By Diane Euston
A free public library wasn’t always a guarantee, and as Kansas City grew from a town to a metropolis, services were oftentimes lagging behind bigger missions such as paved streets, public bath houses and a general organized government.
It took people with foresight to recognize that the availability of books –which were usually expensive and reserved for the wealthiest citizens’ parlors and private collections–was a natural part of public education.
Starting with the vision of a self-educated superintendent and spearheaded by a little-known Kansas City gem named Carrie Westlake Whitney, the beginnings of the Kansas City Public Library speaks to a common story of how women were often lost in the shadows of more studied historical figures. But without this woman, coined “the mother of Kansas City’s library system,” the birth of books available to all would have looked differently.
Carrie’s Childhood and Family
Caroline “Carrie” Westlake was born in the mountains of Fayette Co., W. Va., near present-day Ansted (her birthdate is unknown but some guess around 1851). Her father, Wellington B. Westlake (1819-1901) and mother, Helen, lived on part of 300 acres of land owned by her grandfather. Her father was one of the area’s earliest school teachers.
With her oldest sister Gertrude, Carrie and the family moved to Scott Co., Iowa, near Davenport where a son, James, was born in 1857.
Receiving mostly a “private education,” Carrie moved to St. Louis and stayed with her uncle by the time she was a teenager. Carrie’s mother had passed away in Iowa and her father joined extended family in Sedalia, Missouri. In 1868, the newspaper reported that Wellington Westlake had “found a spot” near Sedalia that “fit him to a dot.”
Carrie joined her father and siblings in Sedalia where she was married in 1875 to Dr. Edward W. Judson. The marriage didn’t last. After their divorce, her ex-husband moved to St. Louis. By 1880, Carrie’s family moved in many different directions. Her sister, Gertrude moved with her husband and brother to Leadville, Co. Her father set his sights further west, settling in Socorro, N.M. Carrie, for whatever the reason, chose to move to Kansas City.
The Beginnings of the Public Library
The true start of the public library is tied directly to the history of schools. In 1867, the organization of the schools began when most people viewed schooling as optional. High school at the time was reserved for the rich because so many families relied upon the labor of their children.
In 1869, there were 26,000 people living in Kansas City, and the attitude toward school wasn’t the best. In 1874, an impressive teacher named James M. Greenwood (1837-1914) was hired for the job of superintendent in Kansas City.
Greenwood was born in Illinois and moved with his family to Adair Co., Mo. where the nearest school was seven miles from his home. Greenwood borrowed books from neighbors and eventually bought his own by selling a steer. According to Carrie Westlake Whitney, “[Greenwood] displayed natural aptitude in his studies and with great desire for education he eagerly embraced every opportunity for adding to his learning.”
By 17, Greenwood was teaching school and went on with his wife to teach college classes. In June 1874, J.V.C. Karnes, treasurer of Kansas City’s board of education, wrote to Greenwood and asked him to apply for superintendent in Kansas City. Greenwood declined to apply and said he would take the position if elected. He was chosen over 16 candidates.
Greenwood went on to improve attendance rates and add programs to the schools which made them “the best in the west.”
The first “library” began under Greenwood’s leadership when $98 of books were purchased by the board of education and stuck in an $8 bookcase. The first set of books were American Encyclopedias. This was the beginning of what was known as the Public School Library of Kansas City.
Greenwood hired 29-year-old Carrie Westlake Judson to work as his bookkeeper at his office, and she lived in a rented room inside his house at 1312 Oak. Because of lack of space, the library was moved to the board of education office at 546 Main St. where Carrie and her boss acted as librarians to the limited collection. For $2 per year or a lifetime subscription of $10, Kansas Citians could rent books from their little library. Reading rooms were open in the evenings for people to visit.
With Greenwood’s influence, the board of education could see the need for a full-time librarian- and their solution was standing literally in front of them.
The Library in the 1880s
In March 1881, 30-year-old Carrie snagged the job at Kansas City’s first “rental library” at 5th and Main at a salary of $30 a month. Described as “a husky young prodigy,” she was Kansas City’s first appointed librarian. When she began her career, there were about 1,000 books.
In 1883, a bond built up the collection at their one and only library and supplied the funds needed to build a new, bigger facility. Carrie wrote, “We need more room, more money, and more, many more books.” A year later, the library moved to their new location at 8th and Walnut on the second floor.
