100 Years of the Newbery: The First Medal

The John Newbery Medal, established in 1921 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and the centennial of its first award ceremony is quickly approaching.

Frederic Melcher in 1926. Image ALA0004587.

In 1921, Frederic Melcher, a publisher, bookseller, and chairman of the Children’s Book Week Committee, proposed the idea of a medal to be awarded in recognition of children’s literature and for it to be named after John Newbery, an 18th century British bookseller and children’s books publisher. With a growing audience for children’s books, more librarians being trained in children services, and the emergence of children’s book departments in publishing companies, the time seemed right for such an award and the idea gained traction.(1) Melcher paid to have the medal struck, while the Children’s Librarians Section (predecessor to the Association for Library Service to Children) organized the selection of the first winner through a vote of children’s librarians from across the country.

The first medal was awarded to Hendrik Willem van Loon for his book, The Story of Mankind, in 1922 at the ALA Annual Conference in Detroit, Michigan. While the ALA Archives unfortunately does not have many records from the early days of the Newbery Medal, conference records provide an insight to how the first award ceremony went.

Agenda for the Children’s Librarians Section on June 27, 1922, including the first presentation of the John Newbery Medal. Record Series 5/1/1.

The Newbery was presented on June 27, 1922, during the Children’s Librarians Section’s session at the conference and was listed as the last item on the section’s agenda for the day. Despite the lack of a banquet or formal event, the presentation drew a crowd. The conference proceedings on the event open with: “Interest in awarding the John Newbery medal brought a big audience to the first session of the Children’s Librarians Section. The hall was full to capacity, many people were turned away.”(2)

At the ceremony, Clara W. Hunt, chair of the Children’s Librarians Section, expressed the gratitude of the section to Melcher for his donation of the medal:

“I would I had the ability to express adequately the gratitude which we children’s librarians feel for the inspiration which prompted you to make this gift to the cause we love … We feel strong and powerful because you believe in us and you are putting in our hands a weapon, one of the most potent of our times—publicity of the best kind.”(3)

The description of the event closes with: “The enthusiastic applause which greeted Dr. Van Loon gave evidence of the appreciation and interest of the large audience.”(4) As seen from the conference proceedings, the Newbery was instantly well regarded, and the excitement of children’s librarians was obvious. Its initial acclaim was well deserved as the Newbery Medal has proven to be an enduring honor.


Blog post adapted from “The Newbery in the Archives: 100 Years of Letters, Photographs, and Stories,” presented at The Newbery Medal at 100, November 5, 2021.

1. Zena Sutherland, “The Newbery at 75: Changing with the Times,” American Libraries 28, no. 3, (March 1997): 34-36.
2. Papers and Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association, (Chicago: American Library Association, 1922), 267.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund

A poster of the Library Bill of Rights as amended by the ALA Council in 1967.
Library Bill of Rights, 1967 (Record Series 1/1/17). Copyright of this image is held by the American Library Association.

Censorship is the act of preventing or obstructing another’s ability to express their thoughts through media, actions, and speech. American citizens are taught from an early age that the United States government will protect its people from censorship, as seen in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. However, this document was originally created to protect citizens from government censorship, not necessarily censorship coming from other citizens (5). Because of this, newer state legislation and court opinions either increase or decrease the ability to censor others in non-federal situations, and both public and private organizations get involved. One of the United States’ most iconic institutions, the public library, is a contested site in the discussion of censorship.

When the American Librarian Association Council accepted the Library Bill of Rights as a governing document in 1939, they also took a stand against censorship:

“Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” (4)

Continue reading “The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund”

Oral Histories at the ALA Archives

File from the ALSC Oral History Project.

Alongside written records, photographs, and publications, the American Library Association Archives also holds over 150 interviews of individual librarians and library workers. These oral histories and interviews provide a vital resource of librarian recollections that may not be otherwise found in administrative records, photographs, and correspondence. These stories told by librarians and library workers provide context to their lives and career, how their experiences and education shaped their librarianship, and how certain events shaped their personal and professional lives.

While the ALA Archives does not currently have its own active oral history program, the Archives collects and supports projects that capture the voices of librarians and library workers as part of its mission to preserve the history of librarianship. Here is a small selection the oral history projects and interviews that the Archives holds: Continue reading “Oral Histories at the ALA Archives”

A Short History of ALA Headquarters

ALA Headquarters office in the Chicago Public Library, 1918.

Last summer, the American Library Association moved from its long-lived location at 50 E. Huron Street in Chicago to its new location off Michigan Ave. This office were the longest held headquarters that ALA had, it was by no means the first nor was Chicago ALA’s original location. ALA’s history is filled with debates about locations and new homes.

