Winser, Beatrice (1869–1947)

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Winser, Beatrice (1869–1947)

American librarian and museum director . Born on March 11, 1869, in Newark, New Jersey; died of arteriosclerotic heart disease on September 14, 1947, in Newark, New Jersey; daughter of Henry Jacob Winser (a journalist) and Edith (Cox) Winser; educated in French and German languages at schools in Germany; studied at the Columbia University Library School.

Beatrice Winser was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1869, the eldest of three children of Henry Jacob Winser and Edith Cox Winser . Her father, a journalist, was a native of Bermuda. Her maternal grandfather, Dr. Henry G. Cox, was a Bermudan whose career as a physician brought him prominence in New York City. When she was only two months old, her father took the position of U.S. consul general at the court of the duke of Saxe-Coburg in Germany. Previously an editor with The New York Times, Henry Winser became an assistant editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser and later the managing editor of the Newark Advertiser after he and his family returned to the United States.

During the 12 years she lived in Germany as a child, Beatrice learned to speak and read German and French and began what became a lifelong captivation with books. In 1888, soon after Columbia University had opened its new Library School, Beatrice enrolled. A year later, she became the cataloguer of the French and German archives at the Newark Public Library. She was promoted to assistant librarian in 1894, working first under Frank P. Hill and then John Cotton Dana, an educational crusader. A dynamic man who had been appointed librarian in 1902, Dana believed education was the key to social reform. He considered the library system as a necessary resource for children and adults in pursuing education. Winser shared his enthusiasm for the library and became his assistant in advocating the open-shelf system, which made books more accessible to library patrons.

In 1909, Dana founded the Newark Museum, beginning with a collection of Japanese art that was held by the library. The museum also became a passion of Winser's; due to their mutual efforts, it grew rapidly to include not only art, but exhibits about science and industry. Believing that museums should complement the education system, Winser devoted attention to the Junior Museum Club and assumed many of the responsibilities for managing the new museum. She accepted an appointment to the Newark Board of Education in 1915, becoming the first woman to serve on any of the city's governing boards. Her tenure, however, was short lived. After a few months of participation, she submitted a proposal to reorganize the city's educational system by vesting broader responsibilities in the superintendent of schools and, consequently, diminishing the board's own powers. Her proposal was defeated, its primary opponent was elected president of the board, and Winser resigned on principle. Also in 1915, she became assistant director and assistant secretary of the museum, joining its board of trustees as a member the following year. When Dana died in 1929, Winser succeeded him as both head librarian of the Newark Public Library and director of the museum. She organized several landmark exhibitions while director, including "American Primitive Painting" (1930), "American Folk Sculpture" (1931), "Aviation" (1932), and "Three Southern Neighbors: Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru." During the Depression, Winser hosted Sunday concerts at the museum as well as an adult art workshop.

Winser's activities also extended to a number of organizations outside the library and museum. Beginning in 1890, she was a founding member of the New Jersey Library Association, serving as president from 1907 to 1908 and again from 1921 to 1922. She was active in the American Library Association (ALA) as a member of its Council of Fifty from 1909 to 1912 and again in 1930, and as the ALA's second vice-president in 1931. The New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass College) received Winser as a member of its women's committee beginning in 1918.

Winser resigned from the Newark Public Library in 1942, although she continued as director of the museum until a few months before her death in 1947. Her resignation as head librarian was done with the hope that the surprising action would stop the trustees' interference in administrative matters and protect the future of the library. Through her actions like the museum exhibit on aviation, which was one of Newark's key industries, she attempted to weave the library and museum into the fabric of the community. She generally avoided politics and national issues, but remained opposed to the political control of libraries and other institutions, to the censorship of foreign books, and to prohibition. In 1937, Winser was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Newark. The citation described her as "an ideal public servant and a luminous personality." She died of arteriosclerotic disease on September 14, 1947, in her home in Newark.


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

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California