Herbert Putnam

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Herbert Putnam
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Herbert Putnam
Librarian Emeritus of Congress
In office
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byOffice abolished
President of the American Library Association
In office
Preceded by James Kendall Hosmer
Succeeded by Ernest Cushing Richardson
In office
January 1898 August 1898
Preceded by Rutherford P. Hayes
Succeeded by William Coolidge Lane
8th Librarian of Congress
In office
Appointed by President William McKinley
Preceded by John Young
Succeeded by Archibald MacLeish
Personal details
George Herbert Putnam

(1861-09-20)September 20, 1861
New York City, US
DiedAugust 14, 1955(1955-08-14) (aged 93)
Woods Hole, Massachusetts, US
Charlotte Elizabeth Munroe(m. 1886)
Children2, including Brenda
Father George Palmer Putnam
Alma mater

George Herbert Putnam (September 20, 1861 – August 14, 1955) [1] was an American librarian. He was the eighth (and also the longest-serving) Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939. [2] He implemented his vision of a universal collection with strengths in every language, especially from Europe and Latin America. [3]

Librarian of Congress head of the Library of Congress

The Librarian of Congress is the head of the Library of Congress, appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, for a term of ten years. The Librarian of Congress appoints the U.S. Poet Laureate and awards the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.



George Herbert Putnam was born in New York City at 107 East Seventeenth Street, [4] the sixth son and tenth child of Victorine and George Palmer Putnam. The father, one-time collector of internal revenue in New York by appointment of Abraham Lincoln, was the founder of a well known publishing house, [5] known previously as the Putnam Publishing house, but now known as G. P. Putnam's Sons. [6]

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

George Palmer Putnam New York City publisher and writer

George Palmer Putnam was an important American book publisher.

G. P. Putnams Sons US book publisher, under this name from 1872

G. P. Putnam's Sons is an American book publisher based in New York City, New York. Since 1996, it has been an imprint of the Penguin Group.

In 1886, Herbert Putnam married Charlotte Elizabeth Munroe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and together they had two daughters, Shirley and Brenda Putnam. [7] Brenda Putnam grew up to become a celebrated sculptor in the early 20th century, highly known for her "children, cherubs, and garden ornaments." [8] Throughout Herbert Putnam's career, he was described by his colleagues as maintaining "an impenetrable dignity…formal manner, invariable gracious and cordial, covered shyness and a deep reserve. He had few intimates, even among his closest colleagues, but he was fond of good company and good conversation" [9] as well being "painfully modest, a family man who had an unreciprocated view of his staff as family." [10]

Brenda Putnam American artist

Brenda Putnam was a noted American sculptor, teacher and author.

He died at his home in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1955. [7] [11]

Woods Hole, Massachusetts Census-designated place in Massachusetts, United States

Woods Hole is a census-designated place in the town of Falmouth in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States. It lies at the extreme southwest corner of Cape Cod, near Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. The population was 781 at the 2010 census.

Early career

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1883, Putnam spent the following year at Columbia University Law School. [6] Eventually, however, his interest in administrative work led him to the Minneapolis Athenaeum where he served as librarian in 1887, until it merged into the Minneapolis Public Library in 1888. [6] Putnam was elected city librarian of the Minneapolis Public Library at that time and served while simultaneously being admitted to the Minnesota bar of Law. [6] According to the Honorable Lawrence Lewis of Colorado at a Tribute for Putnam in 1939, Putnam at this time "modernized antiquated methods, revised the charging records of books on loan, inaugurated a new system of cataloging and classification, opened the alcoves to readers, [and] insisted that 'there are two great problems of library management – one to get the books for the readers, the other to get the readers to the books.'" [5] During this time he developed the Putnam Classification System (based in part on work by John Edmands), which would influence his later design of the Library of Congress Classification system. [12]

Harvard University private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The university is often cited as the world's top tertiary institution by most publishers.

