Plummer, Mary Wright (1856–1916)

views updated

Plummer, Mary Wright (1856–1916)

American librarian, educator, and writer. Born on March 8, 1856, in Richmond, Indiana; died of cancer on September 21, 1916, in Dixon, Illinois; daughter of Jonathan Wright Plummer (a wholesale druggist) and Hannah Ann (Ballard) Plummer; educated in Quaker schools in Richmond and later at Wellesley College; graduated from Columbia College Library School, New York City, in 1888.

Member of first class of Columbia College's library school (1887); organized a training program for librarians at Pratt Institute Free Library (1890); became director of Pratt's Free Library and its library school (1895); at Pratt Free Library, oversaw creation of first children's library section (1896); as principal, helped establish and direct the New York Public Library's library school (1911); elected the second woman president of the American Library Association (1915).

Selected writings:

Hints to Small Libraries (1894); Verses (1896); Roy and Ray in Mexico (1907); Roy and Ray in Canada (1908); Stories from the Chronicle of the Cid (1910); Seven Joys of Reading (1910).

Born on March 8, 1856, in Richmond, Indiana, Mary Wright Plummer was the oldest of the six children of Jonathan Wright Plummer and Hannah Ann Plummer . Her father, a wholesale druggist, had moved west from Maryland, while her mother came from Virginia. Both were Quakers, and Jonathan was also an approved minister in the faith. After graduating from the Friends Academy in Richmond, Plummer spent a year studying at Wellesley College before returning to live with her family, who had moved to Chicago. For the next four years, she taught school and spent some of her free time writing poetry; several of her poems were published in The Atlantic Monthly and Scribner's Magazine.

Although she had been a voracious reader since childhood, Plummer displayed no particular interest in library work until one day in Chicago she spotted a newspaper advertisement for a library school that was soon to be opened at Columbia College in New York City. Her interest piqued, she made further inquiries, and in January 1887 joined the first class of the library school, which included a total of 17 women and 3 men. The school, founded by legendary Columbia librarian Melvil Dewey (inventor of the Dewey Decimal System), offered a two-year program of study and was a pioneer in the education of professional librarians. Plummer excelled at her studies, so much so that, during her second term, she was given the responsibility of instructing others in the science of cataloguing.

Following her graduation from Columbia in 1888, Plummer accepted a position as cataloguer in the St. Louis Public Library, headed then by Frederick Crunden, one of the proponents of professional training for librarians. After two years in St. Louis, she was hired by the Pratt Institute Free Library in Brooklyn to organize a training program for librarians. In 1893, Plummer was chosen as acting curator of Pratt's educational exhibit during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The following year, she was named director of Pratt's Free Library and its library school. To allow her time to prepare for these new responsibilities, Pratt gave Plummer a year's leave of absence to travel and study in Europe. In the fall of 1895, she returned to Brooklyn from Europe and took on her new job, concentrating first on helping to plan the Free Library's new building. When the new quarters opened in the spring of 1896, observers were impressed in particular by two groundbreaking features, both of which had been proposed by Plummer. One was a special portion of the library that had been designed for use by children, the first of its kind, and the other was an art reference room designed for use by the general public. That same year a collection of Plummer's poetry, entitled simply Verses, was privately published.

A strong believer in the importance of special library facilities for children, Plummer originated the idea of special training for librarians who served children. In an article entitled "The Work for Children in Free Libraries," appearing in Library Journal in 1897, Plummer summed up her thoughts about what it took to put together a successful library facility for children: "the requisites for the ideal children's library, as we begin to see it, are suitable books, plenty of room, plenty of assistance, and thoughtful administration. Better a number of children's libraries scattered over a town or city than a large central one, since only in this way can the children be divided up so as to make individual attention to them easy."

Plummer's first love was unquestionably the training of librarians, and in 1904 she stepped down as director of Pratt's Free Library to concentrate on the operation of the institute's library school. In the latter half of that decade, she also wrote three children's books: Roy and Ray in Mexico (1907), Roy and Ray in Canada (1908), and Stories from the Chronicles of the Cid (1910).

In 1911, the New York Public Library called upon Plummer to help establish and direct its library school, funds for which had been obtained from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Her official title was principal (a man was given the title of director). Among her responsibilities in preparing for the school's opening in September 1911 were the hiring of faculty members and the preparation of announcements. The school offered a two-year program, as had been the case at Pratt; during the first year, students received a grounding in the basics of library science, while in the second they took advanced training in cataloguing, management, and bibliography. Plummer would serve as principal of the school until her death.

In an assessment of Plummer's contribution to library training that appeared in Bulletin of Bibliography in 1930, Anne Carroll Moore observed that Plummer had "a positive genius for the making of an interesting program of any kind—professional, literary, or purely social." Plummer was an intellectual who delighted in scholarly pursuits. She had developed fluency in French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Although she certainly could have made a career for herself as a literary critic or poet, she chose to devote her life to library science. Moore writes that Plummer's "scholarly tastes and her warm friendship with European librarians and writers contributed definitely to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the library and the whole institution with which she was associated."

Plummer served two terms as president of the New York Library Club, during 1896–97 and 1913–14. She also served a one-year term as president of the New York State Library Association in 1906. The crowning glory of her library career came in 1915, when she was elected the second woman president of the American Library Association (the first was Theresa West Elmendorf ). Plummer died of cancer in Illinois the following year, age 60.


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

Moore, Anne Carroll. "Mary Wright Plummer" in Bulletin of Bibliography. Vol. 14, issue 1. January–April 1930.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania