“Assembled Piecemeal by Pack Rats and Vandalized Nightly”

As I continue to research my grandmother Velma Jane Moore’s time as a cataloguer at the Toronto Public Library from 1919–1922, I’m using the Toronto Public Library’s annual reports as primary sources for the historical context of library services at that time. Prominent in these reports is the increased demand for children’s services identified by children’s librarian Lillian Smith. While Smith’s reports were interesting, I didn’t intended to write about them because Velma worked in a different department.

However, I kept coming back to the historical context for children’s library services. Of Velma’s direct descendants, only two are children now, my grandnephews James (10) and Liam (7). As Digital Natives who could swipe an iPhone before they could walk, they have instant access to information, their only challenge being to find it. As movie critic Roger Ebert so aptly put it:

Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly.1

It then occurred to me that for the two generations following Velma’s, my mother’s and my own, our experiences with libraries were the same as hers. If we needed information that wasn’t in the family’s World Book Encyclopaedia, we had to go to the neighborhood library to look it up. If the information was in a book that wasn’t in the library’s holdings, we asked the librarian to order it through interlibrary loan.  Then we went home and waited.

James and Liam, on the other hand, go straight to Google. In order for them to understand and appreciate this young woman four generations removed from them who would become their great-great grandmother, they need the historical context for library services. They need to know that for much of the twentieth century, information was contained primarily in books and periodicals, which in turn were classified and catalogued according to a system, most commonly the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress System. This was a logical and orderly world that appealed to Velma, and she felt very much at home there. She would never, ever have entertained the notion of “a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly.”

I therefore decided to write about children’s library services from the perspective of the historical context that would be most relevant for Digital Natives such as James and Liam to compare with their own experiences at the library. They will find similarities as well as differences!

Lillian Smith: A Champion for Children’s Literacy

I first encountered the name Lillian Smith on the back of one of Velma’s snapshots in The Family Archives. She was in charge of the Children’s Department at the time Velma was there. I went on to learn that Smith was the first professionally trained children’s librarian in the British Empire.2 In 1912, when she was twenty-five years old, the Toronto Public Library recruited her from the New York City Public Library.3  Her career with the Toronto Public Library would span a period of forty years and include many innovations in children’s librarianship.4 Her work extended beyond library walls to community outreach and leadership to provide children’s library services in the city’s schools and two settlement houses.5 From what I’ve read, she was a real dynamo, and the children of Toronto were fortunate to have her as their champion. A branch of the Toronto Public Library was later named for her.6

A Decrease in Book Circulation Due to Fear of Contagion

Smith noted in her annual report for 1919 that the Children’s Department had experienced an interruption of service when the library was forced to close for three weeks due to a smallpox epidemic.7 Curious, I went back a year, and sure enough, the library had closed for a time in response to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.8 Smith went on to note:

The decrease [in book circulation] is not only due to the closing of the Library, but also because so many parents have  prohibited their children from taking books after the epidemic through fear of contagion.9

The fear of contracting infectious disease through library books was widely enough held at the time to prompt the Ontario Library Review to publish the article “Library Books Rarely, If Ever, Carry Disease” by the Director of the Institute of Public Health, H. W. Hill. According to Dr. Hill, the belief that diseases such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever could be spread though surface contact even after time had passed since the initial contact by the infected person was based on a faulty analogy with anthrax.10

Google Search Note: Apparently that fear is still around today, if blog posts and message boards are any indication. However, Dear Children, before you demand that Mother microwave, freeze, or spray your library books with Febreeze, just remember to wash your hands before you eat, and you’ll be fine.

Story Hour

One of Lillian Smith’s major initiatives was the establishment of regularly-scheduled story hours at all of the city’s branch libraries to encourage reading. From 1919 – 1922, the number of story hours held increased 118%, from 34511 to 73512. The number of children participating rose 151%, from 15,35913 to 38,55014. The average number of children at each story hour was 45 in 1919 and 52 in 1922. The following photograph from the 1922 annual report is testament to the Story Hour’s popularity.

What Children Were Reading

In the Library’s 1919 report, Smith wrote that “stories of pioneer life and Canadian history, Greek heroes, King Arthur and Robin Hood have been told with great success.”15 For the older children, reading clubs were established to encourage a shift away from reading the popular fiction of the day to reading “standard and classic literature.”16

In 1917, Smith developed a list of approved books to encourage children’s reading, although in her introduction, she does note that the list contains some books of mediocre literary value:

These are included through having justified their place on our shelves as stepping-stones to the better kind of books, which are not always immediately appreciated by children who come from bookless homes, or who have been saturated with the vapid serial reading matter contained in the Alger and Elsie books.17

Vapid Serial Reading Matter

Approved for Children Under Ten

Approved for Children Over Ten

I will close by asking readers to comment on the photograph at the top of this post. The children are wearing winter coats and hats. Do you think their clothing indicates that the building was cold or that the photograph was staged? I can’t decide.


1quotegeek, accessed December 16, 2018, http://quotegeek.com/personalities/roger-ebert/10697/, originally appeared in “Critical Eye” column, Yahoo! Internet Life, September 1998.

2“Lillian H. Smith (1887-1983),” Toronto Public Library, accessed December 16, 2018, https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/about-the-library/library-history/lillian-h-smith.jsp.

3“Lillian H. Smith,” Toronto Public Library.

