“Beyond the Hopes or Plans”: ALA at the 1893 World’s Fair

New York Library Club ribbon for the 1893 ALA Annual Conference. RS 5/1/15

With the approaching 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago on the horizon, Frank P. Hill addressed the American Library Association at the 1890 Annual Conference and proposed several suggestions for the ALA to showcase an exhibit at the fair. Hill proposed that for the fair, “That a model library, showing modern methods of classifying and cataloging books, be arrange in one of the room of the building.”[1] He also immediately suggested that Mary S. Cutler be put in charge, who was later placed on the planning committee with Hill himself.

The Chicago World’s Fair was an opportunity for libraries and the American Library Association to be represented on an international stage to educate visitors of the inner workings of a public library. And by holding the 1893 Annual Conference in Chicago, members were given the chance to see the World’s Columbian Exposition and observe the exhibit.

The idea took root and the World’s Columbian Exposition Committee was quickly formed to plan and organize the exhibit. The ALA’s exhibit was housed in the Government Building and was a piece of a four part exhibit containing history and statistics from the US Bureau of Education; exhibits from individual libraries; a comparative exhibit by the New York State Library school with library appliances, forms, and models; and the ALA Columbian Library.[2] The model library served as an example of two methods of classification, the Dewey decimal classification and the Cutter expansive classification.


List of suggestions from the World’s Columbian Exposition Committee. RS 5/1/1


Visitors stopped to browse the library and look at the exhibit. Not all were impressed, as one lady stated, “Everybody knows how to run a library, and anybody can buy books. I don’t see any sense in this exhibit.”[3] Though the lady was observed returning to the exhibit half an hour later to hear another explanation of the exhibit. Other visitors were more enthused as they investigated cataloging, classification, shelving, and charging systems to satisfy their curiosity.

Some even stopped to read the books in the model library, which did not escape the notice of the committee. Considering the other attractions vying for visitors’ attention, the committee was thrilled over the allure reading had for some people. The committee wrote enthusiastically in their report, “That people should step aside from the wonders of the fair and the distractions of the Midway Plaisance for deliberate reading of books is to say the least quite beyond the hopes or plans of the committee.”[4]

The conference itself was scheduled for over a week, July 13-22, in the fair’s Art Palace and only one session a day was planned. Instead of presenters reading their papers, the finished papers were given to attendees beforehand, and the papers were discussed. This arrangement was “thus expected to get from a single daily session as much practical good as is usually obtained from the three.”[5] It also gave the attendees the opportunity to enjoy the Columbian Exposition. While the conference failed to attract a large international audience, only 6 foreign librarians attended [6], the fair provided a successful platform for the conference with attendance at its highest.


1. “World’s Fair Library Exhibit,” 1890, RS 5/1/1, Box 1, Folder: Chicago, 1893, American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

2. Katherine L. Sharp, “The A.L.A. Library Exhibit at the World’s Fair,” Library Journal, August 1893, pg. 280-284.

3. Papers and Proceedings of the Fifteenth General Meeting of the American Library Association, (Chicago, 1893), pg. 65-66, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

4. Ibid, pg. 66.

5. Program for Chicago Meeting, 1893, RS 5/1/1, Box 1, Folder: Chicago, 1893, American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

6. Dennis Thomison, A History of the American Library Association 1876-1972, (Chicago, 1978), pg. 39, Record Series 13/2/14, American Library Association Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.