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Clara Whitehill Hunt, Superintendent of Work With Children

Feb 19, 2010 3:20 PM | 0 comments

 Children and librarians at the Bushwick Branch

In an era when it is common for people to spend two years in a position and then move on, Brooklyn Public Library remains an institution in which many people spend lengthy careers. This was as true in the early years of the 20th century as it appears to be today. Clara Whitehill Hunt worked for the system for 36 years, from 1903-1939. Brooklyn's library system was in the early years of its development when Miss Hunt, who had spent some years in the classroom and risen to the rank of principal of a small elementary school, became convinced that librarianship was the path she wished to follow in life. After training at the New York State Library School in Albany, she organized a children's room in the Apprentice's Library of Philadelphia, spent four years  as a children's librarian in Newark, and in 1903 came to the notice of Dr Frank P. Hill, then Director of Brooklyn Public Library.

He hired her as Superintendent of Work with Children. From then onwards her devotion to the profession of children's librarianship was complete. She organized children's rooms in every Brooklyn branch as it opened. In the early years of the 20th century, New York and many other cities across the country were the recipients of grants from Andrew Carnegie for new library buildings. Between 1904 and 1923, 21 branches were built in Brooklyn, each custom-designed for its site by a talented architect. Miss Hunt established collections and trained librarians for this rapidly expanding system, creating a librarian training program that offered "a limited number of places to  young college women of acceptable personality." Later in her career she provided the vision behind the Children's Room of the Central Library.

Fireplace at Brownsville Children's

A leader in her field, Miss Hunt had strong opinions about what constituted suitable reading matter for the children of Brooklyn.  In one of many articles produced for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and several professional journals, she wrote:  "...a long continued diet of mediocre reading will weaken a child's mental powers and ruin his appetite for good books...the child allowed to indulge in the cheap series habit becomes a sort of psychological dope fiend...  Of course, some strong-brained children break away from a trash reading period, just as they emerge unhurt form the diseases of childhood." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 11 1922).  Evidently comic books would find no place in her collection, nor did Huckleberry Finn  and  Tom Sawyer, works she considered would exercise a vicious influence upon young minds. Her successor, Irene Smith Green wrote of her "She was a person apart, a power absolute. She was unacquainted with compromise, implacably fair, idealistic, the unshakeable arbiter of right and wrong in a world of shifting values."

While the parameters of what she considered acceptable reading for children may have been narrow,  she required of herself and the librarians who worked in the system a constant critical reading of children's literature, ensuring a well-informed staff. None of this reading could be done on work time--it was a pleasure for which librarians should not expect to be paid.

She was, it would appear, a bit of a tartar. Yet remarkably, her staff admired her, and she wrote warmly of them. In her notes for the design of the Brownsville Children's Library she showed great concern for their welfare: "Staff rooms. These should be large, convenient, attractive because of extra strain of work at Brownsville. Have kitchen and sitting room...In kitchen a large sink near the light, sink and stove near together, large ice-box, china closet, gas range. In sitting room large dining table, couch, rug, easy chairs. Economy to keep staff well by comfort and beauty in staff rest room."

Clara W. Hunt, Milton J. Ferguson and Flora de Gongorza celebrate 25 years of Browsville Children's branch

While our librarians today no longer espouse Miss Hunt's censorious attitudes towards children's literature, her legacy of commitment to service remains.  There is also a more tangible legacy of her career here in Brooklyn Public Library--the Clara Whitehill Hunt Collection of Children's Literature, comprising approximately 13,000 books dating from 1741 to the present. It includes miniature books, special editions, fine illustrated editions, early textbooks and primers, picture books, signed first editions and more. It is a remarkable collection, formed by a remarkable woman and her successors, and like so much that goes on in libraries, it is the cumulative result of many years of service.