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Madam Librarian

March 29, 1972


To tell the story of Carrie Morehouse Watson (c’1877, n’1880), who served as KU’s head librarian from 1887 until 1921, is, in some ways, to tell the story of the University itself during its first few, formative decades. The transition from provincial college on the American frontier to a serious and cosmopolitan university was neither steady nor rapid, yet one of the true constants was “Aunt Carrie,” as she was called, who was undoubtedly as much a fixture on campus as the library that would one day bear her name.

Watson presided over remarkable growth of the University’s library resources and followed the collections as they, time and again, overflowed one building into another. She was a dedicated lover of books and spent much of her free time visiting the great eastern libraries and attending conventions in order to better understand her trade. And with her notorious steely glare, she shushed and humbled many a youthful “offender,” among whom became some of the nation’s most famous leaders and opinion makers, including William Allen White, Sen. William E. Borah, and Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston.

Yet her 34-year tenure was also characterized by gross mismanagement and administrative indifference, leading many University officials to welcome her self-imposed retirement and lay much of the blame for KU’s sluggish, early-century growth at her feet. On balance, however, she was and remains a beloved figure, as evidenced by the 1924 naming of Watson Library in her honor. And near the 114th anniversary of her birth, on March 29, 1972, her University honored her again with Carrie Watson Day, a tribute to her life and work at KU.

“When I first became connected with it,” said Carrie Watson to the Lawrence Journal-World on September 20, 1938, “the library was a single small room in the home economics department of K.U., located on the first floor of Fraser hall. I had been graduated and received an AB degree in 1877 and went to Chancellor James Marvin’s office complaining about having nothing to do.” When she saw KU’s chancellor filling out student enrollment forms by hand, entering ages, addresses, and qualifications, her natural instinct, according to a May 24, 1931, profile in the Kansas City Star, was “to help him with a task that she felt was more suited to a young graduate than to the head of a university.” “Suddenly I wanted to be back in the university,” she later said, to be “in some way a part of it.” As Watson recalled, Marvin told her: “Come back and see me tomorrow and I’ll find something in the meantime that will keep you busy.”

With that, Watson began her professional association with KU. Born in New York on March 31, 1858, she and her family moved to Kansas Territory shortly thereafter. She eventually enrolled in 1870 at KU as a preparatory student, and then, in 1878, was hired on as the chancellor’s part-time secretary and assistant librarian under mathematics professor Ephraim Miller. “I’m going to place you in charge of four boys in the library,” Marvin told the twenty-year-old young woman. “I don’t know whether or not you can handle them, but it will be your job to see that they do their work.” If there was ever any doubts about her ability, she quickly dispelled them, essentially running the University’s library herself, given that Prof. Miller were merely a titular librarian and, in the words of the Journal-World, “remained inactive in the affairs of the place.”

Surveying her new domain, Watson described KU’s library as a “curious mixture”: “There were very few books in the place, the most reading matter being documents of all sorts that had been collected.” Numbering no more than 2,000 pieces, the University’s library resources were primarily composed of US Patent Office records and, according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, “a few miscellaneous volumes of no importance.” In addition, KU subscribed to only four periodicals – Century, Harper’s, Scribners, and the Atlantic – and had a paltry library budget that hardly ever rose above $500 a year.

These resources and facilities were, obviously, hardly befitting a great university, or even a mediocre one, and many faculty believed that part of the problem was the University did not have a full-time professional librarian to bind and classify existing books and to oversee the library’s expansion. So, on April 1, 1887, when Prof. Miller resigned his nominal post as head librarian, his assistant, Carrie Watson, although having had no formal training, took over the position and began her 34-year reign.

Nearly everyone has in their minds the image of the dourly old spinster librarian who, with but a stern look, could frighten children and silence and paralyze the most rambunctious of adolescents. While this may be an unfair stereotype, there is much to suggest that Carrie Watson was just this sort of imposing presence, both in appearance and in mannerism.

According to the Star, those who knew her best found her to be kind, generous, and helpful, “but to those who know her only as the lady behind the librarian’s desk, she may seem a bit stern. Certainly she has quelled the exuberance of youth in men who have become great generals, great lawyers, doctors, poets, editors, engineers and philosophers.” She “quieted them with a chiding eye” and always insisted, “The library was a place for study rather than flirting.” One of her longtime assistants, Maud Smelser, once said that “all she had to do was to look at an offender” and order was immediately restored; and perhaps no one but she could once “command a young professor to stop smoking” and have the cigarette promptly, and apologetically, extinguished.

The December 1943 edition of the Graduate Magazine eulogized Watson, and in a section entitled “Discipline Without Rancor,” wrote that “there are a good many alumni, now middle-aged and sedate and highly-approving of good conduct everywhere, who once thought of Miss Watson chiefly as a disciplinary officer. Perhaps many times they have been checked in some amplitude of self-expression, in the reading-room or hall of the old library, by the prompt arrival and definite word of Miss Watson, and they regarded her only as a blighter of joys.” She did not, however, harbor any “permanent irascibility” even after raining “crushing words” down upon young offenders, for it was impossible for her to “carry rancor or to keep any sourness in mind.”

Carrie Watson may never have let her mind be soured on the countless thousands of students whom she had been forced to discipline over the decades, but that did not mean that none were ever soured on her. “Without a doubt,” wrote Griffin, “she loved books, desired to interest students in reading more of them, and genuinely desired to be of service.” Yet, he added, “also without a doubt she saw the library as her personal preserve, in whose administration the faculty should not interfere.”

By the mid-1890s, her “erratic administration” and incompetence in matters such as “deciding purchase priorities, periodical binding priorities, and the classification of books of value to two or more departments,” had the faculty up in arms, and prevailing upon Chancellor Francis H. Snow to help remedy the situation. After several unsuccessful measures to assist her with her duties, the University Council finally established a permanent Library Committee in 1901 empowered to act “on questions of library administration,” and, as Griffin noted, “pointedly kept Miss Watson off it.”

At the turn of the century, in 1901, Chancellor Frank Strong took over from the retiring Francis Snow and was quickly besieged by the continuing, nagging complaints over Watson’s ineffective administration, despite the Council’s intervention. By 1903, he finally promised to hire a new librarian but, for whatever reason, nothing happened. Six years of inaction followed until 1909 when, according to Griffin, “complaints against Miss Watson had become so ardent that the Board of Regents was searching for a man – preferably the scholar she was not – who ‘had the book sense, was a good organizer and administrator, had the general capacity for handling business, and … the helpful missionary spirit which can make a library so useful.’”

“The search,” he added, “was fruitless.” Thus followed another six-year period of inaction until 1915 when University opinion, led by the University Daily Kansan that promised an “exposé of library mismanagement,” resumed its call for Watson’s ouster. For a third time, nothing happened, and Carrie Watson, after a bout of ill health in 1921, calmly and quietly retired. That she never was fired and had outlasted (or outlived) four chancellors and countless professors, surely says something about not only her tenacity and formidability, but also about her deep and abiding commitment to her alma mater.

Watson obviously, and in character, bore no hard feelings against those who had criticized her and her administrative abilities over the years, for even after her retirement she remained almost a daily presence at KU where she held the title librarian emerita. And equally apparent was the respect and reverence that many in the University community still held for her. The clearest example of this came in the spring of 1923 when construction on the University’s new library began.

As to the question of what the building should be called, many alumni wanted it named after the KU’s longest-serving librarian. Among her more prominent champions was the “Sage of Emporia” himself, William Allen White. “Miss Watson tolerated me,” White once recalled wistfully, even though he had been on the receiving end of numerous Watsonian rebukes during his time at KU. “She let me read practically all the English section in the library; [and] whatever I got in the way of education was out of that library.”

He, along with the governor of Kansas, Jonathan M. Davis, prevailed upon the State Board of Administration to name the building Watson Library, over the objections of Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley. It is unclear whether Lindley’s objections to naming the building after Watson were the result of substantive criticisms of her administrative failings or some effort to spite the wishes of Gov. Davis, with whom he had been having a long-running feud (and which would eventually result in his temporary ouster from the University.)

