Isom, Mary Frances (1865–1920)

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Isom, Mary Frances (1865–1920)

American librarian. Born Mary Frances Isom on February 27, 1865, in Nashville, Tennessee; died on April 15, 1920, in Portland, Oregon; daughter of John Franklin Isom, a surgeon, and Frances A. (Walter) Isom; educated at Cleveland public schools, Wellesley College, and the Pratt Institute Library School in Brooklyn, New York; never married; children: (adopted daughter) Berenice Langdon.

Born the only child of John Franklin Isom, a prominent surgeon, and Frances Isom on February 27, 1865, Mary Isom grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where she attended public schools. Her start at Wellesley College in 1883 came to halt because of ill health, and she devoted herself to keeping house for her father after the death of her mother in 1891. His death in 1898 left her temporarily unmoored until Josephine Rathbone , an old friend and a faculty member at Pratt Institute Library School, encouraged Isom to enroll at Pratt. Isom graduated in 1900, then moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1901 to catalog the John Wilson Collection at the Library Association, then a private library.

In 1902, Isom became the librarian there, and, in accordance with the stipulations of the institution's donor, the library was transformed from a private subscription library to a free public one. Within a year, great changes had been made, including a new registration system, a children's department, and larger reference services. The library had also expanded to serve the county as well as the city. In less than six years, Isom helped set up three branches and eleven reading rooms around the county. Books were also being taken to schools, stores, fire stations, and grange halls.

In 1905, Isom played a crucial role, along with board member Winslow B. Ayer, in getting legislation passed that established the Oregon State Library Commission. That same year, she helped convince Cornelia Marvin to leave her job as secretary of the Wisconsin Library Commission and take over the development of Oregon's public libraries.

The period from 1911 to 1913 saw the necessity for seven large permanent branches to meet the growing needs of the Portland area, and Isom played an important part in the procurement of Carnegie funds that allowed these branches to be established. Working closely with architect Albert E. Doyle, Isom also was instrumental in the building of the new Multnomah County Public Library.

During World War I, Isom helped to organize libraries in army and lumber camps throughout Oregon and Washington. She also accepted a request, despite ill health, from the American Library Association to organize hospital libraries in France. She spent six months on this task and returned home in poorer health. However, she did not want to stop her activities and so remained involved by phone and letters until her death of cancer at the age of 55 on April 15, 1920.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan

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