“Cleanse the Library by Fire”: Early L.A. Librarian Faced Down Censors

July 20, 2017
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Tessa KelsoLast week, the California Library Association announced its 2017 inductees into the state’s Library Hall of Fame. Among them is Tessa Kelso, who served as head librarian of Los Angeles Public Library for only a few years in the 1890s but left an indelible mark on the city and the profession as an intellectual freedom pioneer, defending her collection from moralists who wanted to “cleanse the library by fire.”

Kelso’s battles with the book burners and the belittlers of her profession were chronicled last week by Robert Fernandez at the blog of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Drawing largely on contemporary reports from the Los Angeles Herald, Kelso’s main public adversary, Fernandez illustrates how the newspaper’s attacks on the library progressed from allegations of wasted funds to dire warnings that the “indescribably filthy” books on the shelves would lead young people to rack and ruin.

Kelso was hired as LAPL’s sixth head librarian in 1889, when the population of Los Angeles was only about 50,000. According to Fernandez, she brought numerous innovations to the system, as “the library adopted the Dewey Decimal System, abandoned membership fees, and began a formal training program for library workers.”

The first mention of Kelso in the Herald on January 21, 1893 was quite favorable, with the newspaper touting the library under her leadership as “second to none in the state, even excepting that of San Francisco” which was then California’s main metropolis at about 300,000 people. Something changed by the end of that same year, however, with a December 13 Herald article labeling Kelso “the expensive appendage of an expensive institution” after she successfully sued the city to reimburse her $200 travel costs for the ALA conference and the World Congress of Librarians in Chicago.

Seven months later in July 1894, the Herald’s drumbeat against supposed waste in the library continued. In an assessment that will be sadly familiar to many librarians today, the reporters could not imagine that library workers did anything beyond checking in and checking out books. Therefore, they concluded that the two employees most visible to the public–those who oversaw the Reference room and the main reading room–must be doing most of the work while “too many high-salaried drones…sit in private offices.”

This was far from the truth, of course; in addition to circulation, Kelso’s staff behind the scenes would have been handling tasks like ordering, processing, repairing, binding, and cataloging books and other materials. In the days before computerized catalogs or widespread use of typewriters, this last undertaking was particularly time-consuming as it required meticulously handwritten catalog cards for every item. Nevertheless, the Herald simply divided the monthly circulation by the number of workers and concluded that “the force of young lady employees could be reduced one-half…provided the high-salaried people on [library board chairman] Mr. Dobinson’s staff dropped into the public workroom and buckled down to work like some of the poorly paid girls.”

Less than a month later, the Herald’s ire turned from LAPL’s staff to its collections. Under the headline “An Indescribable Revelation,” the reporters announced that the library held “novels of such indescribable atrocity that human nature itself is violated.” Their particular target in this case was Le Cadet (The Younger Brother) by Jean Richepin, which the library held only in the original French. Although Richepin was eventually admitted to the Académie Française, placing him among the “immortals” of French literature, Le Cadet is not one of his best-remembered works. Fernandez provides a summary of the plot:

It follows Amable Randolin, the younger brother of the title, back to his old homestead, inherited by his older brother Désiré. Amable covets the land and seeks to supplant his brother, first by having an affair with Désiré’s wife — who bears Amable a child which soon dies — and then by murdering him. Désiré’s wife is off to a convent while Amable dies in a metaphor which is a bit too on the nose, his naked body found in an ecstatic embrace with the land he so lusted after.

The delicate flowers at the Herald claimed that “we have confined our inspection of the details to a very small portion of the work,” but said this cursory skimming was sufficient to conclude that “this awful book would be thrown with indignation out of the house of the most infamous maison de joie [brothel] in the world.” Moreover, they added defensively that “we do not claim to be a spring chicken or an exceptional moralist.”

In light of its indescribable revelation, the Herald formulated a theory whereby government censorship is surely bad, but censorship in public libraries doesn’t really count. Or, as they put it:

Such censorship has no reference to the suppression of thought or subjection of the mind, but has entire relation to the protection of ingenuous youth, on the one hand, and to the unequivocal rebuke, on the other, to salacious and corrupting writers.

Granted, LAPL’s selection and defense of popular contemporary literature actually was somewhat unusual for the time, when many libraries still aimed solely to edify the masses rather than entertain them. The Herald, for its part, was clearly of the former mindset:

The idea that a young woman or a young man of Los Angeles, or an old woman or an old man of this or any other city, or any intermediate person, as to age or sex…should wander into a public library, maintained for the purposes of instruction and benefit to the masses of both sexes, and get possession of such a work, is enough to petrify any well-wisher of his kind! It is appalling. Rather than have such an infamy possible in the city of Los Angeles it would be a mercy to the young, the mature and the old alike, to have the city blotted out by fire, and rebuilt on wholesome principles.

Lest our readers think that this viewpoint was universally accepted even in those days, however, consider the virtual mirror image of the above passage written by another California newspaperman–Mark Twain:

When a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.

