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Who Was Tessa Kelso? A Feminist History of the Librarian Pioneer

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

In 1889, a young female journalist from Ohio with a short-cut hair and a cigarette usually close at hand became the sixth city librarian for Los Angeles. She had next to no experience. Her exposure to the library world was limited to covering an American Library Association (ALA) conference, and you would have thought that would have hurt her chances in the interview with the library board.

But she told them she could hire people for the technical stuff. What she had was leadership and a vision. They were so sold on it that she got the job.

Tessa Kelso would only be Los Angeles city librarian for six years, but the changes she made were gigantic. Even eight months into her tenure, the board of governors of the library were sending praise to Kelso and her co-worker and right-hand-woman Adelaide Hasse. Under their tenure, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) collection grew seven times bigger and circulation went from 12,000 to 330,000. The changes LAPL made under Kelso would attract national attention and were at the forefront of what libraries would move towards in the future.

Kelso is one of those vivid, feminist histories that I had never read and wish I’d known. So I did the research and the reading so that you too can know why she’s an icon that all readers and librarians should be grateful for.

Opening the Libraries to the Public

Kelso wanted the library to be accessible to the public in every way she could. One early change was to adopt the Dewey Decimal System in order to stop hiding books behind the complicated catalog systems of the past and give the public the capability to track down books on their own side of the shelves. 

Kelso abolished membership fees and argued for stacks to be open and available to the public, both ideas that were truly radical at the time. 

At the ALA conference in 1893, when a debate about who should be able to use reference books came up, she said, “I would rather that such a man should steal the dictionary outright than that he should fail to get the service he requires from the library.” She was a true pioneer in terms of how she thought about libraries and what they should be and do for society.

Kelso also envisioned a library as a cultural and informational center, a radical proposition that foresaw the way that we see the role of public libraries today. She established a local history collection, an art department, and a music collection. 

Kelso created a system of delivery stations to keep up with increasing demand, expanded weekend hours, and made newspapers and magazines available for readers to check out and bring home with them — which is part of what made LAPL both the largest in per capita circulation in the country and the second cheapest in cost. She wanted the library to be a place of the arts, of unbiased information and data, and of programming for children — including active support for and equipment for athletic endeavors, to keep children active.

She also established a systematic training system for library employees that would be the first of its kind.

Gender Nonsense

In terms of gender roles, she was vocal and bold. Just in her appearance and the way she carried herself, Kelso was a walking rebellion for the time. She smoked openly. Her hair was cut short, and she never wore a hat. She was loud and never hesitated to share her opinion — loudly.

She fought for women’s rights in local clubs and civic associations, and fought against a proposed ALA “women’s section” that would divide books into a separate section meant solely for women. Part of the reason she fought against separate adult and children’s sections was because she didn’t want to encourage the then-common issue of women librarians being shunted into children’s sections, “feminizing” the career path by shoving them into a “mothering” role. She was determined that women should have equal rights.

While it is unclear and cannot be proven what her identity may have been in today’s terminology, Kelso and Hasse had an egalitarian working and personal relationship, and shared a life at home together. Hasse, who was also a champion women’s bicycle rider in L.A., was more on the side of organizing the library. Kelso and Hasse moved in together in 1892, traveled together, and would later move to New York together.

This is an important part of the history not only to highlight Kelso’s world and life, but also because as the LAPL experienced success with its new, progressive movement, more attention came with it, from the press and from conservatives in government. As the person in charge of these changes, Kelso’s life and figure as a bold, independent, non-conformist woman would also come under scrutiny.

A Banned Book and Free Speech Controversy

After the Depression of 1893, it was difficult to maintain the library’s finances. Kelso had been preapproved to go to Chicago for the ALA conference, the World Congress of Librarians conference, and the World’s Fair, but when she applied for reimbursement of her $200 (about $6,750 today), the City Auditor refused. 

When she made a justifiable stink about the money owed, the local press leapt on the story, and some newspapers lampooned the city government for spending so much money on unnecessary things and frivolous library expenditures. The library became a target, and conservatives in the government took notice.

At the same moment, someone noticed that a few scandalous French books — particularly Le Cadet by Jean Richepin — had been added to the LAPL collection. The books had been added nearly a year earlier, but the Los Angeles Examiner and religious figures began to question the morals of the library and its bold female leader. (Kelso argued that not only was the decision not directly her own, but also she didn’t read French, and so was unable to decide whether or not the book should be censored.)

Then one Sunday, Reverend J.W. Campbell led a prayer at the First Methodist Episcopal Church: “Oh lord vouchsafe thy saving grace to the librarian of the Los Angeles City Library and cleanse her of all sin and make her a woman worthy of her office.”

