The Education of Alice M. Jordan: Navigating a Career in Children's Librarianship

By Gale Eaton. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 234 pp. ISBN 978-1-4422-3647-9.

Alice M. Jordan championed library services to children throughout her long career at Boston Public Library in the early part of the twentieth century. Her varied activities, which biographer Gale Eaton describes meticulously, ranged from writing about and promoting children’s literature, advocating for and overseeing trained staff and departmental resources, partnering with area schools, teaching library science courses in children’s work and storytelling, and networking to create professional associations of children’s librarians. Challenges she tackled over the years included lack of support for services to youth, inventory control, administrative and personnel turnover, and increasing demand for resources as educational expectations grew for all citizens in the early twentieth century.

Although Jordan’s career spanned forty years at the BPL during which time she earned numerous accolades among her peers for her tireless promotion of children’s librarianship, she is largely unknown both as a librarian and a person to today’s information professionals. Eaton’s work seeks to give credit to a woman who more than a decade ago recognized the role that the library could and should play in providing all ages in all classes of society with the opportunity to read, learn, and better themselves. To that end, Eaton mined nearly a dozen archives and Jordan’s own writings for information about her life and work. Additional information from an extensive bibliography of secondary sources set the context for Jordan’s activities.

One weakness of the work as a biography is acknowledged by Eaton from the start. Jordan never deliberately sought out the limelight for herself, and thus at times details about her activities are scant. Eaton compensates for this by promising readers that her work is as much a cultural and social history of Jordan’s life and time ‘across space’ as it is a linear biography through time. For the most part, this approach works. Readers learn details not just about Jordan but also many of the contemporaries with whom she interacted; they also learn about women’s wage disparities, the professionalization of various job sectors, and the impact that war had on the publishing industry. At the same time, as if to make up for the lack of details in certain periods of Jordan’s life, Eaton inserts an abundance of minutiae in others. This tactic tends to slow the flow of the text; however, it does reassure readers that Eaton has done a thorough investigation of her subject.

The chapters in the book follow a basic chronology of Jordan’s life. Thus readers quickly learn about Jordan’s literary upbringing stemming from a family of hardworking mariners. Family members’ penchant for storytelling not only provided ample entertainment for the young Jordan children but undoubtedly influenced Alice Jordan’s own understanding of the power of storytelling as a means to increase cultural literacy. Jordan’s own motivations for activities like promoting services to children, supporting settlement work, and emphasizing visual literacy as a means to help acculturate immigrants to middle class America remain unspoken. Nevertheless, the woman that Eaton presents fits in the mold of progressive women reformers of her time, if less radically than many of her better-known counterparts, so readers can easily infer the drive that prompted Jordan’s life of library service.

It is Jordan’s progressive bent toward bettering the lives of young children that will give this book appeal to those with an interest in the history of information. Whether explicitly articulated or subtly suggested, Jordan understood that access to books and information should be available to citizens of all ages. To this end, she read extensively and knew how to assist children in one-on-one interactions; she advocated for the hiring of similarly trained library staff; she taught classes to ensure qualified staff were available; she networked with educators to ensure books made it into the hands of children; and she used professional associations to further her goals. Finally, even after mandatory retirement in 1940, Jordan continued to foster the spread of information among children by becoming an associate editor of The Horn Book Magazine and by reading and writing reviews extensively. The take-away lesson of Eaton’s book is that the varied approach by which Jordan tried to foster literary improvement among children is what made her respected and admired among her peers, and ultimately worthy of her own biography.

Ramirose Attebury, University of Idaho Library