“Call for a Library Conference”: The 1876 ALA Conference

Accession Logbook
Register with the first members of the ALA listed.

Despite the relative success and enthusiastic reception of the 1853 Librarians’ Convention, it failed in its goal to establish a permanent organization of librarian professionals. The next attempt to create a permanent association occurred again in 1876.

An anonymous letter to the London publication, Academy, noted that it was strange “that no attempt should have been make to convene a Congress of librarians.”[1] The letter was then reprinted in Publishers’ Weekly by Frederick Leypoldt and mentioned again in an issue of the Nation. From there the idea picked up momentum, drawing the attention of highly regarded librarians such as Melvil Dewey.

Conference organizers placed a “Call for a Library Conference” in various journals. The first call recommended August 15th as the date of the conference and was met with varying degrees of support. By the second call for the conference, proposing October 4-6, the idea was met with more enthusiasm and prominent librarians, who were hesitant to add their names to the call before, threw in their support.

The conference was held in Philadelphia at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania from October 4-6, during Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, with 103 librarians in attendance. The conference provided an opportunity for librarians to exchange ideas. Dewey introduced his cataloging system, Samuel S. Green advocated for closer relationships between librarians and the public, and Lloyd P. Smith lauded the qualifications of a librarian, “A librarian should be a veritable helluo librorum, a devourer of literature from his youth up, consumed by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and interested in a wide range of subjects.”[2]

On the last day of the conference, October 6th, a resolution was passed to form the American Library Association and a Committee on Permanent Organization put forth a constitution for a permanent association. James Barnwell motioned for the following preamble to the constitution was added:

For the purpose of promoting the library interests of the country, an of increasing reciprocity of intelligence and good-will among librarians and all interested library economy and bibliographical studies, the undersigned form themselves into a body to be known as the American Library Association.[3]

Justin Winsor, the first president of the ALA.

A list of officers was established for the new association, with Justin Winsor as the first ALA president; A.R. Spofford, William Poole, and Henry Homes as the vice-presidents; and Melvil Dewey was named as secretary and treasurer. Their primary function was to organize and call future meetings, though one of the first things Winsor did as president, on the behest of Dewey, was establish a Committee on the Size of Books.[4]

The proceedings of the 1876 conference concluded with, “And thus ended, with pleasant words and good cheer, the Centennial Conference of Librarians.”[5] With this optimistic conclusion to the conference, the founding members of the ALA achieved what the attendees of the 1853 Librarians’ Convention had failed to do; create a permanent professional library association. Still, in 1876, these librarians could not have imagined the enormity of their actions or even that the association would persist 140 years later.


The proceedings for the first ALA Conference can be found in the November 30, 1876, issue of the Library Journal, which is available online in HathiTrust.

  1. Dennis Thomison, A History of the American Library Association 1876-1972, (Chicago, 1978), p. 5.
  2. Smith, Lloyd P., “The Qualifications of a Librarian,” American Library Journal 1: 70 (1876/1877).
  3. “The Proceedings,” American Library Journal 1: 140 (1876/1877).
  4. Ibid, 141
  5. Ibid, 143