By Dani Crickman
Though the Boston Athenæum featured only briefly in the life of “First Lady of the Library” Caroline M. Hewins, it served as an introduction to the profession where she would leave her lasting mark. As a student at Girls' High and Normal School, Hewins came to the Athenæum on a special project researching the Civil War for the school’s principal. So taken with the library, she persuaded her parents to let her work there after graduation. From 1866 to 1867, Hewins was employed as an assistant under renowned librarian and bibliographer William Frederick Poole. Upon leaving the Athenæum, Hewins taught for seven years before returning to librarianship at Hartford’s Young Men’s Institute, a subscription library that became the Hartford Public Library under her direction. There, she forged a distinguished 50 year career as a key player in the early public libraries movement, best known for her work as one of the founders of library services to children. Hewins is remembered as an influential bibliographer in her own right as the author of Books for the Young, later republished as Books for Boys and Girls.
The first bibliography of books for children, Books for the Young, was published in 1882. The publication fit into Hewins’s larger goal of establishing widespread library services to children. During the same year, Hewins sent out a survey to other librarians about the services their libraries were offering to children. She had been increasing children’s membership and use of the Young Men’s Institute since her start there, culling the shelves for books well-suited to children and encouraging area schools to take out memberships so students whose families could not afford to join could visit. Before the creation of the Hartford Public Library’s children’s room in 1904, Books for the Young presented a view of childhood reading that anticipated and, indeed, necessitated the children’s librarian. Books for the Young was the product of Hewins’s iconoclastic views on children’s reading and her own expansive love of literature, formed at a young age.
Born in Roxbury on October 10, 1846, Hewins was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and the oldest of nine children. Surrounded by her extended family, Hewins had the good fortune of a happy childhood. After learning to read at age four, Hewins became a voracious reader. In her memoir, A Mid-Century Child and Her Books, Hewins reminisces on her youth as a pleasant and educative time, emphasizing the importance of pageantry and play alongside an early introduction to Western history and art. It was this imaginative liveliness and intellectual engagement that she strove to inspire in other children, through the source that had proven invaluable to her own young life: books.
Hewins’s bibliography of recommended reading covers a wide range of topics (albeit with a distinct Western focus)—religion, the arts, biography, history, the sciences, travel, outdoor skills, and domestic labor, to name a few. The selections adhered to her personal views of what constituted quality literature for children. In the preface to the 1915 edition of Books for Boys and Girls, Hewins characterizes its contents as “stories which broaden the horizon of children, cultivate their imagination and love of nature, and add to their stock of general knowledge. It contains also the historical tales and traditions that are the common property of the world, without which it is impossible to understand a sermon or the editorial page of a great daily newspaper.” Notoriously discerning in her selection, Hewins was disparaging of most popular literature. Some exceptions to this general rule, somewhat grudgingly made, provide insight into her criteria for literary excellence and her ideals for childhood: “a few stories of modern life that have become general favorites, even though they have faults of style like ‘Little Women,’ or a sensational plot like ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’ are in the list, for the sake of the happy, useful home-life of the one and the sunshiny friendliness of the other.” Hewins also held strong views about what kinds of stories were not appropriate for children: “Stories of the present day in which children die, are cruelly treated, or offer advice to their fathers and mothers and take charge of the finances and love affairs of their elders, are not good reading for boys and girls in happy homes, and the favorite books of less fortunate children are fairy-tales or histories rather than stories of life like their own.” Through her criteria for children’s reading, she advanced an idyllic conception of childhood, inherited from the Romantics.
Hewins viewed her efforts as a response to societal decline: “the bookish child is growing out of favor as the interests of child-life increase, and is now encouraged to use his hands in weaving baskets or taking photographs, instead of absorbing everything between the covers of the family collection of books.” Even at the turn of the twentieth century, the fear that other activities would take children’s attention away from the pursuit of reading loomed large. This trend alarmed Hewins because children’s reading, as she envisioned it, instilled both moral righteousness and civic responsibility. She tasked children’s literature with guiding the young toward the recognized masterpieces of the Western canon. She also valued children’s books that offered enjoyment to both children and adult readers and re-readers, rather than books children would outgrow, and lauded those that conformed to adult-oriented standards of literary quality.
Hewins offered guidance not just on what books children should read, but how they should encounter them in their lives: parents would do well to supply their children with reading material, but should not be overindulgent in either the amount of books or the quality of particular editions purchased. The ideal children’s book was attractive enough to be appreciated but not too precious for the wear and tear of regular reading. In this regard, Hewins’s views on children’s books fit the middle-class ethos that fueled the broad shift from subscription to public libraries.
Although she is best remembered for her services to children, this was by no means Hewins’s only area of accomplishment. As library director, first woman to address the American Library Association, and active contributor to the periodicals Library Journal and Public Libraries, she was committed to advancing the field of librarianship as a whole. Her published articles cover all manner of topics, from the benefit of open stacks to the potential hazards of electric lighting. Hewins was equally concerned with the philosophical principles that informed public libraries and the intricacies of their day-to-day operations. She encouraged women interested in entering the profession to regard librarianship as a rigorous career, writing, “There are no easy places in a library where a girl can play ‘lady.’” Her contributions to children’s services were a significant piece in a wide-ranging, groundbreaking career.
It is working with children, however, that occupied the majority of Hewins’s interest outside of her commitments as library director. With her cheerful disposition, Hewins brought a festival-like atmosphere to the many parties, outings, and activities she arranged for children. Once the Hartford Public Library had its own children’s librarian, she still made frequent visits to the children’s room. When the workday was over, she returned to the North Street Settlement House where she lived for 12 years, even opening a small library branch there, which she staffed on her own for resident children. The Hartford Public Library’s young patrons were also at the forefront of her mind when she traveled. She sent them letters from her trips abroad and collected dolls from foreign countries to share with them upon her return. Her generous involvement with children continued until the day she died, November 4, 1926, after contracting pneumonia on her way home from attending the New York Public Library’s children’s Halloween party.
By example and through Books for the Young, Hewins established the role of the children’s librarian not only as advocate for children in the library, but as critic, tastemaker, and gatekeeper. Anne Carroll Moore, Hewins’s good friend and protégé, would take up this mantle, exerting huge influence over children’s publishing and writing prolifically on books for children. Children’s librarians were instrumental to the heyday of children’s literature during the early decades of the twentieth century: their vocal, critical attention created high standards for publishing. That the best known literary award for children’s books, the Newbery Medal, is administered by the American Library Association is a direct reflection of this legacy. Children’s literature now struggles to outgrow the white, middle-class, assimilatory politics that shaped the standards of its earliest champions. But thanks to Hewins, children’s literature gained cultural status as art, worthy of discussion, critique, and recommendation. Her iconoclastic spirit leaves a legacy worth embracing in the present day, reminding contemporary children’s librarians, who retain cultural authority in determining what constitutes “good” reading for children, to examine these inherited assumptions.
With Hewins very much on our minds, the Children’s Library has begun its own new list-making endeavor—a project to highlight new acquisitions and old gems in the collection around a monthly theme. This month we’re featuring Women Who Made History.