Rathbone, Josephine Adams (1864–1941)

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Rathbone, Josephine Adams (1864–1941)

American librarian and educator. Born in Jamestown, New York, on September 10, 1864; died in Augusta, Georgia, on May 17, 1941; daughter of Joshua Henry Rathbone (a physician) and Elizabeth Bacon Adams; attended Wellesley College and the University of Michigan; New York State Library School, Albany, New York, B.L.S., 1893; never married; no children.

Josephine Adams Rathbone was born in Jamestown, New York, in 1864. She attended Wellesley College and the University of Michigan before enrolling in America's first library school, the New York State Library School at Albany, New York, which had been founded by Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal System fame). She worked as an assistant librarian of the Diocesan Lending Library at the All Saints Cathedral in Albany during the course of the two-year program, and graduated in 1893.

Rathbone's career officially began when she joined the staff of the Pratt Institute Free Library in Brooklyn, New York—the first free public library in the New York City area—as an assistant cataloguer. She also taught in the Institute's library school, which had opened in 1890 to train Free Library workers. In 1895, it was converted into a general library school under the directorship of Mary Wright Plummer , who was also the director of the library itself. Rathbone was chosen as the assistant in charge under Plummer, and in 1904, when Plummer relinquished her library post to devote her energies to the school, Rathbone became chief instructor. She patterned the Pratt Institute's curriculum after that of her alma mater, although with a greater emphasis on service in small-or medium-sized public libraries. Described as "brisk and executive-like," she was not overly friendly with her students, but she was passionate about the things she taught. As quoted in the American Library Association Bulletin in May 1932, she believed that the key to good librarianship was "to know books and to understand the book needs of people," and to facilitate a "vital relationship" between readers and books.

Pratt Institute was among the best library schools in America by 1911, when Plummer left to join the New York Public Library School. Rather than promoting Rathbone to the top position in the school, however, Pratt officials recombined the directorship of the school and the Free Library, and awarded this title to Edward F. Stevens (who had no experience running a library school). He enjoyed the prestige of a grander title than Rathbone's (which was "vice-director"), even though she was the primary administrator, and their contacts were tense. Nonetheless, her reputation was widely known. In addition to her contributions to library periodicals, she was a member of the American Library Institute, served as secretary of the New York State Library Club Association (1908), and served the New York Library Club as secretary (1895–97, 1909–10) and as president (1918–19). She was invaluable to the American Library Association, in particular during its work providing books for armed forces personnel in World War I, and served as a member of its council (1912–29) and as president (1931–32).

Rathbone never married or had children, but greatly enjoyed reading and the theater, as well as taking canoe trips, climbing mountains, planting trees and traveling. She retired from the Pratt library school in 1938 and moved to her mother's hometown of Augusta, Georgia, where she lived with a cousin. She became a member of the Philomathic Club and the Colonial Dames of America, and learned how to drive her newly purchased automobile. Rathbone died in Augusta of coronary thrombosis at the age of 76 on May 17, 1941.


American Library Association Bulletin. May 1932.

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

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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