Carrie Westlake Whitney: Mother of the Kansas City Library

(originally published 8/15/20)

When I thought about a post to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, codifying women’s’ voting rights, I saw the opening I’d been looking for to write about Carrie Westlake Whitney, the first director of Kansas City’s library system. In my admittedly limited research, I found no evidence that Whitney was an active member of the suffragette movement, but neither have I found evidence she wasn’t. I did find one particularly succinct quote in a 1910 Kansas City Star piece on women and the vote. In response to the question of her support for or even interest in the right to vote, Whitney responded,

It seems that the right of suffrage is an inevitable issue; almost a pending one. Had I the privilege of selecting a motto for the cause I would choose, “He that controlleth his temper is greater than he that taketh a city.”

I do know that she shared a too common experience with women of her time – publicly accepted bias against her competency based on her gender. That event began the end of her career, but by then she’d had 30 years of building Kansas City’s public library system, imprinting values and philosophies present today, through the strength of her convictions.

The Life Behind the Librarian

Very little is certain about the woman who became Carrie Westlake Whitney before she arrived in Kansas City.(1) The facts about which sources seem to concur are that Whitney was married in Sedalia in 1875 to E.W. Judson, that she gave birth to a daughter, Edith, who died as an infant in 1879, and that by 1881 Carrie had come to Kansas City, employed as the first head librarian of Kansas City’s only circulating public library. She arrived still using the name Mrs. Carrie Judson, but the fate of Mr. Judson, deceased or divorced, seems to have been lost in the cracks of history, along with the rest of Carrie’s early story. She married a second time, in 1885, to a Kansas City Star newspaperman, James Steele Whitney, who died around 1890 from tuberculosis. She was known forever after as Carrie Westlake Whitney.

The first home of the library, where is occupied the second floor above commercial offices, and shared space with the school board staff.

As much of her early life is shrouded by conflicting stories, her later life is cloaked in allusion. For more than forty years, she lived with Frances Bishop, the most constant relationship in her life. Bishop was second librarian for most of Whitney’s tenure as head librarian. They began living together shortly after James Whitney’s death, and continued until Carrie’s death in 1934. Their names were often mentioned together in the newspaper in stories about the library or Whitney’s involvement with state and national library associations, as when the two traveled together to the national library convention one year at Mackinac Island, Michicgan. That established relationship created a safe place for the following declaration, taken from the Kansas City Star article on the occasion of Whitney’s death.

After retirement Mrs. Whitney lived a very quiet life. She and her inseparable friend and assistant librarian, Miss Frances A. Bishop, already had cast their lots together. For more than forty years these two, bound by a rare and beautiful friendship, found happiness in each other and the books and current literature with which they surrounded themselves.

Creating the Library Life

The Kansas City library system began with the Kansas City School Board. The superintendent, James Greenwood, was a visionary man who would go on to be a nationally prominent leader in education. It was at his suggestion that the idea of a public library was first proposed, a somewhat daring idea given that the norm was not for free or public libraries as part of a public institution, but rather libraries organized by private charities run by subscription. At the time of Whitney’s arrival in 1881, the library was little more than a small but growing catalog of books, where Greenwood was still the one only employee, who took time from his superintendent duties to open the small room to readers and handle the check-out process. Whitney was hired as the library’s first full-time librarian…but her job description said she would also perform “such other clerical work” as assigned.

The first purpose-built library building, shown here in the late 1980s. The building is still in use as offices, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The school board and the library were housed together at 546 Main Street. The growth of both the school and library systems kept them on the move in the early years – from Main Street to 8th & Walnut in 1884, and from there to 8th and Oak in 1889, the first purpose-built building. It would take another eight years for the library to plan and fund their next building at 9th and Locust, where it would operate for the next 63 years.

Nothing seems to document how Whitney came to even be considered for the job, but whether or not she had bona fides, she had vision and passion in abundance. Over the years she became known as an ardent advocate for libraries in general, and Kansas City’s in particular. She rose to be on the first board of the Missouri Library Association, and the next year went on to be its President. She was involved at the national level where she often spoke at library association conventions. Locally, she became known, too, as an often-quoted public presence. The area newspapers carried frequent features on new books, trends in reading, and the growing uses of the library. Whitney was an innovator, and credited with two of the library’s most important early initiatives: she took the library from a subscription fee-based membership, to open and free access to the community; and she began the practice of giving school age children access to the library and with special services for smaller children, a process that would for a long period place a library branch in nearly every public school in the city.

The Reading Room at the 9th & Locust library.

Whitney used the financial resources she had for acquiring books with a clear strategy – diversification. While most libraries in the country counted about 80 percent of their collections in the fiction category, in Kansas City it was 50 percent. Whitney herself was known to disdain the popular fiction of the time, but kept it in the stacks along with what she considered the “best” fiction. She was never one to deter any potential patron, but she was ever eager to improve their quality of reading. With more reference and nonfiction resources on hand, the library become a source of useful information for more types of readers. She put much effort into developing the library’s children’s room because she considered it a social need, but also a way to foster new generations of patrons.