This drew the attention of many religious figures who believed that certain scandalous books should be burned, and it made an absolute storm in the press. Kelso decided she was no longer playing around. She sued Campbell for $5,000 in damages (nearly $169,000 today) for slander, arguing that her moral character was a key qualification for being city librarian, making his questioning of her morality an issue of defamation. 

Campbell argued that prayer was exempt from this type of litigation because “none should object to being prayed for.” The case started receiving national attention as a First Amendment question — on one side, a proposal to ban a book from the library’s collection, and on the other, the argument that prayer was privileged speech and could not be part of litigation.

Despite hot emotions and passionate diatribes, Kelso stayed calm throughout the process. In March 1895, Kelso officially won out when the church settled and paid her legal fees. The argument that “prayer” was privileged speech was officially rejected by the court.

Still, the press storm had taken its toll. After the election of 1894, a new Republican mayor was in power, and he had read about the spending of the library and Kelso’s bold ideas. He ousted many people who had supported the library under Kelso, and the new Library Board put her and Hasse on probation. When they turned in their resignations in protest, the board asked them to reconsider and lifted the probation — only to try and reduce their salaries a few months later. This time, Kelso and Hasse resigned for good.

After resigning, Kelso had nothing lined up. She followed Hasse, who snapped up new employment with the New York Public Library, to New York City. Kelso worked for Scribner’s Publishing and later in the library department of Baker and Taylor.

Taking Down Dewey

Melvil Dewey may have created the Dewey Decimal System, founded the American Library Association, and advocated for women to be permitted into the librarian vocation…but he was anything but progressive. Among other things, Dewey had a wild history of sexual harassment. He harassed his assistants Florence Woodworth and May Seymour for years, and harassed many other women — including Hasse herself, who he lured up to Albany with promises of talking about a big new project she was working on.

Hasse would never speak of it publicly, but it feels safe to say that Kelso knew of his history, which seemed to have been an open secret. She was still active in the ALA, and still close with Hasse, so she was witness to much of the impact of his bad behavior. In 1905, Dewey went on a cruise to Alaska that included a big group from the ALA, and no fewer than four women came forward accusing him of harassment afterward. A movement rose to censure Dewey at the 1906 ALA conference, and it was successful. Dewey, the organization’s founder and first member, was ousted and shut out from the group for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, as we all know, canceling isn’t always enough. Dewey was still doing fine with the New York Library Association, and in 1924, he offered to host their annual Library Week at his own home.

Kelso wasn’t having it. She went straight to the NYLA board and told them that if there wasn’t an investigation, she would take the story of his harassment to the press. In a long hearing, they uncovered not only the already open secret of his harassment of women who worked for him or who were just in the industry but also that he had harassed his own daughter-in-law for years. The NYLA, cowed by the thought of the bad publicity they could face, declined Dewey’s offer, and did their best to cut ties altogether. 

About the decision, Dewey wrote (all spelling errors his own): “It is really pathetic when an unbalanst smoking drinking caracter can stampede a lot of sensible people.”

Legacy

Kelso returned to California not long after and passed away on August 13, 1933, in Santa Barbara. 

Memorials for her abound in the librarian world. After her death, the Santa Barbara Public Library created a memorial collection of books that belonged to her. The online resource that gives the public access to rare and historical collections from Los Angeles Public Library is named TESSA, after her. In 2017, she was named to the California Library Hall of Fame as “an early director of the Los Angeles Public Library and one of the profession’s most progressive and influential pioneers.”

Kelso took on the entire library world with her pioneering ideas about what public libraries should be, and was willing to do whatever she needed to do to keep libraries and the librarian profession equal and accessible for all. She’s a true librarian pioneer, and I’m glad to now know her story.


Sources: “Tessa Kelso: Library Hall of Famer” by James Sherman (LAPL Blog, 2019) and “Tessa Kelso: Sinful City Librarian” by James Sherman (LAPL Blog, 2014); “Our Namesake: Tessa Kelso”; “Tessa Kelso: Unfinished Hero of Library Herstory” by Evelyn Geller (American Library Association, accessed via JStor); and “Tessa L. Kelso: A “New Woman” of Progressive Era Los Angeles” by Diane Christine Kavadas (accessed via ProQuest).

For more on librarian history, dive into my story about the Tougaloo Nine and their 1961 read-in that helped in the fight to desegregate public libraries, or read Anna Gooding-Call’s breakdown of the classism, sexual misconduct, and racism of Melvil Dewey.