Carrie once said, “All men are afraid of books who didn’t handle them in infancy.” She lessened restrictions on children using the library and extended the hours. She increased the amount of paid subscriptions to the library and was constantly updating and reorganizing the catalog.
In 1885 at the age of 34, she surprised everyone when she married 21-year-old Kansas City Star newspaper reporter James S. Whitney. A year later, he went into the printing business. His health wasn’t the best; he had contracted tuberculosis and often traveled to New Mexico and Colorado where Carrie’s family lived to seek out drier climates.
Carrie Westlake Whitney, as she continued to be known the rest of her life, was becoming known as one of the country’s most “distinguished librarians.” She expanded her staff and hired the library’s first official “assistant librarian,” Frances Bishop. The women became inseparable friends.
Because of Carrie’s endless efforts, the library was growing at record pace. In 1889, the library moved once again to 8th and Oak to a new building that cost $10,000. It was the first location ever built to exclusively hold the city’s library.
As her professional life was taking off, her personal life was a struggle. Her husband’s illness wasn’t improving. For two years, he had looked for relief from his “stubborn throat trouble” and traveled in 1889 to the mountains “in hope of a final recovery.” Unfortunately, it was not to be. Carrie’s husband passed away in 1890 at the age of 29.
Carrie’s Hunt for Staff
Recruiting quality people to join Carrie and her assistant, Frances, was always a challenge- and Carrie took it very seriously.
She was on the hunt for talented people to join the library staff, and she was ready to put them to the test- literally.
A stressful 50-question exam was given to those who applied, and the Kansas City Star reported that applicants had to score 75 percent in order to even be considered. Questions, it was said, were about daily library work. However, there were questions about US history, general history, biographies, filing systems and general literature. Eighteen people showed up for the exam.
One question asked was, “Give a brief sketch on the invasions of England from the Roman invasion under Caesar to the 11th century, giving effects of each invasion on the history, literature and language of England.”
According to the Kansas City Star, “Three dropped out when they read the questions and a fourth worked half the day and quit in despair.”
It would appear Carrie would only consider employing the brightest of Kansas City.
A New, Impressive Home
In 1898, school architect Charles Smith designed a beautiful new building for the library at the whopping price tag of $200,000 at 9th and Locust that still stands today. Under Carrie’s careful supervision, the library added 500 books for children that included fairy tales, animal stories, small histories and biographies.
Included in this new facility was a grand rotunda with a fireplace, a reception room, designated reading rooms, a cataloguing room, a museum and an art gallery. Superintendent Greenwood had his office on the second floor.
In the first two days the library was opened, around 20,000 people – 14 percent of the city’s population- visited the new space.
Shortly after opening, the board of education voted to eliminate the subscription service and made Kansas City Public Library free to everyone. Around 50,000 titles were now on the shelves. There was no bell system used in this new library, Carrie decided. If she needed assistance, she whistled.
One problem that arose was the accessibility of only having one location. Other large cities had built multiple locations to make the library system convenient, but the cost of building more facilities after this large investment downtown was out of the question. Carrie came up with a solution.
Carrie proposed a “free delivery system” that would be equivalent to today’s inter-library loan. She thought creating “substations” at schools in outlying areas would make more books available to more people. The plan was to deliver books requested every two weeks.
Teachers at the four schools selected were taught by library employees how to check books in and out; principals of the schools would send a list of requested books for bimonthly delivery. About 200 books were kept at these substations. Ten years later, every single school building had a substation where people could get their hands on books.
Shortly after developing the substation system, Westport was annexed to Kansas City. This put the town’s Allen Library with 1300 books in the control of Carrie and grew Kansas City to two official libraries.
Carrie continued to upgrade the library’s system as fast as she could. In 1899, she asked for books for the blind and arranged books in a new cataloguing system. “It had been necessary to know the author’s name in order to find a book, but by the new system books may be found by their author’s name or the title,” Carrie explained.
Library programs were expanded. Carrie once said that her biggest achievement was her influence on children. When a child requested a book that she didn’t have, she would order multiple copies.
In 1908, Carrie used her connections to the Kansas City elite and tried her hand as a writer. She published a massive, three-volume history of Kansas City called “Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and its People.” Comprising over 2,000 pages total, she used her access to the library’s resources and her connection to prominent Kansas Citians such as Robert Van Horn and early historian Theodore Case to write one of the most detailed reference books on Kansas City’s history ever written.
