chicago, 1978), p. 4.

[7] George Burwell Utley, The Librarians’ Conference of 1853, (Chicago, 1951), p. 115.

Digital surrogates of the proceedings of the 1853 Librarians’ Convention can be found on Hathi Trust.

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