Imagine an American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference where you meet in one large room from 9:30 a.m. to only half past noon for six days, after which you are free to go wandering around an exhibit and amusement area 13 times the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida.
Imagine a conference where, after listening to a “characteristic address” by Melvil Dewey—“full of the enthusiasm of invention and the ardor of prophecy, which never fails to kindle a responsive spark in his audience”—you venture out to ride on the biggest Ferris Wheel in the world, eat some new-fangled ice cream cones, watch Alexander Graham Bell participate in a kite-flying contest, listen to rousing performances by John Philip Sousa’s band, or thrill to reenactments of Spanish-American War naval battles and the Boer War Battle of Colenso.
October 17–22, 1904, was “American Library Association Week” at the St. Louis World’s Fair, formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in commemoration of President Thomas Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. Like many other organizations, ALA saw the fair as a wonderful opportunity to hold its annual meeting in a historic venue that offered unlimited educational benefits.
And, why not? ALA itself was founded and first met at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, then went on to meet in Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition—although the conference arrangements there were a bit chaotic and attendees apparently goofed off more than usual because they couldn’t get to the sessions. But St. Louis fair promoters were out to one-up Chicago in any way they could, and they made it easy for ALA to round up its members for the program. Library Journal (at that time the official ALA magazine) reported in its November issue that “The great body of the audience came to listen and learn, and nothing could divert even the younger folk from that stern duty and pleasant privilege.”
The majority of the ALA attendees stayed at the Inside Inn, the only hotel that was actually inside the fairgrounds. Visitors could stay for as little as $1.50 per day on the European plan, or $3.00 per day on the American plan, which included three meals. Both plans covered admission to the fair, which ordinarily would cost 50 cents daily (the equivalent of $10 today). After a sweltering St. Louis summer, the weather had just started to turn in October, and some librarians complained about the hotel’s chilly beds and lack of elevators in a building that covered 10 acres and offered 2,257 rooms. (Little did they know that the Inside Inn, run by the soon-to-be-famous hotel magnate E. M. Statler, had lined each room with asbestos as a fire-protection measure.)
In the morning, conference-goers hopped on the Intramural Railway for 20 minutes to get to their meeting room in the Hall of Congresses, a large building with 40 auditoriums. The room was described as “pleasant and satisfactory, well ventilated, and with good acoustics” and ALA claimed that fair officials said no other convention “had been attended so largely and continuously” as the ALA sessions. The only mix-up occurred when deaf and blind writer and activist Helen Keller was assigned the ALA room by mistake for her speech, and attendees had to push through an overflow crowd to meet in a smaller room down the corridor.
The Hall of Congresses
Amazingly, you can still visit the very spot where ALA met and Helen Keller spoke. Washington University was about to move from downtown St. Louis to a site at the edge of the city when fair organizers asked about renting the newly constructed buildings in 1903 and 1904 as headquarters for the exposition. The university agreed and postponed its move until after the fair. One of the new buildings was the Hall of Congresses, which became the university’s Stephen Ridgley Hall in January 1905 and housed (appropriately) the main library until the 1960s. Ridgley Hall still stands and is the home of the departments of Germanic and Romance languages and literatures. The ALA meeting room was transformed first into Ridgley Library’s reading room, then into a lounge area, and now it persists as the Holmes Lounge, a venue for jazz performances and other special events.
An article titled “Seven Days at the St. Louis Fair: The Lighter Side of the Conference” appeared in Library Journal as part of the conference proceedings. Written by “One at Headquarters”—an ironic designation, since ALA at the time was without a central office, with correspondence handled by ALA Secretary James Ingersoll Wyer in Nebraska, the ALA Publishing Board in Boston, and Library Journal editors in New York—the piece was probably penned by none other than LJ editor and founder Richard Rogers Bowker.
Bowker waxed eloquent about the fairgrounds, which he visited on Sunday when the fair was closed: “Seen thus, in stillness and comparative solitude, the Fair was a picture long to be remembered—the Sunken Gardens, bordered by the columned arcades of the great buildings on either side; the magnificent semicircle of the Colonnade of States outlining the noble terraces flanking Festival Hall; the vistas of cascades, lagoons, and beautiful structures, all grouped in harmony—at no other time were the magnitude and beauty of its conception so evident and overpowering.”
He also reveals that the magnificent Tyrolean Alps Restaurant became the after-hours “recognized headquarters of the Association,” set in an authentic Alpine village (complete with specially constructed fake mountains) where diners could drink beer or lemonade and listen to the melodies of “Kounzak’s magnificent orchestra.” In fact, Bowker admits to having so much fun there that he forgot he had been entrusted with tickets to an October 19 “moonlight launch trip on the lagoons during a special illumination of buildings and grounds,” which made the fair “gleam with a many-colored radiance that made the sky look like black velvet and the moon seem insignificant.” He sheepishly turned up late for the event.
Another special perk arranged by the local committee was an evening at Hagenbeck’s Animal Circus and Zoological Paradise, which featured continuous animal extravaganzas in a 3,000-seat arena and such special shows as elephants plummeting down a gigantic water slide. “Somebody from Headquarters” (Bowker) showed up to distribute the tickets this time to librarians but went unrecognized as the “ALA man.” He wrote, “This is said to have hurt him cruelly, for he had hoped that he looked the bibliothecal part assigned to him on life’s stage.”