Over 300 biographies on both men and women who were a part of Kansas City’s past were included along with incredible photographs of the citizens and the city.
The Call for Carrie to Go
In 1910, Carrie had been head librarian – elected by the school board each year- for 29 years. Unfortunately, some members of the school board wanted a man in her position.
Frank A. Faxon (1848-1912) was a powerful businessman who was appointed to the school board in 1894. Described as a “strong friend of the library,” he was appointed to the committee who oversaw Carrie’s position.
Faxon seemed to believe the library needed even further progression- more than what Carrie had done in her decades of service. He wanted “a man with modern ideas.”
The man was St. Joseph native Purd B. Wright (1860-1947).
In July 1910, the board began to ask for Carrie’s resignation; shockingly, she ignored the request and continued to work while Frank Faxon and the library committee continued to canvas for the position.
Carrie told the Kansas City Star, “I think since my ability to administer the affairs of the library has been questioned, that an investigation should be made. I court it. The only treatment I ask is justice and fairness.”
People within the community began to circulate petitions of protest to keep Carrie in her position. The local newspaper reported negative reviews of her leadership, including claims of how cold she kept the reading room and the suppressed atmosphere of the library.
Wright had spearheaded St. Joseph’s library system for 14 years and was appointed as head librarian for Los Angeles Public Library in June 1910 at a salary of $300 per month. “A national figure in the library world” who “combines book knowledge and business ability,” Wright was on the executive board of the American Library Association.
In March 1911 after less than a year in Los Angeles, Wright resigned from his position. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Kansas City had been after him for several years and made flattering offers he could not reject.”
That offer was $5,000 per year- well over what he was making in Los Angeles and well over the $183 per month Carrie was being paid.
The Kansas City Star seemed pleased with the news, citing that Kansas City hadn’t progressed as other cities had. Wright was an advocate of the branch library idea; Cleveland had 17 branches and St. Louis had nine. Kansas City still simply had the satellite branches Carrie had established at schools.
At first, the board offered Carrie the position of assistant librarian at her same salary, which she accepted. However, tensions with Wright created a negative work environment for all.
By 1912, the reported feuds with library staff had caused some to not speak to each other for months. Citing ill health, Wright resigned but later admitted “that friction among the departments was the real motive.”
In July, the school board announced that they “made several changes to the personnel of the staff.” This included the resignation of Carrie Westlake Whitney.
In October 1912, the Kansas City Star wrote, “Since Mrs. Carrie W. Whitney resigned as assistant librarian it is understood Mr. Wright is willing to continue as librarian.”
Wright served as head of the library from 1911 to 1936 and oversaw the expansion of its operations to several branch locations.
Honoring Carrie’s Place in History
For over 40 years, Carrie lived with her longtime companion Frances Bishop where “these two, bound by a rare and beautiful friendship, found happiness in each other and the books and current literature in which they surrounded themselves.” With her leadership as first appointed librarian in Kansas City for 30 years, she grew the collection from 1,000 volumes to just over 90,000 books.
In 1934, she died from pneumonia at the age of 83. Her obituary noted, “There were many regrets, publicly and privately expressed, when she retired from [the library].”
A Virginian by birth and a Missourian by adoption, Carrie is responsible for the growth and development of the library in Kansas City. She was entrusted by longtime friend and colleague James Greenwood, superintendant of Kansas City’s schools for 40 years, who called her “the smartest woman I have ever known.”
There is no library branch or room named after this enterprising, bright and passionate figure of Kansas City’s history. Three volumes of books honoring our city’s history were penned by her, yet there is no effort to pay homage to her lasting impact on the public library and on our city.
In her three-volume history of Kansas City, she carved out half of a page to write her own biography. “Mrs. Whitney’s biography is the history of the Kansas City Public Library,” she concluded.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com
2 thoughts on “The mother of Kansas City’s public library”
Another great story, Diane! With you behind the effort, I”m sure we’ll soon see a local branch library with Carrie Whitney’s name on it. 🙂
Another wonderful story, Diane! With you spearheading the effort, it won’t be long before we see a local branch library bearing the name of Carrie Whitney. 🙂