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June 1st, 2017 under West Texas Talk
Luther Evans  (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Luther Evans
(photo courtesy Library of Congress)

The lone Lone Star State Librarian of Congress

By LONN TAYLOR

There have been 14 Librarians of Congress since Thomas Jefferson appointed the first one in 1802. Only one of those was a Texan. His name was Luther Evans. He was from Sayersville, a rural community in Bastrop County, and he was Jean Hardy Pittman of Alpine’s uncle. I discovered this several years ago when Jean told me that running Alpine’s Front Street Books came naturally to her because her uncle had been the Librarian of Congress.

Luther Evans was a Texas farm boy who overcame poverty and adversity by the sheer force of intelligence. He was born in 1902, the son of a section foreman for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad who farmed on the side. He went to a one-room elementary school and graduated first in a class of seven from Bastrop High School in 1920. He entered the University of Texas on a scholarship, worked his way through school waiting tables, and graduated with a B.A. in government in 1924, getting an M.A. the next year. He had been interested in international affairs since high school and wrote his master’s thesis on the League of Nations. It was the longest thesis ever written at the University of Texas. He went on to receive a Ph.D. at Stanford, and then joined the faculty at Princeton, where he acquired a reputation for brilliance, new ideas, and frank plain speaking. He taught at Princeton until 1935, when his support of the New Deal caused his teaching contract to be terminated.

Raymond Moley, a professor at Columbia University and a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trust”, knew Evans and suggested his name to Harry Hopkins as a possible director of a new W.P.A. project. Hopkins invited Evans to Washington and outlined the project to him, and Evans told him it would not work and suggested an alternate project, a survey and inventory of state and local public records all over the United States.  Hopkins hired Evans on the spot, and for the next four years Evans ran the W.P.A.’s Historical Records Survey, creating finding tools that made state and local public records more available to researchers. In 1939, at the invitation of Franklin Roosevelt’s new Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, Evans joined the staff of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is a unique American institution, first established by Congress in 1800 as a reference library for the use of congressmen. Since then it has grown into a huge national public library, with collections in every imaginable field and functions as varied as registering original works for copyright and producing concerts with a Stradivarius quintet.

The first 6 Librarians of Congress were nonentities, political appointees with no background at all in either books or libraries. It took two remarkable men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to shape the Library into the institution that we know today. The first, an Ohio bookseller and journalist named Ainsworth Rand Spofford, was appointed by Abraham Lincoln and ran the Library for 33 years, expanding the collections and eventually moving them from the basement of the Capitol into their own building, the Beaux-Arts confection on Capitol Hill now called the Jefferson Building. The second was Herbert Putnam, who was appointed by William McKinley and into the Franklin Roosevelt administration, a total of 40 years. Putnam developed the book classification system known as the Library of Congress System (LC System), which made the Library’s collections readily available to the public. He retired in 1939, at the age of 78, but continued to maintain an office at the Library as Librarian Emeritus until 1954.

Putnam’s successor was the poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, the most distinguished literary figure ever to hold the librarianship. MacLeish was a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt – he once said “Franklin Roosevelt decided that I wanted to be Librarian of Congress.”

MacLeish, impressed by Evans’s work with the Historical Records Survey, brought him to the Library in September 1939. Within a year Evans was named Chief Assistant Librarian, and he helped MacLeish run the Library during World War II, when Roosevelt called on MacLeish to perform other duties.  When MacLeish resigned to become an Assistant Secretary of State, Harry Truman appointed Evans as the 10th Librarian of Congress.

Texas background and his lifelong academic interests. Harry Truman told him when he appointed him that he wanted the Library to be not only the Library of Congress but “the Library of the United States,” and Evans wholeheartedly agreed. He expanded the Library’s services to America’s public libraries and especially to small rural libraries, revising, updating, and putting in published form the Library’s system of classifying and ataloguing library materials, which was used by libraries all over the country. He also stepped up the Library’s acquisition of Americana, bringing the papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, General Pershing, Owen Wister, Woodrow Wilson, John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, and Mary Pickford into the collections. But his proudest accomplishment was to increase the foreign holdings of the Library by 25%. He noted that during the war the Library had been handicapped by its lack of information on both Allied and Axis nations, and he argued that after the war America’s new position as a world leader was going to require vastly expanded international holdings.

Evans’s commitment to internationalism eventually cost him his job.

In 1945 Evans was a delegate to the conference which established the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and his continuing participation in UNESCO affairs, as well as his outspoken opposition to censorship in all forms, brought him into conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s allies on the House Appropriations Committee. Matters came to a head during the committee’s 1952 hearings on the Library’s budget, during which Evans was described as a “one-worlder”, a derogatory term for supporters of the United Nations, and one committee member suggested that he might be happier in another job. Fifteen months later Evans resigned to move to Paris and become the director-general of UNESCO, a position he held for the next 6 years, after which he joined the faculty of Columbia University as director of their international and legal library collections. Evans retired from public service in 1971. He devoted the years of his retirement to world peace by serving as president of the United World Federalists and the organizer of a lobbying group called New Directions. Evans died in San Antonio in 1981. He certainly went farther than most country boys from Bastrop County.

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Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at taylorw@fortdavis.net.

Story filed under: West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

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