Sohier, Elizabeth Putnam (1847–1926)

views updated

Sohier, Elizabeth Putnam (1847–1926)

American advocate for libraries. Born in 1847; died in 1926.

Elizabeth Putnam Sohier spent her lifetime working for the cause of libraries, recognizing the importance of the institutions in educating the masses. In an era when public libraries were practically nonexistent, Sohier believed that every town should have library service and persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to establish the Free Public Library Commission in 1890. It was the first state agency of its kind in the nation, charged with establishing libraries across the state. Sohier was appointed to the board and served as its secretary until her death 36 years later, faithfully attending every meeting. In its first 14 years, the commission helped form more than 100 libraries, thanks to Sohier's efforts. She had acquaintances in nearly every region of the state and used these contacts to convince important players to join her cause. The governor of Massachusetts once called her the "ablest" politician in the state. Although she herself possessed tremendous clout, she opposed women's suffrage.

A Mayflower descendant and member of the Mayflower Society, Sohier also was active in the Woman's Education Association, which furnished traveling libraries, lent picture collections, and published lists of new books for libraries. She also helped found the Library Art Club, which offered traveling collections of pictures, and the Massachusetts Library Aid Association, which handled donations she and her friends made to the library cause. To encourage child literacy, Sohier started a program of awarding certificates to children who read a certain number of books. She also worked for library programs to help immigrants become literate. When the United States became involved in World War I, she persuaded the commission to provide library service for the soldiers. Sohier died in 1926, leaving $1,000 to the Woman's Education Association, $5,000 to the library commission, and $10,000 to the Beverly Public Library, where she had served as a trustee for 30 years.


Danton, Emily Miller, ed. Pioneering Leaders in Librarianship. Boston, MA: Gregg Press, 1972.

Lisa Frick , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri