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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Additional Recent Columns

Interlibrary Loan  - (9/25/2016)
The Future of the Book  - (9/11/2016)

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Ellen Summers Wilson, First Librarian
By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 02, 2016

Librarians love to investigate, to research, to probe through various books in search of the answer to a question.

 

Today, we have more tools than ever before which we can use to hunt for that elusive information; which, when found, causes excitement and delight in finding something that had been the object of our search.

 

I call it, “a librarian-thing” when a little shriek of delight comes from the usually-quiet librarian upon the finding of a tid-bit of information.

 

That happened recently to me, fortunately in the quiet space of my office so as not to be embarrassed by my “gee-golly.”

 

The first librarian of our library was Ellen Summers Wilson, a native of Albany, and a graduate of the State University of New York Library School (Melvil Dewey’s school) with the Class of 1898.

 

She was employed by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at their Wylie Ave. Branch, and their Lawrenceville Branch when she was called to Steubenville several months before the new Carnegie Library opened.

 

I have found her story fascinating.  She was 27 years old when she arrived, and rented a room in a house just down 4th street from the library under construction.

 

She mended old books from three former libraries to make a “starting collection” for the new library, due to open in March 1902.

 

The library shelves looked bare, but she did everything to attract users from forming clubs for boys and girls, to establishing a Query Club and a Civic League.

 

Ellen Summers Wilson stood at the gates of the steel mill and passed out cards with the library’s hours and new phone number.

 

Her delight at being the first librarian was short-lived, as she contracted tuberculosis and resigned in Aug. 1904 to return to Albany to treat her illness.  She died Nov. 6, 1904.

 

Aside from what I found in our own archives, I couldn’t locate anything more about Miss Wilson, but I would keep trying as new information appears on the Internet.

 

During my recent try, again I found nothing more about “Ellen Summers Wilson” until I tried searching “Ellen S. Wilson” and learned that she is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, NY.

 

The cemetery had just digitized their grave cards, and she is now listed online as resting in Lot 60 which was owned by her grandfather, Benjamin Wilson.  Searching that section yielded no other family members, however.

 

I did learn that at the time of her death, she was residing at “145 Lancaster St.” in Albany, so I tried Google Maps and found that the house still exists, and is today a beautiful 3-story brick row house near the N.Y. State Capitol Building.

 

It says it was constructed in 1883 (when Ellen was 10) so perhaps it was first lived-in by the Wilsons.

 

I then Googled the address and I found a 1908 Alumni Book online that listed “James Alexander Wilson” as a graduate of Yale University, and there was listed “Ellen Summers Wilson” as his eldest daughter, as well as the whole Wilson family!

 

“Summers” is her grandmother’s maiden name, and “Ellen” is her mother’s middle name, and she was the eldest child of James & Anna Ellen Wyckoff Wilson with five brothers and one sister.

 

Her father owned a wholesale grocery company called Wilson, Lansing & Co. Two of her brothers were also alumni of Yale University, both living into the 1960s.

 

I had found more in 5 minutes than a week of research in the 1990s prior to the Internet.

 

Ancestry.com didn’t yield any further information about possible family members, although one brother seemed connected to the Cleveland area, and another lived his whole life in Connecticut.

 

I did find that she prepared a paper in Library School about Robert Louis Stevenson, and she spoke at the 1902 Ohio Library Association meeting in Cleveland.

 

Modern online searching also yielded another obituary in a Steubenville newspaper under the heading “The Grim Reaper” which misspelled her middle name as “Somers.”

 

Now I need to regroup and review the new information, and see how I can use these clues to continue searching for our “Miss Wilson.”