Wisconsin Library Heritage Center

The Wisconsin Library Heritage Center is a program of the Wisconsin Library Association Foundation promoting understanding and appreciation of the history of libraries and librarianship in Wisconsin.

Phebe Swan's Reference by Mail Lending Library

Posted by Larry T. Nix
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on Friday, August 14, 2009 in Special libraries

In developing the blog entry on the 1905 meeting of the Wisconsin Library Association in Beloit I came across a reference to the Gleaner's Library operated by Phebe Swan. A brief article in the Wisconsin Library Bulletin for January, 1905 had this to say about Swan's library: "The Gleaner's library at Beloit has proved so invaluable for many a perplexed librarian that a visit to it will be one of the features of the coming meeting of the Wisconsin Library Association. The unique venture has been so successful that Miss Phebe Swan, the proprietor, now has patrons in all parts of the country. She rents magazine articles, newspaper clippings and copies of articles from standard works of reference, on a required subject, to clubwomen, debaters, authors and students for a very small fee." Mame B. Griffin in an April 8, 1911 article for La Follett's Weekly Magazine provides more background on this unusual library. According to Griffin, Swan started out small but her enterprise was so successful that she bought a fourteen room home in Beloit in 1908 to house her growing business. She employed six workers to assist her in organizing and classifying a hundred different magazines. Swan actively marketed her library with ads in magazines and wide distribution of a flyer about the library's services. The image above is a partial scan of a copy of one of the flyer's that is in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The flyer indicates that articles will cost the requester five cents each along with both outgoing and return postage. This is a remarkable story of success by a woman who had an idea for a business model and made it work. I'm not clear about who the "Gleaners" were or how long the library lasted. It's certainly a subject that is worthy of further study.

More about Phebe Swan.

Further digging around in Google has resulted in more information about Phebe Swan. The Semi-Centennial History of the Illinois State Normal University, 1857-1907 which was published in 1907 has the best information. She was a member of the class of 1881 at ISNU, now Illinois State University. She is listed as Lizzie Phebe Swan and her occupation is given as Librarian and Proprietor of a Reference Library in Beloit, Wisconsin. According to the ISNU history, she was an assistant (library ?) at ISNU from 1886 to 1892. She was a student of the Library Department of Armour Institute (predecessor of the University of Illinois Library School), 1893-94 and worked as a librarian at the University of Wisconsin from 1894 to 1902. She became Librarian of the Gleaners' Library in Beloit in 1902, a library which she evidently founded.  Handbooks of the American Library Association list her as member number 1,507. She evidently became a life member of the National Education Association in 1897.


Larry Nix Monday, August 17, 2009

That certainly makes sense.

Rick Monday, August 17, 2009

"I'm not clear about who the "Gleaners" were..."
According to my dictionary to glean is to gather grain or other produce left by reapers, which explains the image in the flyer. Of course, to glean also means to gather information. I suspect the "Gleaners" were all those who gathered information from Ms. Swan's reference library, i.e., the Gleaners' Library. Very cleaver.

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