In any event, by 1931 Lindley had apparently resolved his objections, at least publicly. He told the Star that the University “had been fortunate to keep the same librarian” as long as it had; he also gushed that the reason Watson Library now bore her name was because of her “efficiency and faithfulness to duty [and] her sterling traits of character [which] have placed her high in the regard of the faculty, alumni and student body.”

Until 1940, at the age of 82, Watson worked on local history projects in the third-floor “Lawrence Room” in the library that bore her name. Reflecting on her retirement, she told the Journal-World in 1938 that she “wanted to break off completely from the job I then held [as head librarian], although I still wanted to do some work in the library.” She did not, however, want to seem “meddlesome,” and took care not to involve herself in the work of her successors. Finally, on June 27, 1943, the 85-year-old former librarian and Mount Oread original passed away at her home on Louisiana Street, almost within sight of her library and her University.

Looking back, Watson was certainly instrumental in helping the KU library grow out of its 1870s quarters in Old Fraser, into the new Spooner Library in 1894, and, finally, into what became her namesake, Watson Library, in 1924. And certainly the fact that, upon her retirement in 1921, the library boasted, not a couple thousand books and assorted documents, but 140,000 volumes, 1,185 periodicals, and 121 newspapers, owes much to her tireless commitment to the University of Kansas. For this, the University honored her not only with her own building, but also, eventually, with her own day. To commemorate the 114th anniversary of her birth, KU declared March 29, 1972, to be Carrie Watson Day and welcomed guest speakers and the public to her library to remember how much the University and its libraries had changed in the past century, and also how instrumental Carrie Watson was in the institution’s early history.

Those in attendance heard about how she had served on state and local committees, gave lectures on bibliography to history and education classes, and traveled across the country (even once to Brussels, Belgium) to attend library conferences. The event was the brainchild of Daniel Cordiero, a Latin American bibliographer, who, according to the Kansan, “thought many people did not recognize the importance of libraries and librarians.” “Almost everyone is dependent upon libraries,” he said, “because without libraries there would be no record of civilization.”

Indeed, that record will surely persist far into the 21st century, and though she is no longer around to enjoy it, in a way Carrie Watson is still a part of this continuing “record of civilization.” In KU’s case, this manifests itself in the University’s online electronic library, the nation’s first, aptly named CARRIE after the woman herself. Debuting in the summer of 1993, the system contains resources and links to an extraordinary amount of diverse documents and information, including world constitutions, United Nations and Catholic Church materials, primary sources of American and European history, and the literary treasures of Western Civilization. From Christopher Columbus’s journal entries to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war speeches to firsthand accounts of Quantrill’s raid to Shakespeare’s complete works and beyond, all can be accessed and read online courtesy of CARRIE: surely an excellent resource and evidence enough that KU’s first professional librarian remains a part of her library long after her passing.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Consult the Watson Library Building Files and the Carrie Watson Personal Files for a wealth of documents pertaining to both subjects. See also: Graduate Magazine (February 1917), p. 132; (April 1923), p. 5; (October 1924), pp. 14-15; (April 1926), pp. 7-8; and (December 1943), pp. 6-7. For reports of Watson’s 1947 additions, see Kansas City Star, August 7, 1947, and Topeka Capitol, September 15, 1947; for Stuart Froth’s article, see Alumni Magazine (November 1964), pp. 7-8, 26. The following issues of the University Daily Kansan are also pertinent: January 3, 1923, p. 1; June 13, 1924, p. 1; September 8, 1924, p. 1; and April 30, 1926, p. 3; March 15, 1972, p. 8; March 29, 1972, p. 1; March 30, 1972, p. 5. For a biographical portrait, see Kansas City Star, May 24, 1931, pp. 1C, 3C; and Lawrence Journal-World, September 20, 1938. Particularly helpful is Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 301-2, 380, 428, 439, 440, 483, and 596-97.]