Get to know Carrie Westlake Whitney

Carrie Westlake Whitney became known as the Mother of the Kansas City Public Library. (Photo from Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908)

She transformed the Kansas City Public Library and gave a rough-hewn young city some polish

Carrie Westlake Whitney is having a long-overdue moment.

The first full-time director of the Kansas City Public Library was one of the most influential women of her day, growing and shaping a fledgling institution at the turn of the 20th century into a state-of-the-art civic centerpiece. She helped a rough-hewn young city take on some cultural sheen.

Whitney was smart and assured. She was progressive. Through most of her tenure, she was something of an irresistible force. She served as the Library’s head librarian from 1881 to 1910, stayed another couple of years as assistant librarian, and then slipped — unfairly, it seems — into anonymity.

That’s changing amid the Library’s yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1873. Whitney, still the only woman through the end of 2023 to have led the Library on a permanent basis, figures prominently in an upcoming book produced in connection with the sesquicentennial, Kansas City’s Public Library: Empowering the Community for 150 Years. She “transformed the Kansas City Public Library into one of the most distinctive public libraries in the country,” writes its lead author, Jason Roe, the Library’s digital history specialist.

Roe further spotlights Whitney and the Library’s early history in a signature speaking event at the downtown Central Library on Thursday, March 14. At the same time, the Central Library is making her the focus of a fan fiction contest, inviting the public to write original short stories or poems about Whitney “or any librarian.” The submission deadline is March 15.

Sentiment is high within the system to memorialize the woman who became known as the Mother of the Kansas City Public Library in some more permanent way.

“Whitney founded the Library, essentially. She was it for the first 25 years,” says Crystal Faris, who joined the Library as a branch manager in June 2005 and now is its deputy director of youth and family engagement.

“She was certainly opinionated and had narrow opinions on (what constituted) quality literature, particularly for children. But she moved the Library away from exclusivity and into welcoming more people . . . in a direction that allowed us to be the institution we are today.”

Roe points to an imprint beyond the Library. “If you’re looking at the time frame of the 1880s and ’90s and early 1900s,” he says, “I’d say Whitney would be maybe the most prominent woman in Kansas City — in terms of establishing an organization of this scale with dozens of employees and serving an entire community.”

Born in 1854 on a large plantation in what’s now Fayette County, West Virginia, Caroline E. Westlake moved with her family to Iowa and then made her way with her father to Missouri after the death of her mother. Carrie married, divorced, and wound up in Kansas City, working as a bookkeeper and renting a room in the home of school Superintendent James Greenwood.

The children’s room, a Carrie Westlake Whitney innovation, at the Kansas City Public Library’s former Main Library at Ninth and Locust streets in 1900. (Kansas City Public Library, Missouri Valley Special Collections)

It was the school district that launched the Library in December 1873. Greenwood absorbed the duties of first head librarian, which he and the school board handed off to the then-27-year-old Whitney in March 1881. She made $30 a month and was to perform “other clerical work” as needed as determined by superintendent.

The Library’s collection at the time consisted of several thousand books and a raft of government documents, reports and periodicals. It would grow under Whitney’s stewardship to nearly 100,000 volumes housed in a grand, marble-appointed building at Ninth and Locust streets, a facility that would serve the system until 1960.

The Library also featured cutting-edge children’s services and facilities — Whitney was a national trailblazer in that regard — a science museum that gave seed to today’s Kansas City Museum and an art gallery that would evolve in stages into The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

In 1898, the Library abolished its requirement for paid subscriptions to borrow books. Every resident of Kansas City now had free access to its collections and services. A year later, with the addition of the Allen Library in Westport, Whitney oversaw the system’s first expansion beyond downtown.

“It started out as a very humble sort of job,” Roe says. “But as the Library grew, her contributions to the Library and to Kansas City became remarkable.”

Whitney’s impact widened. She became a frequent public speaker and served on the Chicago World’s Fair education commission in 1893. She helped organize the Missouri Library Association in 1900, was part of its first slate of officers, and became president in 1901.

The Missouri History Encyclopedia was published that same year. Whitney was an editor. She became a well-known author of children’s stories and poetry and also found time to write what was then and remains one of the most authoritative accounts of our city’s formative years, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908.

An unidentified man sits among paintings in the Kansas City Public Library’s Western Gallery of Art in 1900. (Kansas City Public Library, Missouri Valley Special Collections)

Despite that impressive resume, her 29-year term as head librarian ended ingloriously. The school board asked Whitney to resign in 1910, offering a demotion to assistant librarian. “The library has gotten to be a very large proposition,” board President J. V. C. Karnes said. “It has grown away from you, and in my opinion needs for its head a person at least under 40 years of age, a scholar of eminence and distinction, who has library training and experience, and I think a man should be selected.”

Whitney had thrived in what was very much a man’s world…until it would no longer let her. She initially refused, then accepted the relegation to assistant librarian. She was removed altogether in September 1912 after her continued presence proved too uncomfortable for the man the Library now wanted as director, Purd Wright.

Faris wonders if, “because she was unceremoniously replaced by a man, her role in librarianship got lost a little bit,” leading to Whitney being overlooked and underappreciated in the years and decades that followed. Whitney died, at age 80, in 1934.

“I think people look at the history of what happened in New York and Boston in starting libraries,” Faris says, “and they don’t think about the fact that, at the same time, it was happening at an even faster rate in Kansas City in the Midwest. You look at cultural institutions at the turn of that century, and men were running them. And there she was. It was a pretty big deal.”

So much so that when Whitney was writing her three-volume Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, there was no getting around one awkward requisite: some mention of herself.

She accorded herself a succinct, 265-word entry that, at the end, spoke to the role of her beloved Library in her life. “Mrs. Whitney’s biography,” she wrote, “is the history of the Kansas City Public Library.”

–Steve Wieberg

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