A Lost Hero: The Rediscovery of Mildred Batchelder
Periodically my Library (Evanston Public Library) will close for a Staff Day in order to train our employees on a host of different matters. The training this past October was no different. And in the afternoon, as a bit of a break, I found myself taking my fellow employees to the Evanstoniana Room on the 2nd floor.
The Evanstoniana Room is the library’s historical section. Outside the room are flat files with additional information. Now while I was showing my fellow employees the statue that was mysteriously found under the steps of the first Evanston Public Library building as it was being demolished (a good story, but one for another day), I started pawing through the files. Out of curiosity I went to the section on “Evanston – Librarians”, just to see if there was anything of interest. The odd file here and there were of mild interest . . . until I found two small articles from 1967 and 1972 respectively.
Now I’m a children’s librarian by training. And when I moved to Evanston, Illinois from New York City roundabout seven years ago I came to the sudden realization that more than any city OTHER than NYC, Evanston, Illinois is a veritable hub of international children’s literature. There’s the ongoing and beautifully curated collection at independent bookstore Bookends and Beginnings. There are local scholars like Junko Yokota, world famous for her children’s literature expertise, past president of USBBY, the U.S. national section of the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) who has chaired the Batchelder Committee, and served two terms on the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Award jury. And now, on this day, I discovered one more surprising connection.
Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) bestows the Batchelder Award to a United States publisher for a children’s book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originating in a country other than the United States and in a language other than English. For a lot of international children’s books, it’s honestly the only major U.S. children’s book award awarded by ALA that grants them any attention at all.
Now, as I looked through the files, I discovered that Mildred L. Batchelder lived in Evanston and was the librarian at Haven Middle School for much of her life. Check out her Wikipedia page sometime if you’d like to hear more about how she fought racist library policies for decades. As the page says, “It outraged her that African American children weren’t provided the same privileges that were afforded to white children. She fought hard for the rights of minorities and women and was enraged when the keynote speaker of an ALA meeting was asked to use the service elevator because she was black. She was instrumental in bringing this racism to light and in keeping the ALA conferences from taking place in Southern states for 20 years.”
But that’s not all! According to an inside source in Evanston, Mildred was once sent on assignment to Munich after the war to catalog the children’s books Jella Lepman had attracted from all over the world. This was for the new library she founded, the International Youth Library (now located in a castle in Germany and VERY MUCH worth a visit, should you find yourself in the neighborhood). Mildred was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a big supporter of Lepman’s efforts.
She is, in fact, one of the great library heroes and one of the great Evanston heroes as well. And to think I had to dip through old files even to find out! I don’t know if anyone has half a mind to name something after a librarian in my town, but if they do then I shall step forward and propose a Mildred L. Batchelder street/fountain/library branch/what have you. Seems it would be the least my city could do for a name that is now internationally famous (and with good reason).
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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