We love Althea! Hardworking,
dedicated, determined -- with a sense of humour.
Only a true HEARTLESS LIBRARIAN would comment:
“A librarian leads a terrible life. She has to wear plain dresses and flat heels and the salary is ridiculous.”
The Eloquent Life of Althea Warren by Leeanne Morrow (2001)
“Charm, vitality and a gift for the picturesque phrase […]” is how most would describe Althea Hester Warren (Holmes Hyers 153). Althea held many roles in the library field including manager, teacher and activist. Her life is characterized by her love of books and her glowing personality. When trying to understand Althea’s significance we need to focus on the positions she held in the American library world.
Althea was born on December 18, 1886 in Waukegan, Illinois. Althea is described as having been very determined and a lover of books early in her life. From 1904 to 1908 Althea attended the University of Chicago. While in university she was assigned to work in the library. During this time she decided to become a librarian after admiring a young, pretty librarian she worked with. She stated that “I could imagine no loftier mission than bringing quickly and unerringly […] all the intellectual coffee and sandwiches requested by the long lines of students and faculty […]”. After much hard work she was awarded a bachelor of philosophy degree in February of 1908 (Boaz, Fervent 7-31).
Upon completion of her first degree, Althea spent some time exploring the British Isles. After her return in 1909 she went looking for work but instead ended up enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Library School (Boaz, Fervent 33-44). According to one source, an uncle of Althea’s, who just happened to be a library trustee once told her: “A librarian leads a terrible life. She has to wear plain dresses and flat heels and the salary is ridiculous” (Hitt Morgan 153). This obviously did not deter Althea from her path. Out of school she landed her first professional position as branch librarian in a rundown slum on Chicago’s northwest side. She remained there and worked, mostly with the under privileged children, until 1911. Her heart went out to the children in this neighborhood and because of this she gave all she could to the library. In June of 1911 Althea took a job at the Sears Roebuck branch of the public library in Chicago. This library was set up to service the staff of the store. Althea’s main duty was to supply the employees with the book best suited to their needs and as quickly as possible. Each patron had a different request and Althea did her best to please everyone (Boaz, Fervent 33-44).
In 1914 Althea headed out to the west coast to join her family in California. She took a position at the San Diego public library in January of 1915. While in this position she displayed her strong belief in a democratically run workplace (Boaz, Warren 542). She lobbied for better wages for with annual increases saying: “A library desk attendant should certainly rank higher than a dish washer or a cash girl.” She tried to motivate the staff and include them in a variety of activities such as staff meetings and picnics. She also spent a lot of her time reorganizing the collection and giving library lectures. By March of 1915 circulation statistics had increased 55% over the previous year. In 1916 Althea was made head librarian and she remained in this position until 1926 (Boaz, Fervent 52-59).
In 1926 Althea moved to Los Angeles to become the assistant city librarian of the public library. While in this position she once again brought out her progressive views by proposing a salary increase for librarians in all Los Angeles branches. This succeeded and the librarians became the third highest paid in the country. In 1933 she took over the position of city librarian just as the depression was beginning to affect all aspects of Los Angeles. Even though she had to face problems such as budget reduction and personnel shortage she was determined to keep the library going. She was resilient during this time and had the skills to keep the library in service despite the severe economic situation (Boaz, Warren 542-543).
Althea was familiar with war and the significant role of the library in the community during this time. In World War One she was an advisor for the librarians at Camp Kearny near San Diego. This experience helped her prepare for the dramatic role she would play in World War Two. In 1941 she was given a fourth month leave to become national director for the Victory Book Campaign. This drive was organized by the American Library Association, the American Red Cross and the U.S.O (Hitt Morgan 321-322). Althea knew the importance of reading material for soldiers during these times stating:
“Librarians know from there own experiences that some printed pages are medical plasters to extract pain, others are tourists’ tickets out of boredom or loneliness to exhilarating adventure, still others are diplomas for getting promotion and drilling ideas into a quick step ” (Warren 1082). In this book drive Althea had to work with an advisory board consisting of members from 14 different national organizations. This was when her true talents of diplomacy and team work really shone through (Hitt Morgan 321-322). She acknowledged that the task at hand was to collect more books “[…] than are contained in any existing library in the world ” (Warren 1082). Within a two year period more than 10 million books were collected and distributed to soldiers in the united states and abroad (Hitt Morgan 322).
Between 1942 and 1943 Althea was president of the American Library Association. During this time her tremendous contribution was to lobbied Congress to grant federal assistance to libraries. Another concern was the fact that in some hotels that hosted ALA meetings African Americans were not welcome. This was unacceptable to Althea and she requested there be changes made in this regard (Boaz, Warren 543). A lot of the 1940’s were spent meeting the needs of the public in regards to the current state of affairs of the world. Althea was responsible for setting up reference services to educate the public as well as government officials during the turbulent times (Holmes Hyers 154). She retired in 1947 and spent a period of time teaching courses in Library Administration and Book Selection in universities around the country (Hitt Morgan 322). She officially retired from teaching in June of 1957 and passed away the following year (Boaz, Fervent 130).
Althea Warren exemplified what most librarians strive to be like. She was hardworking, dedicated and determined. She took her position very seriously and loved all aspects of it. The most influential aspect to Althea was her style of service. She was a friendly, approachable and eloquent librarian, which may have been hard to come by in the past. She wanted people to come to the library and not only read but use the services as well. Her love of the public was joined with her deep concern for a democratic workplace. I believe her overall significance is seen in the fact that she tried her best to bring a sense of humanity to her job.
Althea once said “[…] in times of uncertainty and break-up the best refuge is hard work” (Warren 1082). This was how she handled all difficult situations. In her life time she encountered two world wars, the depression and a variety of economic hardships in the workplace. Althea got through all of these situations with her strong belief in determination, hard work and love of her job.
Boaz, Martha. Fervent and Full of Gifts. New York: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1961.
Boaz, Martha. “Warren, Althea Hester (1886-1958).” Dictionary of American Library
Biography. Ed. Bohdan S. Wynar. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, Inc, 1978.
Hitt Morgan, Eleanor. “Althea Warren, 1886-1958.” ALA Bulletin April (1959): 321-322
Holmes Hyers, Faith. “Althea Warren.” Bulletin of Bibliography 17 (1942): 153-154.
Warren, Althea. “National Defense Book Campaign.” The Library Journal 66 (1941):1082.