the first decade or so of the Silas Bronson Library’s history, all of the employees
were men. This was true at most libraries. For most of the 1800s, middle class
women were expected to stay at home, caring for their families and assisting
their husbands or fathers in their careers. Poorer women had no choice but to
work outside the home, typically as a domestic servant living in the household
of their employer with only one partial day off per week.
began to change quickly during the 1870s. Unskilled work for women was widely
available in the factories, and career opportunities for skilled workers began
opening up for women. By the end of the century, women outnumbered men working
as typists and stenographers, as well as nurses and teachers.
began working in libraries in large numbers during the 1870s. In 1877, the
Boston Public Library reported in The
Library Journal that two-thirds of its librarians were women and praised
them for their ability to “soften our atmosphere, they lighten our labour, they
are equal to our work, and for the money they cost…they are infinitely better
than equivalent salaries will produce of [men].” Salaries were notoriously low
for all librarians, men and women. William F. Poole, who had helped created the
Silas Bronson Library’s first collection and later ran the Chicago Public
Library, was a firm believer in women’s ability to do library work just as well
as any man, and argued that they should be paid the same as men.
1888, the only men working at the Silas Bronson Library appear to have been
Homer F. Bassett, the Head Librarian, and the janitor, Walter Lawson, who later
left to become a wood carver at Waterbury Clock Company. The first woman to
join the library’s Board of Agents, the governing body for the library, was
Alice E. Kingsbury in 1924. For the first half of the 20th century,
the library staff was mostly women and the library board was mostly men.
first women known to have worked at the Silas Bronson Library were Emma
Angeanett Otis and Ellen Frances “Nellie” Knowles in 1883. Both were temporary
hires, experts in the field of cataloguing, brought in from the Boston
Athenaeum Library to supervise the creation of a catalogue for the Silas
Bronson Library. Otis supervised the creation of an index of the library’s
fiction collection—a 74-page book listing every title in the library’s
collection. Knowles oversaw the creation of Waterbury’s first card catalogue.
At the Boston Library, Otis and Knowles had assisted Charles Ammi Cutter,
inventor of a system of classification which laid the groundwork for the
Library of Congress classification system. The Silas Bronson Library used
Cutter’s system for their card catalogue, and Melvil Dewey’s system for
arranging the books on the shelves.
Page 3 of the Silas Bronson Library catalogue, 1870
first women to hold permanent positions at the library were also hired
Helen Sperry and Mary C. Langdon were initially hired to help with the
cataloguing of the library’s books, preparing the cards and a
publication on the library’s typewriter, and stayed on as librarian
Sperry would dedicate much of her life to the Silas Bronson Library,
becoming the library's first female Head Librarian in 1902.
more women, Cora Laird and Nellie Shanahan, were hired in 1884 as assistants.
Shanahan also worked briefly as a “janitress” (female janitor) for the library.
Laird worked at the library from 1884 until about a year before her death in
1903. She was 19 when she started at the library, the daughter of Waterbury’s
police chief, William Laird, and Maria (Peck) Laird. She married Dayton Lasher
in 1895, but was still frequently referred to by her maiden name, perhaps
because she had been working at the library for ten years prior to her
May Gibby was hired in 1887, at the age of 19 or 20. She was tasked with the
tedious job of removing old numbers from the spines of books and writing new
numbers in their place. It took a little over a year to complete the job, after
which she moved to Brooklyn, NY for several years. She returned to the Silas
Bronson in 1893 as a library assistant, eventually becoming the Chief of the
Loan Department (circulation). Gibby married late in life, when she was in her
early 50s, and retired from her work at the library at that time.
P. Peck was hired as a cataloger in 1895 and was the editor of the library’s
monthly Bulletin. During the early 1900s, she was the Treasurer of the
Connecticut Library Association. Peck worked at the library until 1907.