Minneapolis Public Library library

The Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) was a library system that served the residents of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States. It was founded in 1885 with the establishment of the Minneapolis Library Board by an amendment to the Minneapolis City Charter. Lumber baron and philanthropist T. B. Walker and other city leaders such as Thomas Lowry were members of the first library board. In 2008, after some financial difficulties, the library was merged into the Hennepin County Library system. At the time of its merger, the library included Central Library in downtown Minneapolis and fourteen branch libraries. Its collection numbered about 3.1 million items with about 2.2 million of these housed in the central library.

The Putnam Classification System is a library classification system developed by George Herbert Putnam.

In 1891, Putnam resigned his Minneapolis post due to his mother-in-law's ill health, and promptly returned to Boston to be near her. Putnam "was admitted to the Suffolk bar, and practiced law in Boston until the 18th of February 1895" [13] when he was appointed Librarian of the Boston Public Library. During his tenure at the Boston Public Library "there were 9 branches and 12 delivery stations. At the end of his four years there were 10 branches, 5 minor branches, called 'reading rooms,' and 56 deposit stations…the library grew from a total of 610,375 volumes at the close of 1894 to 716,050 at the close of 1898." [13] Another contribution made by Putnam towards the Boston Public Library was the addition of a room devoted to juveniles, "believed to have been the first room wholly devoted to the service of children in any of the larger libraries of the country." [13]

Suffolk County, Massachusetts County in the United States

Suffolk County is a county in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the United States. As of 2018, the population was 807,252 making it the fourth-most populous county in Massachusetts. The traditional county seat is Boston, the state capital and the largest city in Massachusetts. The county government was abolished in late 1999, and so Suffolk County today functions only as an administrative subdivision of state government and a set of communities grouped together for some statistical purposes. Suffolk County constitutes the core of the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH Metropolitan Statistical Area as well as the greater Boston-Worcester-Providence, MA-RI-NH-CT Combined Statistical Area.

Boston Capital city of Massachusetts, United States

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 694,583 in 2018, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth-largest in the United States.

Boston Public Library library in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

The Boston Public Library is a municipal public library system in Boston, Massachusetts, United States, founded in 1848. The Boston Public Library is also the Library for the Commonwealth of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; all adult residents of the commonwealth are entitled to borrowing and research privileges, and the library receives state funding. The Boston Public Library contains approximately 24 million volumes, and electronic resources, making it the third-largest public library in the United States behind only the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. In fiscal year 2014, the library held over 10,000 programs, all free to the public, and lent 3.7 million materials.

Library of Congress


Putnam's activities with the American Library Association led him to join with Justin Winsor and Melvil Dewey as official delegates to the International Conference of Librarians in London in 1897. [6] When Winsor died shortly thereafter, Putnam served the remainder of his term as President of the ALA. [6] When John Russell Young died in January 1899, President William McKinley requested Congress to appoint Putnam. He was officially confirmed December 12, 1899. [7]

Systemization of a public institution

Upon the confirmation of Putnam to his appointed duty of Librarian of Congress, one daunting task Putnam faced from the onset was the sheer volume of materials that had to be reorganized for the newly opened Thomas Jefferson Building – the newly appointed library for the Library of Congress. However, Putnam was well aware of what needed to be done. "In October 1899 Putnam requested a $190,000 increase in the budget for fiscal 1901. If Congress consented, the 1899 LC budget would nearly double and that for 1900 would be increased by 60 percent. Declaring that the collections were deficient in many respects, [Putnam] asked for $50,000 to purchase new material, more than twice the 1899 appropriation. [14] In summation, the first task of Putnam's administration was to organize all materials of the Library of Congress so they may be used efficiently by the public.

Putnam's request was granted by the United States Congress, and thus an appropriation bill was passed on April 17th, 1900. [15] Although Putnam's administration would need time in order to collect, organize, and disseminate all of the material within the Library of Congress' collection, the task was completed with enormous success. "By 1924 the first objective had been won with – 1) All spaces in the building duly differentiated and equipped for specialized, as well as general, uses. 2) The specialized material installed in appropriate cases. 3) A scheme of classification, systematic and elastic, with an appropriate nomenclature. 4) Adoption of processes of cataloging, including forms of entry, now standardized for American libraries. 5) Actual application of the classification and cataloging to a large portion of the collection of printed books." [16]

Putnam during this time also introduced a new system of classifying books that continues to this day, known as the Library of Congress Classification. He also established an interlibrary loan system, and expanded the Library of Congress's role and relationships with other libraries, through the provision of centralized services. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1902, [17] and elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1907. [18]

Putnam's former house in Washington, D.C. 2025 O Street, N.W..JPG
Putnam's former house in Washington, D.C.