According to Virgil F. Massman, the Association had several temporary homes in its early years, with the saying being that the Association was in Melvil Dewey’s desk drawer or wherever the ALA Secretary hung up their hat. In reality, ALA established headquarter offices at 32 Hawley Street in Boston in 1879, which were maintained by Melvil Dewey. (1) Continue reading “A Short History of ALA Headquarters”

Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship

Blog post by Lauren Quinlan

Librarianship is a field that has long been dominated by women. According to a fact sheet published by the Department for Professional Employees, women compromise 81% of enrollment in graduate library science programs, 82.8% of all librarians, and 75.9% of all library workers [8]. However, this dominance in terms of numbers has historically not translated to true equity in other dimensions.

Conference attendees at the COSWL exhibit tables at the 1980 Annual Conference in New York (Record Series 81/2/10, Box 4)

According to a 1967 study of academic librarians, median salary differences between male and female librarians tend to widen as experience in the field increases – even when levels of education between the two groups are equal [4]. This study emerged at a time when roughly four out of five librarians in the United States were female, and the discipline of librarianship was gaining legitimacy, with some concerned that “librarianship cannot upgrade itself without upgrading opportunities for women… Nor should it expect to gain the public esteem that it seeks by tactically endorsing inequality of opportunity, and furthering, by its own inaction, the all-too-familiar image of librarianship as a passive, unchallenging, and low-paid profession” [4]. Continue reading “Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship”

Social Gatherings of Times Past: Century 21 Exposition (Seattle, 1962)

It doesn’t seem too long ago that gathering in large groups was a normal part of life, but the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the world has made such gatherings feel like a distant memory. In the absence of any significant social gatherings in the near future, take a tour through one from the past – the Century 21 Exposition, also known as the Seattle World’s Fair, which over the course of its run attracted over 10 million people from all over the world to its many exhibits. One such exhibit was sponsored by the American Library Association, who showcased the importance of libraries to a world yearning for innovation.

Fair map from 1959 promotional booklet (Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives)

Continue reading “Social Gatherings of Times Past: Century 21 Exposition (Seattle, 1962)”

“Librarians Are More Freedom Fighters Than Shushers”: Carla Hayden

Carla Hayden, 2003 (Record Series 13/6/15, Box 4)

In a career that spans state and government agencies, Carla Hayden has always fought for the people who need library resources the most and championed their right to have equal access to these resources, free of any government intervention. In a June 2003 news release announcing Hayden’s tenure as ALA President, Hayden stated that, “Equity of access is not only one of the basic tenets of our profession but it encompasses all of our basic and pressing contemporary concerns as well. We need to recommit ourselves to the ideal of providing equal access to everyone, anywhere, anytime and in any format, particularly those groups who are already underserved.” [1] Continue reading ““Librarians Are More Freedom Fighters Than Shushers”: Carla Hayden”

Traveling Libraries: The Library Extension Board and Rural Library Service

Children listening to a story from Mrs. Rosetta Martin from the Boston Public Library bookmobile. 1961. Found in RS 18/1/57 Box 5.

The ALA Archives has an exhibit up this month up in the Marshall Gallery at the University of Illinois Library. Traveling Libraries: The Library Extension Board and Rural Library Service explores the varied history of the Library Extension Board and library extension services in the United States. You can see of preview of the exhibit content here, but be sure to stop by the Marshall Gallery June 1-30 to view the exhibit. You can also visit the American Library Association Archives to find more materials from the Library Extension Board. Continue reading “Traveling Libraries: The Library Extension Board and Rural Library Service”

50 Years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards

Glyndon Greer giving a speech at the Coretta Scott King Award breakfast in 1974.

2019 marks the 50 year anniversary of the founding of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. This book award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood. The award is given out every year to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.(1)

It was founded by librarians Glyndon Flynt Greer and Mable McKissick, and publisher John Carroll during the 1969 American Library Association Annual Conference in Atlantic City. According to McKissick, “We [her and Greer] met at the booth of John Carroll. Since it was the day before the Newbery/Caldecott awards, the discussion turned to Black authors …”(2) and their lack of representation. It is reported that Carroll overhead the conversation and asked, “Then why don’t you ladies establish your own award?”(3) Continue reading “50 Years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards”

Out of the Closet & Onto the Shelves: Librarians and the Oldest Gay Professional Organization in the U.S.

June is pride month, which means that our exhibit Out of the Closet & Onto the Shelves: Librarians and the Oldest Gay Professional Organization in the U.S. is up in the Marshall Gallery at the University of Illinois Library. This exhibit documents the early history and development of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association. This organization has a rich history documented in the archives, and we are excited to display these materials to library patrons this month. However, we couldn’t fit everything in the exhibit and we know that not everyone can make it to campus, so here we will share some highlights of GLBT Round Table history. Be sure to stop by the Marshall Gallery June 1-30 to view the exhibit, and visit the American Library Association Archives to see more of this exciting collection. Continue reading “Out of the Closet & Onto the Shelves: Librarians and the Oldest Gay Professional Organization in the U.S.”