As the Los Angeles Public Library celebrates Women’s History Month, it’s appropriate to remember Tessa Kelso, sixth city librarian for Los Angeles (1889-1895). Kelso may not have been the first female city librarian—that was the iron-willed teenager Mary Foy—but she was certainly the one most openly concerned with equal rights for women and least concerned with conventional practice in either libraries or society.
Noting privately that Kelso was the “best man ever to hold the job” of City Librarian, Charles Lummis publicly described Kelso as, “a woman of extraordinary business ability, quenchless energy, and a great executive force—in touch with the young science of libraries, she gave the institution a character and impetus which brought it into national prominence.” She needed all that plus persistence to do all that was necessary to help the fledgling Los Angeles Public Library soar into national prominence.
Tessa Kelso was a career journalist in her native Ohio prior to striking out solo for California. She was a long-time supporter of libraries and became intrigued with the profession after covering the 1886 American Library Association (ALA) convention in Milwaukee for the Cincinnati Illustrated News, during which she joined the ALA.
In her job interview with the Los Angeles Library Board, Kelso dismissed her lack of experience, averring that she could hire people who had experience with the technical aspects of library work. She told the Board that, just as an editor of a newspaper didn’t have to know how to typeset, that as director, she didn’t have to know how to catalog. (Kelso was consistently somewhat dismissive of cataloging). The Board was looking for a businesslike executive to do the big things that they wanted doing, and Tessa was speaking their language, and so she was hired. Then she proceeded to walk the walk.
In her first year as head of the library, with the assistance of Adelaide Hasse, Kelso oversaw the tremendous move to more spacious digs in City Hall. By the time she left six years later, she had transformed the Los Angeles Public Library into a true metropolitan library. During her term, the library collection had grown sevenfold, and circulation soared from 12,000 to 330,000. She adopted the Dewey Decimal System. She inaugurated a system of ‘delivery stations’ to keep up with the rapid growth of the Los Angeles population, from 11,183 in 1880 to 102,479 in 1900.
Kelso was committed to effective and efficient library services. Under her tutelage, the Los Angeles Public Library became known nationwide as “a progressive force and a pioneer in devising new means of serving its constituents.” Against the conventional wisdom, Kelso was an active proponent of making the library’s collections accessible to the public. She abolished membership fees and agitated for open stacks, at a time when both of these now-common ideas were radical. She expanded weekend hours and made current periodicals available for check-out.
In his book on Los Angeles City Librarians, Historian John D. Bruckman listed Kelso’s accomplishments—establishment of a local history collection, an art department, and the first public library music collection, including sheet music and operatic and orchestral scores, as well as the foundation of the first systematic training of any type for library employees.
Bruckman mentions also that Kelso helped develop a classification system for departmental documents, which later formed the basis of the present classification in use with the library of the Superintendent of Documents in Washington. Given her odd relationship with cataloging, it’s no surprise that her “helping development” was by having a good eye for talent, specifically hiring Adelaide Hasse, “Champion Fast Lady Bicycle Rider of Los Angeles,” to her first library job. Kelso encouraged Hasse, and they became fast lifelong friends, living together from 1892 until they both left Los Angeles. Kelso’s eye for talent, for hiring and cultivating librarians, perhaps reached its apogee with Hasse, whose classification system for documents at the Los Angeles Public Library began a career in documents that would lead her from bicycle hotshot to the creator of a documentation system that is still used today by the Government Printing Office and Federal Depository Library Program, where she helped implement it.
Kelso was interested in the profession as a whole and was an avid innovator for what libraries mean and are meant to do. She wrote an article that suggested that the library should move beyond the circulation of books and would have the public library become more actively “edited”, providing the public with “collated and unbiased data, and saved expensive individual experiments”, posting lists of pertinent cross subject information of “every coming dramatic or musical event” in order to provide a context with which to prepare for a deeper appreciation of the arts. And, as noted, Miss Kelso "goes so far as to suggest that by way of an antidote to trashy literature, public libraries should furnish the youth with tennis, croquet, football, base-ball (sic), indoor games, and magic lanterns, etc.” “Trashy literature” is apparently popular fiction, and in her opinion, physical exercise was obviously preferable.