War-time service

In July 1916, "former LC staff member Elizabeth West, director of the Carnegie Library of San Antonio, Texas, suggested to Putnam that the Library of Congress cooperate with other libraries to send books to American soldiers." [19]

Initially, Putnam was not interested in the wholesale distribution of books to American troops simply due to the lack of interest. However, when attention arose that the British War Library Service in London were performing similar duties to their troops, measures were quickly devised by Putnam, the ALA, and Congress to enact such a program to the American military branches. [20] "Aided by a grant of $320,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, the War Service built thirty-six libraries, completing the majority by February 1918. But with so much invested in buildings, little money remained for books or administration…Putnam took the matter up directly with the War Department and obtained assurances that the government would provide utilities. He appealed to ALA members to donate books and volunteer for service, and by June 1918 the association had purchased 300,000 books, sent 1,349,000 gift books to camps, and distributed 500,000 magazines." [21] In the time after World War I, the services of the Library of Congress towards the war effort provided a new outlook for the American public on the possibilities of what a successful library could accomplish. In other words, the contributions made by the Library of Congress in that time gave "librarians 'a new conception of what a truly national library could be' and added one more item 'to the long list of benefits for which American libraries have to thank the Library and the Librarian, of Congress." [22]


Herbert Putnam's administration as Librarian of Congress lasted for forty years, from 1899 until 1939. It was clear Putnam was not willing to withdraw completely from the world of librarianship, stating "I would willingly surrender the administration, if that course would serve the interest of the library and I could feel assured as to my successor." [23] Putnam provided the suggestion of "Librarian Emeritus" be developed as his new official title, with an honorarium of one-half of his original salary. [23] On October 1, 1939, Putnam retired as the 8th Librarian of Congress with that title, and he "continued to contribute to the Library, keeping regular office hours for the next 15 years." [7] He was awarded Honorary Membership in the American Library Association in 1940. [24]

Herbert Putnam was succeeded in 1939 by Archibald MacLeish, who served from 1939 until 1944. [25]


  1. "(George) Herbert Putnam." Dictionary of American Biography . New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977. Biography In Context. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
  2. Jane Rosenberg, The Nation's Great Library: Herbert Putnam and the Library of Congress, 1899–1939 (1993)
  3. John Young Cole, "The library of congress becomes a world library, 1815–2005." Libraries & culture (2005) 40#3: 385–398. in Project MUSE
  4. Lewis, 1939, p. 3
  5. 1 2 Lewis, 1939, p. 4
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Rosenberg, 1993, p. 25
  7. 1 2 3 4 Previous Librarians of Congress, 2008
  8. Bronze Gallery, 1998–2010
  9. Rosenberg, 1993, pp. 25, 26
  10. Knowlton, 2005, p. xx
  11. "Herbert Putnam". Library of Congress.
  12. Andy Sturdevant. "Cracking the spine on Hennepin County Library's many hidden charms". MinnPost , 02/05/14.
  13. 1 2 3 Lewis, 1939, p. 5
  14. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 28
  15. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 29
  16. Lewis, 1939, pp. 7,8
  17. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter P" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  18. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  19. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 85
  20. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 86
  21. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 87
  22. Rosenberg, 1993, p. 90
  23. 1 2 Rosenberg, 1993, p. 153
  24. American Library Association, Honorary Membership. http://www.ala.org/awardsgrants/awards/176/all_years
  25. "1939 - Freedom's Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2018-03-01.

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Cultural offices
Preceded by
John Young
Librarian of Congress
Succeeded by
Archibald MacLeish
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
James Kendall Hosmer
President of the American Library Association
Succeeded by
Ernest Cushing Richardson
Preceded by
Rutherford P. Hayes
President of the American Library Association
Succeeded by
William Coolidge Lane