Librarians and cocktails “equally stimulating”
Among the 577 attendees were 30 delegates from 17 foreign countries. One of the visitors was the droll L. Stanley Jast, librarian of Croydon (England) Public Library, whose memorable jest at the opening session bears repeating. After a welcoming oration by Fair President and former Missouri Governor David R. Francis, Jast responded on behalf of the overseas librarians, saying (among other things), “I am inclined to think, sir, that perhaps the two most valuable and satisfactory characteristic products of American civilization are the librarian, on the one hand, and the cocktail on the other. I will not attempt, sir, the delicate question of deciding which is best, but I am given to understand that some of us have sampled both and found them equally satisfactory and equally stimulating.”
The roster of US librarians included no less than 26 former, current, or future ALA presidents, spanning nearly a half century of Association history:
- 1889–1890, Frederick Morgan Crunden (St. Louis Public Library)
- 1890–1891, 1892–1893, Melvil Dewey (State Library of New York)
- 1891–1892, William Isaac Fletcher (Amherst College)
- 1894–1895, Henry Munson Utley (Detroit Public Library)
- 1896–1897, William Howard Brett (Cleveland Public Library)
- 1898–1899, William Coolidge Lane (Harvard University)
- 1899–1900, Reuben Gold Thwaites (Wisconsin Historical Society)
- 1900–1901, Henry James Carr (Scranton Public Library)
- 1903–1904, Herbert Putnam (Librarian of Congress)
- 1904–1905, Ernest Cushing Richardson (Princeton University)
- 1905–1906, Frank Pierce Hill (Brooklyn Public Library)
- 1906–1907, Clement Walker Andrews (John Crerar Library)
- 1907–1908, Arthur Elmore Bostwick (New York Public Library)
- 1909–1910, Nathaniel Dana Carlile Hodges (Cincinnati Public Library)
- 1910–1911, James Ingersoll Wyer Jr. (University of Nebraska)
- 1912–1913, Henry Eduard Legler (Wisconsin Free Library Commission)
- 1915–1916, Mary Wright Plummer (Pratt Institute)
- 1916–1917, Walter Lewis Brown (Buffalo Public Library)
- 1917–1918, Thomas Lynch Montgomery (Pennsylvania State Library)
- 1920–1921, Alice Sarah Tyler (Iowa Library Commission)
- 1922–1923, George Burwell Utley (Baltimore Diocesan Library)
- 1924–1925, Herman H. B. Meyer (Astor Library)
- 1927–1928, Carl B. Roden (Chicago Public Library)
- 1928–1929, Linda Anne Eastman (Cleveland Public Library)
- 1933–1934, Gratia A. Countryman (Minneapolis Public Library)
- 1936–1937, Malcolm Glenn Wyer (State University of Iowa)
ALA Model Library
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention ALA’s own exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, which actually won an award. The ALA Model Library, installed in the Missouri Building, was conducted as a branch of the St. Louis Public Library and consisted of a collection of 5,000 volumes selected by ALA as essential, some 1,500 works by Missouri authors, and several thousand books, newspapers, and magazines from St. Louis Public Library. The books could circulate to exposition employees. Melvil Dewey’s Library Bureau supplied bookshelves, counters, desks, and tables, and the Library of Congress furnished cards for the catalog. The fair awarded ALA a “grand prize” for the Model Library and gave a gold medal to St. Louis Public Library Director Frederick Crunden for his services at the exhibit.
Unfortunately, the Missouri Building was destroyed by a fire that broke out around 6 p.m. on November 19, less than two weeks before the fair closed. LJ reported in its January 1905 issue: “The bulk of the furniture and the books were at once removed from the building, and the only damage was to several hundred books which remained in the building and were ruined by water. . . . Mr. Crunden and other members of the Public Library staff reached the grounds shortly after the fire and assisted the salvage corps in protecting the books by tarpaulins.”
The Library of Congress also had an exhibit at the United States Government Building, featuring a sectional model of the library, a set of catalog cards showing the evolution from handwritten to printed cards, pages from President James Monroe’s journals, and a collection of Civil War music.
After St. Louis, ALA managed to hold its Annual Conference concurrently with a world’s fair in five more cities:
- Portland, Oregon, July 4–8, 1905, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition;
- Brussels, Belgium, August 28–31, 1910, for the Universal and Industrial Exposition;
- Berkeley, California, June 3–9, 1915, just across the bay from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition;
- Chicago, October 16–21, 1933, for the Century of Progress Exposition; and
- San Francisco, June 18–24, 1939, for the Golden Gate International Exposition.
But the St. Louis World’s Fair represented the first blossoming of 20th-century technology that emerged from the Victorian Era. The average American in 1904 rarely traveled 20 miles from home. Few living outside the major cities had any knowledge of the wider world or developing technologies. For many, it was their first chance to see airships, wireless telegraphy, baby incubators, massive displays of electrical lighting, or foreigners of any type. It was a perfect venue for an ALA conference.