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Biography Herbert Putnam (1861-1955)

8th Librarian of Congress 1899-1939

Herbert Putnam

George Herbert Putnam, Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), and the Boston Public Library (1895-99) and Librarian of Congress (1899-1939) was a leading figure of the American library movement.  He was the first experienced librarian to hold the post of Librarian of Congress.  His major contribution to the Library came directly from his previous experience: he linked the Library’s policies firmly with the broader interests of American librarianship.  To do so, he sought and obtained the support of the U.S. Congress, professional librarians, and especially the American Library Association (ALA) and the American scholarly community.  As a result, Putnam established and defined the Library’s pattern of national library services to its major constituencies–the Congress, the nation’s libraries, and the world of scholarship.

Putnam was born in New York City on September 20, 1861, the tenth child of Victorine Putnam and George Palmer Putnam, the founder of the Putnam publishing house.  Herbert attended private schools and received his B.A. from Harvard in 1883, graduating magna cum laude.  The next year he attended Columbia University Law School, but he was soon enticed by friends to Minneapolis to become head of the library of the Minneapolis Athenaeum.  Simultaneously he pursued his legal studies and was admitted to the Minnesota bar.  On October 5, 1886, he married Charlotte Elizabeth Monroe of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  They had two daughters, Shirley and Brenda.

In 1887 Herbert Putnam  became Librarian of the new Minneapolis Public Library, which had absorbed the Athenaeum.  After vigorously leading the library through its fledgling years, Putnam resigned in 1891 and returned to Massachusetts to be near his wife’s ailing mother.  He practiced law until he was persuaded to return to librarianship as Superintendent of the Boston Public Library, the nation’s largest public library.  He assumed his duties in February 1895.

Putnam’s leadership abilities and his new position quickly involved him in the activities of the American Library Association.  In late 1896, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library held hearings on the "condition" of the Library on the eve of its move into its new building, and Putnam was one of the six ALA witnesses.  He and Melvil Dewey were the dominant witnesses, and each advocated an expanded national role for the Library—a role that extended far beyond the concept or accomplishments of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who had served as Librarian since 1864.

The 1896 hearings marked a turning point in  relations between the Library and the American library movement.  For the first time, the ALA offered advice to Congress, albeit cautiously, about the Library’s purpose and functions.  Moreover, Congress listened, and a restructuring and expansion of the Library became effective on July 1, 1897. On the same day a new Librarian of Congress took office: John Russell Young, a journalist and former diplomat, had been nominated by President William McKinley and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Young presided over the move of the collection from the Capitol into the new building, which opened to public acclaim on November 1, 1897.  The new Librarian’s major concerns were organizational, particularly the hiring of a staff that had increased from 42 to 108.  Never a healthy man, Young did not recover from two severe falls during the winter of 1898-99, and he died on January 17, 1899.  This time the ALA took the lead in recommending candidates for Librarian of Congress to President McKinley.  Boston librarian Putnam was its candidate and it appears that ALA president William Coolidge Lane not only persuaded McKinley to make the nomination but that Lane and his colleagues, in the end, also persuaded Putnam to take the job.  He was appointed as eighth Librarian of Congress on March 13, 1899, during the congressional recess, took the oath of office on April 5, and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on December 12, 1899.

As Librarian of Congress, Putnam moved quickly to expand the Library into the type of national library he advocated in his 1896 testimony before the Joint Committee on the Library.  Service to other libraries was a key component.  He continued the development of a new classification scheme which was soon shared with the rest of the nation, started the sale and distribution of printed catalog cards, interlibrary loan, and a national union catalog.  In an appendix to his 1901 Annual Report, he described the organization and collections of the Library in a "manual" that come to be regarded as a model of contemporary library practice.

Other Putnam accomplishments during the first two decades of his librarianship included obtaining the support of President Theodore Roosevelt for the expansion of the Library’s activities, most dramatically through an executive order transferring presidential and other state papers to the Library; revision of the 1870 copyright law in 1909; the acquisition, in 1907, of important collections of Russian and Japanese books, establishing the foundations of the Library’s Slavic and Asian collections; and direction of the ALA’s Library War Service Committee (1917-1919), which was a model of efficiency and a triumph of American librarianship.

During the first half of Putnam’s administration, lasting roughly through World War I, the Librarian had, by and large, the full support of professional librarians and the ALA.  The next 20 years were not so harmonious, and the Library and the American library community drifted apart.

One reason was that Putnam gave increasing attention to matters that did not directly concern the library community. A separate Legislative Reference Bureau was created in 1914.  In 1921 the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were transferred from the State Department to the Library enhancing the image of the Library as a symbol of American democracy.  Through Putnam’s efforts in the 1920s, the Library became a national patron of the arts; a gift from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge provided an auditorium for the performance of chamber music, and a generous endowment from Mrs. Coolidge shortly thereafter led to the creation in 1925 of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, an instrument that enabled the Library, for the first time, to accept, hold, and invest gifts and bequests.

Furthermore, Putnam’s personal interest in library cooperation and related technical matters diminished as he became concerned about the "interpretation" of the collections.  He had always viewed the use of the Library’s collections as the prime object of his administration; in the 1896 hearings, for example, he described the national library as, ideally, the library "which stands foremost as a model and example of assisting forward the work of scholarship in the United States." After the creation of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, he began to obtain private funds to support "chairs" and consultantships for subject specialists who could both advance scholarship through their own work and assist others in the use of the collections.

As he focused on other activities, Putnam’s  interest in the role of the Library of Congress as a leader among American libraries lessened.  His authoritarian style presented further difficulties.  He was a stern administrator, both venerated and feared.  Apparently no associate ever called him by his first name, and it appears that there was no one, inside or outside the Library, who was able to influence him to any significant degree.

By the mid-1930s, the Library was suffering from administrative stagnation, intensified by low staff salaries and morale and operational problems such as a large cataloging and card-printing backlog.  These problems were compounded by Putnam’s refusal, or inability, to delegate responsibility.  By 1939 there were 35 divisions, each reporting directly to the Librarian, compared to the 16 listed in his 1901 annual report.  Even Putnam, a talented administrator, could not successfully oversee 35 diverse units and 1,100 employees.  By the late 1930s there were many librarians and politicians who were waiting for him to decide to retire.  Apparently even President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to wait.

Such difficulties aside, Herbert Putnam was enormously respected by scholars and librarians alike.  When he did decide to retire to become, on October 1, 1939, Librarian Emeritus of Congress, the American Library Association paid him tribute as "dean of our profession" who had led the Library of Congress to "its present proud position as the world’s largest bibliographical institution."  He continued to contribute to the Library, keeping regular office hours for the next 15 years.  He died at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1955.

Herbert Putnam wrote no memoirs; his 40 substantial annual reports between 1899 and 1939 record his achievements at the Library of Congress and serve as his "autobiography." (JYC)


Rosenberg, Jane Aikin.  The Nation’s Great Library: Herbert Putnam and the Library of Congress, 1899-1939.  Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress