Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
“Now I can catch up with my reading!”
So does Miss Althea Warren—surrounded by 1,811,000 books—regard her retirement next Wednesday as city librarian of Los Angeles. She, as 13th librarian dating back in a series to 1872, will be replaced by Harold Louis Hamill, 39, of Kansas City.
Looking back over her 14 years as head of the Los Angeles system with its 40 branches, Miss Warren sketched the different trends in the public’s reading and chuckled over some of the traits of early librarians.
Althea Warren became city librarian in 1933 upon the death of Everett Robbins Perry, having joined the Los Angeles library system in 1926 after heading San Diego’s library. Within a year, Los Angeles led the nation in book circulation, although it was sixth in U.S. population. The city also ranked second in the nation, led by Cleveland, in per-capita circulation, with every person reading an average of 10.7 books annually.
A lifelong lover of books, Warren entered the profession undeterred by an uncle who told her: “A librarian leads a terrible life. She has to wear plain dresses and flat heels and the salary is ridiculous.” She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1908 and earned her library degree from the University of Wisconsin.
Warren was not only an advocate for books and reading, she was also an advocate for librarians, winning higher salaries and recruiting promising scholars to the profession, including UCLA Librarian Lawrence Clark Powell, who was an itinerant book salesman when Warren persuaded him to enter the field.
“Miss Warren was herself so lively, bookish and so persuasive that I quit my job, borrowed money, and went back to school to add a library credential to my other degrees, which were proving useless,” Powell said.
Warren said of her years at the library: “The trend in reading has been a mirror of national thought during my time here. In the late ’20s, everything was cultural and recreational and a questioning of all things established. Hemingway was the high priest. In the Depression ’30s reading reached an all-time high—our circulation zoomed to 13,000,000 a year compared with 7,700,000 now—and social and economic books were the favorites. Steinbeck replaced Hemingway. In the late ’30s, with the war coming on, people became too busy to read and our service was largely to factories and airplane plants with technical material.”
And she stressed serving the public, always a challenge in a public library.
“Miss Warren gave as three examples of perfect courtesy, royalty, diplomats and actors. If librarians cannot always feel royal or diplomatic at the end of an eight-hour day, they can at least be good actors, she concluded.”
Althea Warren, who is the subject of several biographies, died in 1958. Her favorite book was Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh.”