Tessa Kelso was an early and vocal advocate of women’s rights and refused to hew to the time’s traditional gender roles. She wore her hair short—with no hat!—and smoked cigarettes “obviously not caring in the least for anyone’s opinion on the subject”, as Bruckman noted. She was quickly invited into the circle of “highminded” women of the clubs and civic associations of Los Angeles and taken under the wing of the formidable suffragist Caroline Severance and into the influential Friday Morning Club. Kelso was a strong believer in equal rights for women, protesting a proposed ALA women’s section, arguing that “sex should have no weight where ability is equal” and that “there is but one standard of management for a live business and sex has nothing to do with that standard.”
Kelso was very much concerned with gender roles in the library profession. This concern was an important reason for her insistence of NOT separating children’s services from the rest of the library. As a result, as late as 1894, it was library policy to prohibit the separation of children’s and adult collections in the stacks; Kelso opposed children’s service in order to challenge “ the basic structure of librarianship as a feminized profession” in which women could be limited in their personal and professional development by being placed in what she considered a “maternal role.”
She was a devotee of California local history and a member of the Southern California Historical Society, was one of the earliest historical preservationists, with an eye towards shoring up the crumbling Mission architectures by recruiting first her fellow clubwomen and then Charles Lummis, her fellow reporter and Buckeye, into the California Landmarks Club, beginning another lifetime friendship. She organized the Association for the Preservation of the Missions, “the first serious attempt to preserve the California Missions,” according to George Wharton James. To promote awareness, Kelso held “stereopticon exhibitions,” led trips to the missions, and exhibited mission photographs at the library.
While Kelso’s unconventionality and energy helped her accomplish great things, it also made her a galvanizing public figure. The Library Board were quite pleased with their decision: In their end-of-the-year report in 1889, after only eight months at the job, the Board of Governors noted the poor shape the library was in at the time of Tessa’s hire in April and by the end of the year she was receiving fulsome praise for her “ability and experience”(!) and “showed a capacity and intelligence which make her remarkably well suited for the important position she occupies.” Four years after the departure of Kelso and Hasse, they were remembered in one Reader’s Letter to the Los Angeles Times, which stated how the new era of the library was born with a board of “scholarly tastes and requirements” who were “enthusiastic and devoted to books” and who:
…found two young women, of no special knowledge of library affairs, but of quickness to learn and of untiring industry. Of these, Miss Kelso… was gifted with great executive ability: the other, Miss Hasse, possessed actual genius for the work. Each had what the other lacked, each was conscious of her own deficiencies, and they worked in absolute harmony. When they went into office they found about five thousand books indiscriminately shelved, and an institution whose chief value was that it was the excuse for appointing one more city officer. That board and these librarians held office six years. In that time…the disorder had given place to one of the most perfect systems known in the world.
However, the expansion of the library and its programs cost money, which was fine when L.A. was riding a real estate boom. Unfortunately just as Kelso was hitting her stride, the Panic of 1893 threw the whole country into the Depression of 1893. It was also the year that Kelso attended the American Library Association and the World Congress of Librarians conference, both in Chicago, and also visited the World’s Fair. Despite the fact that her trip was approved by the library board, the City Auditor refused to reimburse her $200 in expenses (more than $5000 in 2019 dollars). She was forced to sue.
The local press took up the story, with the Herald dismissing the trip as a waste, using Kelso as a symbol to attack the Library as a scapegoat for the profligate government. The Herald kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks on Kelso and the library into the next year, stirring up the resentment of those thrown out of work by the economic downturn. In one editorial in particular, the Herald dismissed the work and expertise of librarianship, portraying librarians as shelvers, “Certainly this labor cannot be very arduous and exacting, and more certainly it should not cost the taxpayers $1000 per month in salaries.” City government spending was rapidly becoming an issue in the upcoming 1894 city election. Demagogues were quick to take up austerity, and the library was an easy target.
