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The Archivist Files: Why the woman who started LA's branch libraries was fired

Mary Jones, LA City Librarian from 1900-1905, a victim of misogyny, replaced by Charles Lummis by commissioners who preferred a man for the job.
Mary Jones, LA City Librarian from 1900-1905, a victim of misogyny, replaced by Charles Lummis by commissioners who preferred a man for the job.

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Pop quiz!

Who is L.A.'s City Librarian? (Answer below.)

Don’t know? Don’t feel bad, most people don't know his name. But 100 years ago, the whole town knew the librarian’s name, and the reason is in the city archive.

Mary Jones was the librarian for the public library system from 1900 to 1905. She was fired mysteriously, and a special commission of city council members held hearings to find out why. The transcripts for those hearings are in the city archives.

Councilman Arthur Houghton: “I am merely asking questions, Mr. Mayor, and I will be fair and impartial. That is my attitude”

Mayor Owen McAleer: “Well, if you do, you ought to go to heaven”

Houghton: “I wouldn’t leave Los Angeles for any place so remote”

The story began in March 1905 when, without cause, Mary Jones was relieved of her position by the Board of Library Commissioners. Shortly after, Mayor Owen McAleer removed four of the five commissioners, also without an explanation.

(Owen McAleer, L.A. Mayor 1904-06. LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

Jones took her case to the various women’s groups, which complained to the mayor’s office. The local press, including the L.A. Times, covered the story for months.

"Association at Portland Denounces the Removal of Miss Jones from Post - Wants Politics Barred"

Demand for Public Hearing in Jones Dismissal Case; Representatives from Every Woman's Club in the City Will Attend the Woman's Mass Meeting This Afternoon at Club House to Outline Plan of Action"

— Los Angeles newspaper headlines, c. 1906

(The L.A. Public Library was housed at City Hall from 1888 until 1928. LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection)

Hearings began January 24, 1906, and moved to the city council chamber in the old city hall because of the crowds.

The first thing the city council members looked at was why the mayor fired the library commissioners. But Mayor McAleer was a hostile witness. He claimed the commissioners misled him about alleged mismanagement at the library, and so he’d removed them. He denied any involvement in Jones’ firing, then he walked out — never to return.

So now they turned to Mary Jones’ firing. She had been the first librarian trained by the New York State Library School. She began our branch library system, starting in Boyle Heights, and installed an African-American librarian in the Arroyo Seco branch. She questioned the board’s no-bid supply contracting, and supposedly raised her voice and threatened to quit if a funding or salary request was denied.      

Those were the accusations, but at the hearing, several library commissioners described a secret lunch meeting at Al Levy’s restaurant between the library board and the mayor.

(Undated photo of Al Levy's Restaurant. LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

Over lunch, the commissioners said they got the mayor’s support in removing Jones and replacing her with local historian and writer Charles Lummis. The transcripts reveal more chicanery: despite their alleged concerns about her, the board gave Jones glowing performance reviews year after year; they rejected a modest increase in Jones’ salary, but paid Lummis a greater salary without objection; and Jones was fired just before a change to the civil service rules took effect that would have made it harder to fire her without cause.

Not shockingly in 1906, several library commissioners said on the record that they preferred a man to be in charge of the library system.

Paper: Women Librarians and the Los Angeles Public Library, 1880–1905

For her part, Mary Jones was a quote machine, telling the L.A. Times, “Those directors seem as crazy after a man as though they were a board of old maids.”

The council’s final report concluded that they could prove no wrongdoing by the Library Commission, in part due to the mayor’s lack of cooperation. The council restored the fired commissioners to their posts, and Charles Lummis remained the city librarian for the next five years.

Mary Jones left L.A. to work in Berkeley and Bryn Mawr, returned to help set up the new L.A. County library system, retired in 1920, and died in 1946.

Pop Quiz Answer: John Szabo (below) is the current L.A. City Librarian.


L.A. City Archivist Michael Holland contributes occasional looks into the city's archives for Off-Ramp, and writes for Alive!, the city employee newspaper.