4“Lillian H. Smith,” Toronto Public Library.

5“Lillian H. Smith,” Toronto Public Library.

6“Lillian H. Smith,” Toronto Public Library.

7Lillian H. Smith, “Reports from the Departments: Children’s Department,” Toronto Public Library Thirty-Sixth Annual Report, 1919, 17.

8Lillian H. Smith, “Reports from Departments: The Children’s Department,” Toronto Public Library Thirty-Fifth Annual Report, 1918, 14.

9Smith, “Children’s Department, 1918” 14.

10H. W. Hill, M.B, D.P.H., “Library Books Rarely, If Ever, Carry Disease,” Ontario Library Review and Book Selection Guide I, no. 1 (June 1916): 7.

11Smith, “Children’s Department, 1919,” 18.

12Lillian H. Smith, “Reports from Departments: Boys’ and Girls’ Library,” Toronto Public Library Thirty-Ninth Annual Report, 1922, 22.

13Smith, “Children’s Department, 1919,” 18.

14Smith, “Boys’ and Girls’ Library,” 22.

15Smith, “Children’s Department, 1919,” 18.

16Smith, “Children’s Department, 1919,” 18.

17Lillian H. Smith, “A List of Approved Books for Boys and Girls,” excerpted from Ontario Library Review, August 1917, 2.

Image: “After School in the Children’s Room, Earlscourt Library,” Toronto Public Library Thirty-Seventh Annual Report, 1920, 16.

Image: “Waiting for the Story Hour, College Street Library,” Toronto Public Library Thirty-Eighth Annual Report, 1921, 10.

Book Cover Images: All book cover images are in the public domain, retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

16 thoughts on ““Assembled Piecemeal by Pack Rats and Vandalized Nightly”

    • Thanks, Brad! I enjoyed reading the article about the Topeka open air school. I know my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations were very big on the healthful properties of fresh air, but I’d never heard of “open air schools.”

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    • You’re probably right! I’m just accustomed to public buildings being way too hot in the winter. I think James might find the post of interest, as he is big into reading, but Liam wouldn’t stay still long enough to get through it. A bit of a whirling dervish, that one.

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  1. Agree the library may have been chilly, but also wondered whether it was simply a function of no coat hooks? My old town library had only one rickety coat rack so people tended to wear coats as they browsed. Anyway, merry Christmas and thanks for a really fascinating post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it was maybe on the chilly side. There doesn’t seem to be a fire in the grate. Also no chair backs to put their coats, so probably easier to keep them on.
    In this digital age you can borrow books and more (adding every day) research resources from your local library using OverDrive, but nothing really beats holding a book in your hand and leaving through the pages looking for that gem that will help your research!
    We lived in a small town and had a traveling bus library. We were and are a family of avid readers.

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    • I expect you’re right about the library being chilly. It seems to be the consensus of opinion! I know what you mean about holding a book in my hands and leafing though it to find a hidden gem. When I was doing research for historical fiction I was writing, I found this obscure little book about Calvin Coolidge hidden deep in the stacks on an upper floor of the Old Dominion University library. I learned that he had sandy-colored hair, he shoveled his food when he ate, and he smoked cheap cigars!

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  3. I so loved this post Liz – it was fabulous for many reason but particularly because my mother was a librarian and I was raised as you, in a world of books that went digital. Books and quiet, from store front to circulation dept head of Hofstra University for her …thank you for reminding me to love my mom for her love of books 🙂 Sharon

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Sharon! I remember my mother passing her best-loved books on to me as soon as I was old enough to read them. Sharing the same reading experience made me feel so close to her. I still have those books. Elijah the Fishbite, The Sea Around Us, and Thee Hannah are three I remember right off the top of my head.

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  4. As a former librarian, I found your well researched post fascinating. It was a school visit to my local library in the 1950’s that sealed my loven of books. Reference books were always a particular attraction, as I loved searching for information. Yes, I use Google now, but I have never gone down the road of getting a Kindle – I like to handle a book. I particularly enjoyed seeing the book covers you featured.

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Susan! Internet Archive is a goldmine of primary sources. The book covers (and the full-text books) are on Project Gutenberg. I must confess that when I looked for book covers to represent the approved books on Lillian Smith’s list, I stuck closely to the classics I knew, for fear of inadvertently promoting “vapid serial reading matter.”

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  5. What a great post! I loved reading what Lillian selected for the children 100 year ago. I am a librarian, and my aunt was also a librarian. In the years since your grandmother was a librarian, so much has changed in libraries, and so much has stayed the same! We still do a lot of collection development, and we still lend out tons of books every year. More and more is added to the scope of modern libraries, like different media, e-books, films, video games, internet hotspots and more. When I was a child, I remember my aunt created a media center/computer room in her small school library, and it was grant-funded and the first of its kind in our area. Now, it’s almost crazy to see a library with no computers! Still, our love of books and our encouragement of childhood literacy remains the heart of the public library. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Thanks for this great article with so many interesting details, Liz, — things I never thought about. I really like the title (a quote I hadn’t heard) and how you tied it into children and books/research in the digital age and libraries of the past. I think Lillian was a wonderful librarian. Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn about her personality? As far as the coats — it looks like the librarians behind the desks are not wearing coats so perhaps, as others have suggested, the children kept their coats on because there was no place to hang them.

    Liked by 1 person

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