Kelso, in general, expressed herself in a way that was “witty, vehement and to the point”, and most importantly, she did not back down. Kelso and the library were also quick to defend themselves against charges of immorality that were leveled over the discovery of an extremely bohemian book in the collection, Le Cadet by Jean Richepin. The contretemps over this book, which led to a local clergyman very publicly praying for the city librarian to be “cleansed of sin ”, was answered confidently by Kelso: Using an innovative approach to the slander charge, Miss Kelso averred that, as city librarian, she managed “a large number of young female subordinate employees” and that the library is “daily visited by hundreds of young ladies hence it is indispensable” that she should be a “person of unblemished moral character and any impeachment of her character would mean that she was not fit for her office and even occupation”. Therefore, an unblemished moral character is not just a qualification but a requirement of the office of city librarian, thus any “impeachment of her moral character is to impose a disqualification which her office and profession peculiarly require.”
The case received national attention as a test of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech—in this instance, speech of the religious variety—which had paradoxically stemmed from an attempt to have books removed from the library collection. Some members of the press and clergy used the opportunity to make much of Kelso’s refusal to separate children’s and adult collections, with Reverend John Gray, a fan of book-burning for dirty novels, noting that other cities had restrictions on what books could be checked out by children and so should Los Angeles.
Kelso was very shrewd to show that she would not be steamrolled and was quite comfortable taking people to court, where facts could be measured rationally and legally, outside the overheated court of opinion that was boiling over, leading up to the hotly contested election of 1894, which was further stoked by women demanding the right to vote (it would be on the ballot in 1896). Kelso represented a handy symbol of the “New Woman” for men who were not in favor of suffrage.
And in fact, the day that the suit first came to court (December 3, 1894) was election day, and a new Republican mayor, Frank Rader, soundly defeated the Democratic ticket. Rader replaced board members who had hired and supported Kelso. In March of 1895, Kelso won her lawsuit against the city auditor and in April the court rejected the clergyman’s demurrer that “prayer” was privileged speech, and therefore Kelso’s defamation. On the same day, the new library board met as the old board left, with fulsome praise for Kelso and Hasse which was seconded by an L.A. Times editorial. One of the new board members, Director Henry O’Melveny, nominated Kelso to stay on:
We find what some of us, perhaps, did not know before, that this library has developed into a great educational factor. There are thousands of people who are obtaining an education from this institution. I believe that the main credit for the satisfactory condition of the library today is due to Miss Kelso and Miss Hasse.
Kelso had freed the library from the patronage hiring system by establishing civil service rules. The new Library Board flouted them, despite praising Kelso and Hasse’s accomplishments, not in the least by requiring a sort of 90-day probation for Kelso and Hasse. Feeling that they had earned better treatment, Kelso and Hasse offered their resignations. Not being prepared to replace Kelso, the Board asked her to withdraw her resignation at the same meeting, recognizing her experience as well as their inability to find replacements immediately. She agreed, but it was to be a short-lived peace.
The false economies that had been such an issue were reintroduced when Library Board members led by Director Frank Flint insisted on reducing Kelso and Hasse’s salaries; their resubmitted resignations were accepted at the next meeting, on April 30, 1895, reported the L.A. Times:
The indefatigable Mr. Flint, who certainly bore a cord of wood on his shoulders in place of a figurative chip, rose to the occasion. Miss Kelso entrenched herself behind her spectacles and calmly awaited the onslaught, and the fur flew in wads until the director subsided, leaving the deposed librarian mistress of the field.
Such were the times that Library Board meetings proved so high strung that they could be presented as a sporting event! Having deposed Kelso, the new Board immediately asked for her help:
Before adjournment Director Stewart suggested that Miss Kelso assist in every way possible in the induction of her successor into the duties of her new position. To this Miss Kelso objected; remarking that she could ill afford to do anything of the kind. “Mrs. Fowler is amply competent to look out for herself, else this board would certainly not have elected her librarian,” remarked Miss Kelso, looking straight at no one director in particular.”
