Madam President

Before women were allowed to vote in US elections, the American Library Association found its leadership in Theresa West Elmendorf.  In 1911, over thirty years after the founding of the ALA, Elmendorf was elected the first female president of the association.

Elmendorf started her career in Milwaukee where she worked as the deputy librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library, then as the librarian after an embezzlement scandal led to the arrest of her predecessor.  After she married, Elmendorf and her husband relocated to Buffalo, New York, where Elmendorf focused on editing and authoring professional publications.  She became the vice-librarian of the Buffalo Public Library after her husband’s death in 1906 and would continue to work there until her retirement in 1926.[1]

Theresa West Elmendorf

Theresa West Elmendorf,
Record Series 99/1/13

At the 33rd Annual Conference Elmendorf was elected president with 115 votes.  According to the Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Third Annual Conference, Elmendorf was not present when the official announcement was made.  Instead, she sent a telegram to express her gratitude and her first words as the ALA’s president: “Thank you.  Say to the association, ‘Now is the time for all good men and true to come to the aid of the party.’”

Frank P. Hill, a former president of ALA himself, responded, “Madam President, the good men and true will come to her aid.” [2]

Elmendorf would preside over the 34th Annual Conference in Ottawa the following year.  She would speak to the members of ALA about a topic she was passionate about, public libraries and serving the public in her address, “The Public Library: ‘A Leaven’d and Preparéd Choice.’”

In her address, she asked her colleagues about the best ways to serve the public and how to make them aware of the resources of libraries: “Books are the medium of appeal, the stuff of human knowledge, experience and wisdom stored by means of the printed leaf.  The extent to which each individual shares in the stored treasure of the race-mind, is, in its sum, the measure of public safety and happiness and the starting point for service.  How show, how make known the attraction and stored power of books?” [3]

With such a distinguished career and passion for her work, it is of little surprise that Elmendorf inspired enough confidence in her fellow ALA members to be elected as their president.

 

Sources:

1 – “Elmendorf, Theresa Hubble West (1855-1932),” Dictionary of American Library Bibliography (Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1978), 159-160;  “Mrs. Elmendorf Retires from Library Work,” Buffalo Courier-Express, (September 17, 1926), Librarians Photographs, Record Series 99/1/13, Box 1, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.

2 – Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Third Annual Meeting of the American Library Association, (Chicago, 1911), pg. 195, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.

3 – Papers and Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Library Association, (Chicago, 1912), pg. 71, Record Series 5/1/2, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.

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