Kansas City, MO

Women's History Month: celebrating Carrie Westlake Whitney, founding librarian of the Kansas City Public Library

CJ Coombs

Kansas City, Missouri librarian, Carrie Westlake Whitney (1908).Photo byUnknown photographer, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Women's History Month is an important time to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women throughout history. One notable woman to celebrate during Women's History Month in Kansas City is Carrie Westlake Whitney. She was the founding librarian for the Kansas City Public Library.

Carrie was born in Fayette County, Virginia around 1851 or thereabout. She, her older sister, and their parents, Wellington and Helen Van Waters Westlake, moved to Scott County, Iowa. A brother was born there in 1857. When Carrie was a teenager, she was living with her uncle in St. Louis. When her mother died in Iowa, her father and other siblings moved to Sedalia to live with a family member.

Carrie went to Sedalia to join up with her family. In 1875, she married Dr. Edward W. Judson which ended in a divorce. Judson moved to St. Louis and Carrie's family was moving too. Her sister, Gertrude, and her husband as well as their brother, moved to Leadville, Colorado. Carrie's father moved to New Mexico. Carried opted to stay in Missouri and move to Kansas City.

Carrie was 30 years old when she started her job as a librarian on March 16, 1881. She nurtured the growth of the library. As Kansas City continued to grow, she put together a collection that could educate people. She managed a collection in rooms rented at 546 Main Street and provided a free reading room which would encourage accessibility to the collection. Eventually, more people were hired and hours of operation increased. In 1883, she requested more resources.

In 1884 and 1889, even though the library relocated to larger spaces, they still filled up. In September 1897, a three-story building opened at 9th and Locust. This new location offered more space, more books, rooms specifically for children, and meeting rooms. In 1898, the library became free to the public. Carrie hired the first librarian assistant, Frances Bishop, who became her close friend.

Carried married again to James Steele Whitney in 1885. She was 34. He was 21 and a reporter for the Kansas City Star. He died in 1890. James had been sickly with tuberculosis.

In 1901, Carrie was elected president of the Missouri Library Association. She continued to serve as the head librarian until 1910. She also wrote, Kansas City Missouri: The History and Its People 1808-1908, a three-volume piece of work consisting of 698 pages. It can be purchased online or you can read it for free on Google.

As Carrie wrote in the Preface, her intention for the book was "to give the characteristics of the people who made Kansas City and further to record the more important events that have made for the development of the city." (Source.)

Corridor at the Kansas City Central Library, the main downtown library in Missouri's largest city.Photo byCarol M. Highsmith (Apr. 2021), public domain, Library of Congress.

Demotion in 1910

Carrie was demoted in 1910 for unknown reasons. Maybe it was due to the strict rules at the library. There's speculation. It's interesting, however, she was asked to resign in September 1912 and her position was filled by a man because the Board of Education felt the position of a Head Librarian was better fitted by a man. Carrie had been the head librarian for 29 years.

Purd B. Wright, a St. Joseph native, and prior head librarian to the Los Angeles Public Library was retained for the role Carrie had filled for so many years. He was also paid more money than Carrie made. Some believed Wright was a more progressive thinker and had ideas to create library branches.

Carrie died on April 8, 1934, at around age 84 from pneumonia, and is buried in the Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. She spent the last four decades of her life living with her lifelong friend, Frances Bishop.

Women's History Month is a time to honor the women who have made significant contributions to society and to elevate their stories so that they can be remembered for generations to come. This month is also an opportunity for us to reflect on how far we have come in terms of gender equality, and how much further we still need to go. By recognizing the accomplishments of women throughout history, we can inspire future generations of female leaders and innovators.

Thanks very much for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms. Thinker, giver, and lover of life and retired early to be a writer. Born into Air Force service life, life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO

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