Libraries might be very different places today were it not for Justin Winsor, who became the head librarian at the Boston Public Library through a twist of fate in 1868.
He was 34 years old and had never had a real job. For many years he lived at his parents’ home with his wife, doing a lot of reading and writing. As a member of Boston’s Brahmin class, he was named in 1867 to the Boston Public Library board of trustees. After the death of one superintendent and the serious illness of a second, the trustees of the fledgling institution asked Justin Winsor to fill in temporarily. He stayed for nine years.
Libraries until then were repositories of books for the elite. Justin Winsor fought to open the Boston Public Library to everyone. He worked to establish branch libraries, extend hours and relax restrictions on borrowing books. He is credited with founding the librarian profession along with the American Library Association, but he was also a historian, genealogist and cartographer.
He was born on Jan. 2, 1831, in Boston, just after his parents moved from Duxbury.
His father, Nathaniel Winsor, was a wealthy shipping merchant who controlled a shipping line to New Orleans and established a regular shipping line between the Atlantic Coast and San Francisco. Nathaniel Winsor also had the exclusive right to charter vessels and transport troops from Boston for the Mexican War.
Justin Winsor was a Mayflower descendant on both sides of his family, and used to say of his daughter Constance, “that no one living had more Pilgrim blood than she.” (His biographer, Horace Elisha Scudder noted, “If anyone could have disputed this statement a little later, it would have been his granddaughter, Penelope Barker Noyes.”)
He was an avid reader who hated going to church because it took away from his reading. “I don’t believe, if it were not for my mother, I should ever go to church, for I am always uneasy there,” he wrote. “I don’t hear one sermon in ten that will pay me sufficiently for the loss I sustain.”
A good book induced thinking, he believed, but a sermon gave him nothing new to think about because the substance never varied.
When still a schoolboy he had attended meetings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
As a young man, Justin Winsor aspired to literary fame and managed to meet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the pretense he was doing genealogical research.
During his freshman year at Harvard he published a history of the Town of Duxbury, with genealogical tables. The Harvard librarian, John Langdon Sibley, ‘must have looked with mingled respect and concern’ at him,’ according to Scudder.
While at Harvard he spent more money on books than on his horse, his tuition and his living expenses.
But Justin Winsor hated college, probably because it interfered with his reading, so he dropped out. He went to Europe after his junior year and learned to speak Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian — all fluently.
He returned to Harvard, however. After nine years at the Boston Public Library, he had a tiff with an alderman, so he left to work as Harvard’s librarian.
Work and Play
He loved the theater and wanted to be a playwright before joining the library. One day he sat down after breakfast to write a farce and finished it by dinner. Two days later he wrote another one. He tried to interest Boston theatrical producers in his plays, but failed.
Known for his prodigious capacity for work, Justin Winsor edited some of the most important historical publications of the 19th century. They include the Reader’s Handbook of American History in 1879, four volumes of The Memorial History of Boston in 1880–1881 and eight volumes of the Narrative and Critical History of America from 1884–1889.
He knew more about American maps than anyone. He opened the new field of American historical cartography, which applies information from maps to answer historical questions.
Though he was exceptionally busy and productive, he was also very sociable. His friend and biographer Edward Channing wrote that he used a time-management technique to balance work and sociability.
“While at the Boston Public Library he trained himself to interruption, stopping his pen in the middle of a sentence instead of at the end,” wrote Channing. “In this way he was able to take up the unfinished thought at once upon the departure of his visitor.”
Justin Winsor died Oct. 27, 1897.
Photos: “Reading Room of the Boston Public Library” by J. J. Harley – Scan of 1871 newspaper. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. Boston Public Library McKim building By Fcb981 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2836520.
This story last updated in 2022.