It must have been in the spring or summer of 1953. I was fourteen, going into the ninth grade at Central Junior High. Miss Letha Davidson, the Director of the Ames Public Library, was also a neighbor of ours on Carroll Avenue. She noticed that I spent a lot of time in the Library, and one day she called me into her office and asked me if I would like to become a student library assistant. At that time in Iowa, it was legal for 14 year-olds to hold part time jobs; the age was later raised to 16. I could work ten hours per week. I don't recall the hourly pay rate; I'm sure it was below the minimum wage, but more than I could hope to earn otherwise, and I must have been quite excited. I don't recall the exact procedure that followed. I know I went to City Hall to apply for a Social Security card (I still have that same card), and soon reported for work at the Ames Public Library.
Miss Davidson brought an air of congeniality and good humor to everything she did. She was a kind, patient teacher, with a wry sense of humor. She genuinely liked young people, and truly loved libraries. She thought that by bringing youths into the library as employees, she could brighten up the library with a youthful presence, and at the same time give the young people a grounding in research skills and a love of reading that would last a lifetime.
Miss Davidson was a highly intelligent, articulate, knowledgeable professional woman; I think she was the first such person I'd met who wasn't a teacher or a secretary. This broadened my horizons considerably, presenting a different role model. And I have never known anyone who was happier in her job than Letha Davidson as Director of the Ames Public Library. She seemed to be a person in her element, doing what she loved, every moment she spent there. She truly believed that a town's public library was its treasure, a place of significant value to every resident. She once said she was "an old maid by choice," but admitted the choices were limited because shortly after she arrived at college, the United States entered World War I, and most of the young men went off to war. She shared a cheerful home with her mother and a cat named Wilbur; she was active in various activities around Ames. She also loved music and played the piano. She never owned a car, and seemed to have no interest in driving one. The library was just over four blocks from our homes at 8th and Carroll, so walking to work was not a problem. Also, in her day, Ames had a taxi service, so she was able to get around by taxi. Her younger sister, Margaret, was also a librarian; she drove down from Webster City on weekends and helped her sister and mother with shopping and errands.
Miss Davidson was truly a genius at organizing systems and procedures, and in training us assistants to follow them. Using manual typewriters, pencils, and 3x5 cards, she and her staff managed to accession and keep track of every book, magazine, record and pamphlet in our library. It took lots of 3x5 cards. The words "digital" and "digitize" weren't in our vocabularies; "electronic" had something to do with radios. Every book that came into the library needed cards for author, title, and subjects; these were filed in the main catalog. There was a lot of cross-referencing involved, and we learned to find things through the card catalog the way people now do with search engines (another term not in our vocabularies). The 12" LP classical records in our music collection were also carded and cataloged.
Circulation was handled with more cards. Of course all the library patrons had cards, also. There were sets of drawers for the various types of cards at the main desk. I don't recall the exact procedure now, but when a patron brought books to the desk to check out, we would ask for the patron's name, pull his/her card from the drawer, and remove the master card from the pocket which had been attached to the inside cover of the book. Then, using a pencil with a date stamp device clipped onto it, we would stamp the due date on the master card, and on a card which was placed in the book pocket to remind the patron when the book was due. I do not remember if we wrote the patron's name or only his card number on the master card, which stayed in the book when it was on the shelf. I can't recall looking at the card in a book and seeing the names of all previous readers; by today's standards, this would seem to be a violation of privacy. At the close of the day (the Library closed at 9 o'clock) one of us would sort the day's circulation (the master cards from all books checked out), and file them: alphabetically by author for the fiction, and numerically by Dewey number for the non-fiction. These would go in a drawer under the due date and be ready to check in the books when they were returned.
The professional staff, in addition to Miss Davidson, consisted of two librarians, Mrs. Elwell and Miss Hurley, plus a children's librarian, Miss Seely. Barbara von Wittich also helped with the children's library, worked the circulation desk, and did the origami-type posters for the shadow boxes in the children’s library and by the front entrance, plus other artistic decorations around the library. There were others who helped with cataloging and other tasks, but I do not recall their names now. There were many other student assistants; the names I recall include Doris Witter and Charlotte Biester, both in my school class; Frances Greene was a couple of years ahead of me, Marge Easton a year later in school; Dennis Wendell, a couple of years behind. On the whole, we were a happy crew; morale was high.
Miss Davidson trained us individually in various library procedures, and made certain we understood what we were doing and why. We learned the Dewey Decimal system, which is still used by most public libraries to classify books; we learned how the library was organized, and how to shelve books (we spent a lot of time shelving). We were also trained in how to use the various resources in the reference section, and to use the card catalog and our imaginations in seeking out information about obscure places, people, or events. When patrons phoned in with research questions, we students leaped at the challenge to find the answers. (Before the days of Google, Miss Davidson encouraged people to simply pick up the phone and call the public library when they needed to know some obscure fact; the library staff would look it up for them, and soon call back with the answer). Skills learned there came in handy later doing college research papers.
Saturday mornings we had children's story hour. What followed was the closest thing the library had to a rush hour; it was quiet pandemonium. Some of the student staff were detailed to help read stories and assist the children in selecting books. It was all hands on deck as the children lined up to check out their armloads of books.
Looking back, I realize what a good start Miss Davidson gave me; most of my professional life was devoted to research-related work. My retirement activities are also research-oriented, focusing on genealogy and history. I continued to work in a library part-time through college, and even now, I volunteer at a historical society library. History and foreign affairs were always my main interests, and my professional life may have taken that course anyway, but I know Miss Davidson's guidance and inspiration had something to do with it. I had a long and varied career, and worked for many people. Some were brilliant, some pompous fools; most were capable, well-intentioned souls somewhere in between; but in looking back, I would have to say the most inspiring boss I ever had, and my favorite, was the first – Letha Davidson.
March 16, 2012