Tessa Kelso and the Los Angeles Book Burners

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

By: Robert Fernandez

Tessa KelsoLast week, the California Library Association announced this year’s inductees into the California Library Hall of Fame. One of them is Tessa Kelso (1863-1933), the sixth head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. It’s worth looking back at this formidable librarian and an unusual episode in the history of intellectual freedom where she took the offensive against a would-be book burner by suing him… and winning.

In 1889, Los Angeles was a relatively small city of about 50,000 and educational standards in our profession weren’t as formally codified as they are now, so Kelso — a former journalist — was able to be appointed city librarian with little background in librarianship. Even so, she transformed the LAPL into a modern metropolitan library. Circulation increased to more than 300,000 and the collection grew in size, scope, and sophistication. Under Kelso, the library adopted the Dewey Decimal System, abandoned membership fees, and began a formal training program for library workers. She was also a thoroughly modern figure herself, wearing her hair short, riding a bicycle, smoking, and going hatless.

Not everyone in Los Angeles was happy with a modern library system or a modern head librarian. In 1893, Kelso attended ALA and the World Congress of Librarians, both in Chicago. Despite the fact that her trip was approved by the library board, the city auditor twice refused to fulfill the obligations of his office and reimburse her $200 in expenses. She was forced to sue.

The Los Angeles Herald dismissed the trip as a waste and Kelso herself as an “expensive appendage of an expensive institution.” The Herald kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks on Kelso and the library into the next year. One choice example of its yellow journalism came the following June, in a piece titled “Plain Facts About the Library,” offered up with a heavy dose of opinion, anti-intellectualism, and disdain for our profession. It dismisses the work and expertise of librarianship, insisting that it be limited to the physical labor of book handling. “Certainly this labor cannot be very arduous and exacting, and more certainly it should not cost the tax payers $1000 per month in salaries.” The Herald was still harping on Kelso’s conference attendance, writing:

Absorbed in deep, abstruse problems, with reference to the ethics of bibliology to be sometime projected on the heads of sapient thinkers in some book congress in Chicago, San Francisco or Hong Kong (with expenses paid by the taxpayers) […] which were about as much practical value to Los Angeles taxpayers as the outgivings of a Thibetan mahatma on the advisability of curtailing the pendulous appendage of a scowfaced simian.

It was against this backdrop that the Herald published a breathless story in August.  The Herald had found “An Indescribable Revelation,” which it went on to describe at length. The revelation was that the library contained a copy of the novel Le Cadet (“The Younger Brother,” 1890) by Jean Richepin. Richepin was a once notorious French novelist and bohemian, outrageous in his writing and life, friend of the even more notorious poet Arthur Rimbaud and lover of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt.

To be sure, Le Cadet is heady stuff. It follows Amable Randolin, the younger brother of the title, back to his old homestead, inherited by his older brother Désiré. Amable covets the land and seeks to supplant his brother, first by having an affair with Désiré’s wife — who bears Amable a child which soon dies — and then by murdering him. Désiré’s wife’s is off to a convent while Amable dies in a metaphor which is a bit too on the nose, his naked body found in an ecstatic embrace with the land he so lusted after.

You’d never know any of that, however, from reading the Herald. The Herald‘s writers didn’t even know, not having read much of the book itself. The Herald assured their readers that they stopped reading so they wouldn’t be corrupted by the novel’s pernicious influence: “Its perusal – and we confess that we have confined our inspection of the details to a very small portion of the work – has paralyzed us, and we do not claim to be a spring chicken or an exceptional moralist.” Yet they read just enough to assure you that it is really, really bad.  “This awful book would be thrown with indignation out of the house of the most infamous maison de joie [brothel] in the world.”

The Herald reported that “the shelves of the city library are covered with books that are not only not fit to be read but which are indescribably filthy.” The writers did not name or even allude to any other specific titles, apparently having gotten the vapors after flipping through Le Cadet and needing to flee the premises immediately. This single volume, however, was sufficient to whip them into a positive fury of righteous indignation:

The idea that a young woman or a young man of Los Angeles, or an old woman or an old man of this or any other city, or any intermediate person, as to age or sex, of this or any other place, should wander into a public library, maintained for purposes of instruction and benefit to the masses of both sexes, and get possession of such a work is enough to petrify any wellwisher of his kind!  It is appalling.  Rather than have such an infamy possible in the city of Los Angeles it would be a mercy to the young, the mature and the old alike to have the city blotted out by fire, and rebuilt on wholesome principles.  We would just suggest that as [library board president] G. A. Dobinson is a fire insurance agent, he may have been playing for the Fire of Sodom to light upon the so-called City of the Angels, with a view to his convenient absence, to his reaping the usufruct of a renewal of insurance policies.

These Herald writers missed their calling as fire and brimstone preachers, but their work was the source for a number of local sermons that weekend. One of them in particular was by the Reverend J. W. Campbell of the First Methodist Church, which the Herald reprinted under the headline “The Evil of Vile Books.” Campbell warned that “a bad book is far worse” than even card playing or dancing. The sermon warned at length of the dangers of bad books and the merits of good ones, which, to be fair, are all valid things to discuss in the context of selecting reading for yourself or your children. But the sermon takes a dark turn when Campbell suggests that they “cleanse the library by fire.”

The sermon went on at even greater length about the virtues of book burning, but the printed sermon does not recount the personal remarks Campbell made about Kelso herself, which would soon become an issue. The Herald later reported that Campbell offered a prayer directed at the librarian: “Oh, Lord, vouchsafe thy saving grace to the librarian of the Los Angeles city library and cleanse her of all sin; and make her a woman worthy of her office.”

Kelso wasn’t about to take this lying down. While a more timid administrator would have counseled silence or a conciliatory statement, Kelso went on the offensive and sued Reverend Campbell, heading to court for the second time in two years. She charged slander: Campbell’s prayer labeled her “a sinful and immoral woman” who “was by reason of moral delinquencies unworthy of [her] office.” This slander was compounded by two things: She was not Campbell’s parishioner and thus not subject to his moral jurisdiction, and that as librarian she was charged with the welfare of hundreds of young, unmarried female employees and patrons, and the times demanded someone in her position be of “unblemished moral character.”

Campbell took the position that his prayer was a privileged utterance of his religious office.  The court disagreed, ruling that “a slander can be perpetrated in the form of a prayer; as readily as in any other form of speech, and no communication made by parson or priest to his congregation is privileged because of such relation, unless, perhaps, when made in the discharge of his pastoral duties with one subject to the discipline of the church, and then only unless made without malice.” Campbell quickly settled with Kelso and paid her court costs.

While Le Cadet remained safely on the shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library and none of its books were consigned to the flames, the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending. As a result of changes in board officials, political machinations, and a humiliating salary decrease, Kelso submitted her resignation in 1895. She headed east, working for Charles Scribner’s Sons and then Baker and Taylor. Though she continued to attend ALA, she never again worked in a library.


Robert FernandezRobert Fernandez is an academic librarian and is a member of the Florida Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. A member of the Board of Directors of Wikimedia District of Columbia, he has been active on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects since 2004 and is part of efforts to get more librarians to participate on Wikipedia. Find him on Twitter @wikigamaliel.

One thought on “Tessa Kelso and the Los Angeles Book Burners

  • An inspiring story. I’ve never heard of Tessa Kelso, but she’s a librarian to learn from.

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