The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
North, Ada E.
(November 19, 1840–January 9, 1899)

–librarian—was born in Alexander, New York, the daughter of Rev. Milo N. Miles. In 1865 she married Major J. North, an assistant to Iowa Governor William M. Stone, but in 1870 her husband died, leaving her a widow with small children. The following year, Governor Samuel Merrill appointed her Iowa's first State Librarian at an annual salary of $1,200, a post she held until 1878, when she became Des Moines' city librarian. In 1879 the Board of Regents of the State University of Iowa (UI) voted to employ a full-time librarian at a salary of no more than $900, and the same day hired North, who held the job for the next 13 years. However, politics rather than merit governed state appointments, and in 1892 she was relieved of her position to make room for a political appointee, Joseph W. Rich, a UI alumnus and member of the university's Board of Regents since 1886. Although still in her early 50s, North retired from librarianship after losing her UI position. She died at the age of 58.

    Over a 21-year career North helped shape the nascent profession of librarianship in Iowa and nationally. At a time when the appointment of a woman to a state position was highly controversial, she contributed to the opening up of new possibilities for women's participation in the public sphere. She also helped establish a vision for libraries as dynamic institutions that emphasized accessible and relevant collections designed primarily for use rather than preservation and storage. She was the first State Librarian and the first full-time librarian at the UI, and as a founder of the Iowa Library Association was a driving force behind the eventual establishment of a library training program.

    North instituted several radical improvements in the libraries she managed. On becoming State Librarian, she immediately set about improving accessibility by producing the State Library's first printed catalog of about 14,500 volumes, in 1872. Two years after becoming UI Librarian, she devoted vacation time to touring eastern libraries to learn about new methods. At about the same time she introduced a card catalog to the university library. She was also responsible, a student newspaper article reported with approval, for reclassifying the 27,000 volumes of the university library according to the Dewey Decimal system, making the university library "the best regulated library in the state."In response to student demand, North extended the time the library was open from five to nine hours daily, and encouraged greater student use by instituting lending procedures and opening the stacks to students.

    North was also active at the state professional level. In 1890 she was one of five library leaders to call a meeting of librarians at the State Library in Des Moines to set up the Iowa Library Society (renamed the Iowa Library Association in 1896). In 1892 North encouraged the society to set up a training program for working librarians, which eventually opened in 1901, when the UI held a six-week summer course in conjunction with the Iowa Library Commission.

    The official pretext for North's dismissal from the UI in 1892 was "failing health," but the Library Journal protested indignantly that she had been "summarily dismissed" despite her popularity with students. In 1903, however, an article by Johnson Brigham in the Annals of Iowa concurred with the official view and reported that from 1892 to her death in 1899 she was an "invalid and sufferer most of the time."There may be some truth in both of these accounts, but there is no doubt that up until 1892, North worked energetically for libraries and librarianship. In addition to reorganizing the libraries and extending their services, she gave talks to students and wrote articles for student newspapers and professional journals. In 1891 she gave no hint in a Library Journal article that she was about to retire. Reporting on the tireless efforts of Iowa's librarians to increase the number and quality of the state's libraries, she called for greater awareness and understanding on the part of the public, as well as more financial support. "What is wanted now," she wrote, "is a general waking up to the progress of library movement around us, and to the superlative importance of the library as a factor in education. Once having started the demand for larger libraries and improved accommodations, we believe that the necessary money will be forthcoming from both public and private funds, until Iowa... shall have a library and reading-room in every town and village."
Sources include Johnson Brigham, "Mrs. Ada E. North," Annals of Iowa 6 (1905), 624– 26; Daniel Goldstein, "The Spirit of an Age: Iowa Public Libraries and Professional Librarians as Solutions to Society's Problems, 1890–1940," Libraries and Culture 38 (2003), 214–35; "Mrs. Ada E. North," in The Blue Book of Iowa Women: A History of Contemporary Women, ed. Winona Evans Reeves (1914); Mildred Throne, "The History of the State University of Iowa: The University Libraries" (master's thesis, State University of Iowa, 1943); Mrs. Ada E. North (2002). Ada North's own writings include Catalogue of the Iowa State Library, 1872 (1872); "Iowa Libraries," Library Journal 16 (1891), 332–33; and "Iowa Library Association," Library Journal 17 (1892), 491.
Contributor: Christine Pawley