Indeed Kelso had nothing lined up, but Hasse did—The Superintendent of Documents of the Government Printing Office realized the value of what had been created at the library, and so snapped up Hasse immediately.
Kelso left with Hasse to Washington, then settled in New York, where she worked for Scribner’s Publishing before she settled down to work in the library department of Baker and Taylor. She remained interested in the library world, and not only for professional reasons of working for publishers.
Kelso never stopped fighting for women’s rights and speaking her mind. In fact, she took on Melvil Dewey himself. Dewey may have supported the entry of women into the profession when he founded the first library school at Columbia, but his behavior towards women was so appalling that even in those times, and against a man of his power in the profession, some risked everything to report his behavior. He openly “squeezed” his assistants Florence Woodworth and May Seymour and harassed many more, including Hasse. One egregious event sticks out: In 1905, Dewey took a cruise to Alaska with several members of the American Library Association. Its purpose was to unwind after a long ALA conference and plan the future of the newly founded American Library Institute. But for some of the women on board, it was no vacation. Dewey’s sexual misconduct was serious enough for four women to accuse Dewey of harassment.
This had led to a movement to censure Dewey at the 1906 ALA conference and a number of women were named to provide testimony including Hasse, who declined. Even so, Dewey was “…ostracized from the organization that he had founded—in 1876, he had signed in as ALA member number one—for the next 20 years. He was such a persona non grata that in 1915, ALA President Mary Wright Plummer, who had been a student in his first class at Columbia, vowed to refuse to meet him as long as she remained in the profession.”
Dewey’s behavior did not change. Dewey still was part of The New York Library Association (NYLA) and in 1924 was angling to host the NYLA’s Library Week at his Lake Placid estate. But he had a formidable adversary: Tessa Kelso. Kelso protested to the NYLA Board. “For many years women librarians have been the special prey of Mr. Dewey in a series of outrages against decency,“ she argued, ”having serious and far-reaching effects upon his victims."
Kelso demanded an investigation or she would go to the press. During the investigative hearing, it surfaced that Dewey had supposedly harassed his own daughter-in-law to the extent that she moved out of his house, although this was denied by the family. Dewey’s son, Godfrey, attempted to protect his father, suggesting that Dewey had mere “disregard of conventions and indifference to appearances.” Kelso, also not one for convention, disagreed and characterized Dewey’s treatment of women as “of a vicious type of sexual depravity and criminal in the eyes of the law.” Kelso’s testimony was accepted—more likely to avert bad publicity than to protect the attendees—but as result of her protests, Library Week would not be at Dewey’s at Lake Placid but rather at Lake George. Dewey had no doubt who was responsible for this decision, writing with his curious spelling: “It is really pathetic when an unbalanst smoking drinking caracter can stampede a lot of sensible people.”
Soon after this epic if private confrontation, Kelso, “who was known in the book world for her originality and personality, as well as her knowledge of books”, returned to California and retired in Santa Barbara, where she died on August 13, 1933. After she passed, Santa Barbara Public Library created a memorial collection of books that belonged to her and on her varied interests (Persian art, Chinese porcelain, the Elizabethan period, the American circus); the bookplate reads ‘In memory of Tessa L. Kelso, 1863–1933, A Servant and Lover of Books’.”
As Bruckman states, Tessa Kelso proved to be the ideal person to preside over the first period of major library expansion in Los Angeles. He described Kelso as “Tough, practical, and dedicated, possessor of a large and liberal vision coupled with a healthy contempt for fussy detail, this thoroughly unconventional woman well supplied the energetic leadership which the moment required.” Much of what the library is today has to do with her hard work, professionalism, unconventional ideas and brilliant mind, and most of all, her belief in the library as a crucial educational institution for society. Her lifelong commitment to equal rights in the face of great institutional opposition is important to remember always, and especially during Women’s History Month.