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The Library's Early Years: Female Employees


During 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.

Things 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.

Women 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.

By 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.

The 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

The first women to hold permanent positions at the library were also hired in 1883. Helen Sperry and Mary C. Langdon were initially hired to help with the cataloguing of the library’s books, preparing the cards and a finding-list publication on the library’s typewriter, and stayed on as librarian assistants. Sperry would dedicate much of her life to the Silas Bronson Library, becoming the library's first female Head Librarian in 1902.

Two 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 marriage.

Alice 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.

Jennie 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.

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