Welcome to Women’s History Month! Let’s kick it off with some library nerdy goodness. 

One of the things that seems obvious to all modern librarians and modern library users is that children belong in libraries, as do books written specifically for children. That’s a huge part of what libraries do: a huge part of the collections, a huge part of the circulation, a huge part of programming. In fact, children who are learning to read need to consume books at such an alarming rate that relying exclusively on books purchased for individual children is completely impractical for most families. If we want kids to get practice reading, it seems obvious they need access to lots (and lots and lots) of books. Books that interest them, books about things they care about. All obvious, right? Just like Ranganathan’s Laws seem obvious NOW. But there was a time when children weren’t allowed in libraries; when it was thought they couldn’t be responsible for library materials; when their presence was considered a disruption to library operations; and when even their need to be able to learn to read was questioned (learning to read was considered especially unimportant for girls). Even putting aside the classism and sexism at play, objectively, this was a problem that needed to be solved. It was solved in large part by a woman named Anne Carroll Moore. Anne Carroll Moore is a polarizing figure, and you can find articles that elegize her and ones that ridicule her. The cool thing about her is that a woman who came of age in a world where she couldn’t VOTE was able to make enough of a difference as a librarian to be remembered in not one, but two different ways. 

First, the elegy: One of the things Anne Carroll Moore is best known for is being the first children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. You can read more about her groundbreaking work in the picture book Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough. Anne Carroll Moore argued that libraries shouldn’t be silent, that children should be able to check out books, that they should be places with things like chairs that were the right size for small bodies, and that storytimes were an important part of library services. This was all revolutionary stuff in the early 1900s. Libraries will never be the same. She came up with the “Four Respects” that she identified as being core to children’s librarianship: 

  1. Respect for children.  
  1. Respect for children’s books.  
  1. Respect for fellow workers.  
  1. Respect for the professional standing of children’s librarians.  

The first two are obvious to most patrons, but the second two are more internal and worthy of comment.  From time to time, in some institutions, children’s librarians’ skills and experience are seen as being less than and somehow “silly” compared to what other library workers do. While this librarian will readily admit that she definitely has had days where she had to ask colleagues where zebra’s purple flannel underpants disappeared to while preparing for storytime, what children’s librarians do is important even when it creates stories that involve phrases like “zebra’s purple flannel underpants.” Yes, in children’s librarianship, zebras need underpants. Because: Reasons. Seriously, books about underpants are amazing because kids think they are simply howlingly funny… and activities that kiddos think are howlingly funny tend to be activities they want to do more of. So: zebras need underpants to cultivate a love of reading in children. QED. Boom. To be clear, even when zebras wearing underpants are involved, reading books out loud to children well is very much something that takes skill and practice. It looks easy, but I’ve seen enough bad storytimes to be able to tell you that “bad storytime” is very much a thing that can happen. Good storytimes look easy, but are not easy to learn how to do. All of this is why Anne Carroll Moore is a hero.   

She was also a villain though: the other things Anne Carroll Moore is best known for is absolutely HATING the books Goodnight Moon and Stuart Little. Like, really actively disliking them. In the case of Margaret Wise Brown, she actually seemed to have something of a personal vendetta. You can read more about this in the picture book The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown. In the case of E.B. White, they seem to have been able to maintain a friendship in spite of her disregard for his children’s work. This may be because during Ms. Moore’s lifetime E.B. White was better known for his involvement with The New Yorker and was therefore very much a member of New York’s literati than as the icon of children’s literature he’s remembered as today. Basically, one could contend, Ms. Moore couldn’t afford to burn the bridge that was E.B. White. Margaret Wise Brown, on the other hand, was only a writer of picture books… and not the writer of ONE OF THE MOST ICONIC PICTURE BOOKS OF ALL TIME (NO THANKS TO YOU, MS. MOORE) that she is today. You can read more about the Stuart Little fiasco, or check out the book The Mansion of Happiness, in which the article is collected. Come to think of it, Ms. Moore might not have appreciated the whole “zebra missing his underpants” scenario, supra, either. She had IDEAS about anthropomorphized animals, did Anne Carroll Moore. She had a stamp she would use on books she disliked, it said: “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PURCHASE BY EXPERT.” Anne Carroll Moore was the expert. She did not like books that fell outside her narrow view of appropriate children’s literature. In this way, she became known as being a wielder of unilateral power in children’s publishing. Even with all that power, you can see how effective her methods were against the juggernaut of the anthropomorphized animal genre in children’s literature! (Click here for books mentioned in this post as well as more examples of books with anthropomorphized animals as proof.) 

I really like the idea that one person can live a big enough life that they can be both hero and villain. None of us, after all, is just one thing. I think appreciating Ms. Moore in all her complexity is important. She left us robust children’s librarianship and taught us about the perils and futility of gatekeeping literature.