In fact the racier bits of the Bible were invoked by LAPL director F.H. Howard in an indignant letter responding to the Herald’s call for censorship. (Yes, head librarian Tessa Kelso apparently answered to both board chairman Dobinson and director Howard.) Would the journalists also be on board with banning the holy book, or authors like Fielding, Rousseau, or Voltaire? Their response ignored the biblical query, but amazingly took the bait on the rest:

The books in question are classics, and as such have a place in literature and a value to scholars, but there can be no question that to the youth of either sex Fielding, Rousseau or Voltaire would be most pernicious, and that the issuance of such books from a public library should be surrounded with all possible safeguards.

Howard’s letter also addressed how Le Cadet came to be in the library: in response to “great demand for French fiction,” the board had authorized a bulk order of such from a San Francisco supplier. Pointing out that it would be impossible for staff to read every book before purchase, he said “it is inevitable that an objectionable book should from time to time creep into a library.” He apparently refrained from critiquing the scenario envisioned by the Herald: hordes of Angeleno youngsters with a sufficient command of French to read the novel, but a corresponding capacity to be shocked by the content.

One week later the Herald was back on its hobbyhorse, reprinting in their entirety two sermons from local pastors on the dangers of reading certain books. In his declamation “The Evils of Vile Books,” the Rev. J.W. Campbell of First Methodist Church said that a sudden surge in popularity of Le Cadet since it was first described in the Herald only proved that the community needed to be protected from itself:

We are told that since the publication and condemnation on the part of the Herald began the demand for the book has been enormous. What does that teach if it be true? We have but one answer, and that is that our libraries should be under the care of the most vigilant and careful superintendancy. If the demand of the public, or a fraction of the public, is of so depraved a nature after being duly warned of the vicious contents of certain books and is so bold and unblushing, how much greater the necessity that our city library should be clean and should possess only such literature as is conducive to the good of the reader.

Campbell also devoted a fair amount of space to a supposed scourge of “superficial reading” and “flippant fiction” such as dime novels–of which Le Cadet certainly was not an example. With their colorful covers, sensational interior illustrations, and improbable stories of heroism, adventure and shocking crime, however, they were direct predecessors to the comics medium. As in the 1950s anti-comics crusade, Campbell reserved a particular outrage for the crime genre:

The most dangerous books are those that gloss over impurity and crime and cover it with a mantle of hypocritical attractiveness. How many princely youths have been ruined by questionable books?

(It is more than a little ironic that a scant 15 years later–still well before crime comics came into existence–the Herald itself changed gears and cornered the L.A. market in coverage of “scandal, crime, and the emerging Hollywood scene.”)

Even more strikingly, Campbell anticipated Fredric Wertham’s claims that “bad books” could lead directly to youth violence. He cited a jailhouse conversation between 14-year-old serial killer Jesse Pomeroy and publisher James T. Fields, who visited the “boy fiend” on a research expedition to investigate the positive or negative influence of literature on young minds. Here is the version of the conversation reported by Campbell:

“What do you read?” said the late James T. Field [sic] to the boy fiend, Jesse Pomeroy. “Mostly one kind,” was the reply; “mostly dime novels.” “And what is the best book you have read?” “Well,” he replied, “I like Buffalo Bill the best; it is full of murders and pictures about murders.” “And how do you feel after reading it?” “Oh, I feel as if I wanted to go and do the same.”

In fact, this version of the conversation comes secondhand from a manual for boys called Kent’s New Commentary, where it was abridged, simplified, and downright Werthamized. Even though Fields himself did firmly believe that dime novels drove Pomeroy to murder, their exchange as originally reported in his biography was not nearly so conclusive. All of this was likely a moot point as regards library collections in any case: whereas it was unusual for a library of the day to stock a popular novel like Le Cadet, dime novels would have been downright unthinkable.

Nevertheless, Campbell enthusiastically embraced the Herald’s suggestion that “a public bonfire should be instituted to rid the library of all books of a questionable character.” He even cited a biblical model that he claimed would justify this purge, namely Acts 19:18-20 when the Apostle Paul converts former pagans in Ephesus so definitively that they bring out their books of magic and burn them without regard for cost. In fact, this passage is invoked not only in Campbell’s sermon but also in the subsequent one (“Cute Ways of the Devil”) by Rev. Will A. Knighten, both claiming that the books (or scrolls, rather) were library books even though no such indication is given in the verse. (Not to mention that there was no such animal as a municipal public library in biblical times; libraries like the celebrated one at Alexandria were open only to scholars.)

Campbell’s sermon–and an accompanying prayer for Kelso’s soul which was only reported later by the Herald–was apparently the last straw for the librarian. That same week she filed suit against him for slander, saying that he had implied she “was by reason of moral delinquencies unworthy of [her] office.” This was a particularly injurious allegation, she added, because as head librarian she was responsible for leading “a large number of young female subordinates” and thus needed to be above reproach. Several months later she was vindicated by the court, which found that Campbell was not entitled to a religious exemption from defamation laws as he had claimed.

Despite this victory, Kelso had apparently had enough of the constant battles. In 1895, the same year she won the defamation case, she submitted her resignation and headed east to work in publishing where she would finish out her career. Although her time leading LAPL was relatively brief, her tenacity and innovation in the field mean that her new place in the CLA’s Library Hall of Fame is well-earned. Check out the OIF blog post by Fernandez here!

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.