Oklahoma – Land of Grand Librarians

An article by my brother, Larry Guthrie. who is a Special Library Association (SLA) Hall of Fame Librarian and is from Oklahoma, like me.


Recalling Great Oklahoma Librarians for Library Week 2019

Although Oklahoma has not produced a President or Vice-President yet, it has the distinction of being one of only 14 states who have produced our nation’s top librarian: the Librarian of Congress, as well numerous other librarians of high distinction.

The Librarian of Congress is appointed by the President of the United States now for ten years and so requires high political savvy and connections, along with scholarliness and library acumen. Dr. Carla Hayden is the fourteenth Librarian of Congress appointed by President Barak Obama who said, “Michelle and I have known Dr. Hayden for a long time since her days at the Chicago Public Library.”

Daniel Boorstin, the twelfth of fourteen Librarians of Congress (1975-1987) was raised in Tulsa and graduated from Tulsa Central High School in the Class of 1930 at the age of 15 and then from Harvard, Oxford and Yale. He renounced his youthful membership in the Communist Party at Harvard in the 1930’s and became a conservative. Boorstin was appointed by President Gerald Ford and supported by the Authors Guild but opposed by liberals and the American Library Association for not being “ a library administrator.” Author of 22 books, Boorstin was awarded the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in History; and was instrumental in starting the Center For the Book at the Library of Congress. Preceeding Dr. James Billington as Librarian of Congress, Boorstin said, “ Ideas need no passports from their place of origin, nor visas for the countries they enter. …We, the librarians of the world, are servants of an indivisible world. … Books and ideas make a boundless world.” (IFLA, 8/19/1985). His grandson Eric Boorstin was an attorney with Covington & Burling LLP.

Librarianship remains a strain of Oklahoma’s agrarian populism. On statehood day November 16, 1907, Oklahoma’s first Governor Charles N. Haskell was inaugurated on the steps of the Carnegie Library in Guthrie.

Another distinguished Oklahoma librarian was Ruth Brown of the Bartlesville Public Library who was terminated from her position as head librarian in 1950, accused of being a Communist during the height of the McCarthy era. The Bartlesville Women’s Network said that the real reason for her termination was her decision to allow African-Americans to check out books in defiance of Jim Crow laws. Honoring Ruth Brown’s heroism, subsequently, a film was made in 1956 entitled, “Storm Center” starring Bette Davis; a book by Louise Robbins entitled “The Dismissal of Ruth Brown” was published in 2000, and a bust of Ruth Brown sculpted by Janice Albro was unveiled on March 11, 2007 at the Bartlesville Public Library.

Another distinguished Oklahoma librarian was Angie Debo, map librarian at Oklahoma State University, author of 13 books and heralded as Oklahoma’s “Greatest Historian” by Governor Brad Henry in his inaugural address in 2007. Her career was marked by controversy resulting from her book, And Still Run The Waters completed in 1936 in Oklahoma but not published until 1940 by Princeton, it detailed corruption in the treatment of Native Americans. After the book’s publication, she was temporarily barred from teaching in Oklahoma. She was an editor for the Federal Writers Project of the WPA in the book project Oklahoma A Guide to The Sooner State although her contributions were allegedly revised without her permission. Now her portrait by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City.

Another distinguished Oklahoma librarian was Faye Allen, of Carnegie, Oklahoma who worked nights at the local library. She was mother of Paul Allen, who was co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Seattle Seahawks. Paul said his mother’s love of reading sparked his interest in technology and science. Faye’s late husband, Kenneth S. Allen was the associate director of the University of Washington’s libraries.

Another distinguished Oklahoma librarian was Mary Hudson, Okemah Public Library’s first librarian in 1927 and librarian to Woody Guthrie until 1929 when Woody moved to Pampa, Texas. Woody “was a passionate reader … From the Okemah Public Library to the New York Public Library, wherever he went he obtained books to read.” (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Another distinguished Oklahoma librarian was Allie Beth Martin, Director of the Tulsa City-County Library from 1963 until 1976 and elected President of the American Library Association in 1975. Her ideas and book, A Strategy For Public Library Change inspired library modernization and improvement projects across the country.

Tulsan Joseph Mark Lauinger was not a librarian by profession but his heroism and sacrifice led to the construction of Georgetown University’s Library named in his honor. He graduated from Georgetown in 1967. He served as First Lieutenant in the Army Reserve and died in Vietnam on January 8, 1970 and posthumously was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart which are on display along with other honors by his portrait in the Lauinger Library at Georgetown.

Other distinguished Oklahoma librarians include: Dr. Thomas F. Staley, a Tulsan, who served for almost 25 years as Director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. “Known for its literary and cultural archives,” the Ransom Center includes archives of Norman Mailer, the Watergate holdings of Woodward and Bernstein among many others. Nancy Pearl, best-selling author and literary critic, worked at the Tulsa City-County Library and was awarded the Allie Beth Martin Award by the American Library Association in 2001. Made famous by her book Book Lust guide to good reading in 2003, she was named Librarian of the Year in 2011 by Library Journal. Her husband Dr. Joe Pearl taught at OSU. Tom Rink, Instructor of Library Services at Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow (and former Police Officer with the Tulsa Police Department for 25 years) served as President of the Special Libraries Association in 2015-2016. Among the 56 Charter Members of SLA in 1909 was Edith Allen Phelps, Librarian at the Oklahoma City Public Library. Similarly, the late Charles Boyd, Librarian at Tulsa Community College and a former Green Beret in Vietnam, said, ”I traded a rifle for a reference book.”

Helen Guthrie, White House Staffer for President Ronald Reagan, grew up in western Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and World War II. As a Senior in the Class of 1948 at Independence Consolidated Number 4 High School of Custer County, she was privileged to serve as librarian for certain hours of the day when her teachers Ms. Kyle and Ms. Zwifel were teaching. She checked books in and out and watched over students studying. She recalls a popular book being Gone With The Wind (1936) which was the basis of the 1939 film, although farm chores prevented much extra time for reading.

Barbara Lee Creeach Spriestersbach , US Representative Kendra Horn’s grandmother, was a long-time Chickasha High School librarian (1967-1977), as well as the Director of the State Department of Education Library Media Section where she lobbied for legislation creating School Library Media Improvement Grants and the creation of the Encyclomedia Conference, an annual statewide conference for school library media professionals. Spriestersbach was awarded the American Association of School Librarians Distinguished Service Award and recognized as one of 100 Oklahoma Library Legends by the Oklahoma Library Association (OLA).

These Oklahoma Librarians and many others have served our state and country with distinction and with the conviction of their beliefs. Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy, and these librarians have contributed to this national ideal.


The author would like to thank Father John H. Gaffney, OSA, (1919-2019) English teacher at Cascia Hall in Tulsa, OK for instilling English basics for lifelong writing.

A version of this article was published in This Land, Winter 2016.

About oklahomafed

Greg Guthrie has held positions at the US Department of Commerce, Library of Congress and the World Bank, taught the course ‘Environmental Issues in the Mediterranean” at Georgetown University where he wrote his thesis: “Labor Unions: Champions of Social Justice”, which has been cited, among others, in Labor Law Journal, and in the book ‘ American Labor: A Documentary Collection’ Ed. by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Currently, he is with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the US Department of Commerce. He has been a guest on the radio program, Georgetown University Forum, where he has spoken on the virtues of Organized Labor. He is a native Oklahoman.
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