The illustrated life of a children’s librarian

Louise Payson Latimer, one of the most celebrated children’s librarians in the United States, was actually a born and raised Jefferson Countian.  Known for her special attention paid to illustrations found within children’s picture books, her legacy is still being felt 75 years after her retirement.

Born in Charles Town, West Virginia, Louise Payson Latimer graduated in 1896 from Stephenson Seminary, then located at 515 E. Washington St.

Beginning in 1919 and spanning nearly 30 years, Latimer served as director of the Work with Children Department of the District of Columbia Public Library.  She was the third person to hold that job and, as of the writing of this article, held the position longer than any other person.

Public libraries were reeling at the time due to costs associated with World War I, the 1919 influenza pandemic, and general cuts to municipal budgets.  The DC Library was no different and owing to the lack of competitive wages, saw a very high turnover rate among staff.  Latimer was not to be deterred, though, and immediately set to work organizing the department and ensuring books were distributed outside of the library to those who couldn’t access its resources, including people in settlement houses, prisons, hospitals, and children with disabilities who remained at home.

In 1927, she was offered the honor of presiding over the awarding of The Newbery Medal, which went to Will James for his book Smoky the Cowhorse.

During her time overseeing the children’s department, she began to notice the number of patrons who sought books by particular illustrators or which contained illustrations depicting a certain scene or subject.  Ever the organizer, she began a cataloging system focusing on illustrations, a pursuit which became a passion for the rest of her life and eventually morphed into the District of Columbia Public Library’s Illustrator Collection.

Once Latimer began to catalog books by their illustrator, she presented a list of over 800 books to Director George Bowerman, all significant for their illustrations.  Thus began the Illustrator Collection, which today contains over 20,000 books from the United States and Great Britain.  According to current DC Public Library Youth Collections Coordinator Wendy Lukehart, the library system purchased books Latimer identified as significant, but she, too, used personal money to increase the size of the collection and called upon friends and library patrons to donate funds and titles to the effort.

According to Lukehart part of Latimer’s rationale for collecting these was they are often enjoyed more “roughly” than books for adults and are subject to wear and tear.  

Lukehart’s research into Latimer enabled her to conclude Latimer was a “personality brimming with vitality” and as “someone who valued intellectual rigor and who possessed sensitivity to audience, a quick wit, and, over all, appreciated high-quality books.”  She was quick to direct her staff at the library to “serve the young people of Washington with the best reading possible.”

Drawing upon her professional experience and personal passion, Latimer wrote four books between 1924 and 1947.  The first was in response to repeated requests from parents and teachers for a book about Washington, DC aimed toward a younger audience.  Your Washington & Mine was released in 1924 by Scribner and Sons.  Her next publication, Illustrators, A Finding List followed three years later.  It emerged from her work compiling lists of children’s illustrators and she decided to finally publish it for the general public.

Latimer’s next release is thought to be a first of its kind and serves as an organizing guide for maintaining a children’s library.  Released in 1935, The Organization and Philosophy of the Children’s Department of One Library, was published by Faxon, as was her second book.  Latimer’s final published work came a year before her retirement and is titled Illustrators of Children’s Books 1744-1945.  Latimer worked on this book with Bertha E. Mahoney and Beulah Folmsbee, fellow children’s librarians.  

Latimer retired in 1948 and died in 1962 at the age of 84.

Be sure to bring the young people in your life to the Charles Town Library so they can enjoy the amazingly illustrated books in our collection.  Oh, and make sure they know the story of Charles Town’s own Louise Payson Latimer.

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