To her credit, Whitney was smart enough to grow her staff along with the library collection. By 1900, the staff numbered 28. A larger staff surely made it possible for Whitney to pursue her passion projects within the library, and a few of her own. She edited the library’s quarterly magazine, and penned a number of the articles for it. In 1908 she published her three-volume masterwork, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, which thoughtfully and thoroughly explored the story of her adopted home both in terms of the chronological history (Volume 1) and biographies of hundreds of figures of note throughout the state (Volumes 2 and 3). Out of the entire catalog of profiles, there were only six women listed, Whitney being one.

The End of the Librarian Life

The Women’s Meeting Room at the 9th & Locust Library

In 1910, seemingly out of nowhere, Whitney lost favor with the School Board. A July 21 Kansas City Star front page story reported the board’s request for Whitney’s resignation. As to the cause, the only hint is in her quote:

“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.”

In that same issue, on page 3 a lengthier story about deposing Whitney included statements from Frank Faxon, then head of the library committee about the change in librarians. Of their conversation, Whitney is unequivocal about the reason for the requested resignation.

“Yes, it’s true I have been asked to resign. The request came personally from [Faxon], when he came to see me at the library Tuesday. It was not because of any fault that the committee had with my work, he said, but was instigated simply because the committee believed that a man could fill the post of librarian to better advantage than a woman.”

Later, other reasons appeared in the newspaper reports – allegations about deteriorating patron service, feuds between staff members, and Whitney’s inability to get full productivity from the staff. There was also likely interference in administrative details by board members, encouraged by staff who capitalized on personal relationships with influential people to carry their complaints around Whitney and directly to the board.

With Whitney’s fate still in the balance, the paper reports on August 2 “Many Seek Librarian’s Place,” with the board cautioning it would not be hasty in filling the position, so as “to make no mistake.” By August 6, the matter was resolved. Whitney agreed to a position of assistant librarian, pushing the faithful Miss Bishop to second assistant librarian, though their salaries remained the same. Publicly Whitney continued as “Acting Librarian,” because, true to their word, the board didn’t settle on a candidate until January of 1911, six months after ousting Whitney.

The board’s choice for the new head librarian was Purd Wright, recently from St. Joseph, but currently in his first year as head Librarian of the prestigious Los Angeles city library. Before that, Wright held the same position in St. Joseph, before that several years with the St. Joseph newspaper, and before that as an advertising copy writer. Wright and Whitney were acquainted at least as early as the formation of the Missouri Library Association in the 1880s, where she had served as the organization’s second president and Wright the third. Wright went on to serve as president of the National Library Association.

Whitney and Wright shared a keen intellect and a talent for library promotion, but otherwise they could not have been more different. Wright was a bit of a gadabout professionally, where Whitney spent her entire working life as a librarian. Her talents for promotion and advocacy were rooted in a genuine love and respect for literature, his talents were in diplomacy and relationships, rooted in his affable and social personality. Whitney was studious and serious, Wright was an inveterate publicity hound and yarn spinner.

Questions about Wright’s selection should have been raised when, after a January 1911 offer of the Kansas City position, he required another two months before accepting, and yet another two before he arrived in Kansas City. His salary was $1,000 more than Whitney’s had been, and he immediately ordered new office furnishings and a personal stenographer to boot. Then, too, within a few short months of Wright’s employment, it was clear that the board’s goal of increasing productivity and mending interdepartmental feuds was no closer to being realized under Wright than it had been under Whitney.

Claiming an unspecified illness that was adversely affected by the frustrations of his new position, Purd Wright offered his resignation in to the board in July 1912, just 14 months after he arrived. Carrie Westlake Whitney and Frances Bishop were still on staff when Wright left Kansas City for Excelsior Springs and other therapeutic locations. By September 1912, Whitney had been fired, and Miss Bishop sent to one of the branch locations.

Carrie Westlake Whitney in her later years.

With Wright’s resignation it appeared the board would have to start a new search. Some of Whitney’s longtime supporters briefly lobbied for her reinstatement, but it was far too late for that. In the end, after delays in organizing a search process, further inquiries into the internal problems at the library that went nowhere, the seeming improvement of Wright’s health, and no doubt the board’s exhaustion over the whole mess, the board’s library committee refused to accept Wright’s resignation, almost a year after he had tendered it. Wright effectively took a year’s leave from the library after only his first year, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. He would remain head librarian until 1937.

Carrie Westlake Whitney retired to a quiet private life following her departure. Though she had been out of the public eye for more than twenty years, when Whitney died in 1934 at age 80, letters and remembrances filled the local newspapers for several days. The accomplishments which were celebrated in her tributes were those which were likely most valued by her, for they were where she spent her life’s energies – on her relationships with the library, the city, and her friendship with Miss Bishop.

(Featured Photo: the library building at 9th and Locust served as the main branch from 1897 to 1960. Courtesy Missouri Valley Room, KC Public Library)

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