A Woman to Know: Tessa Kelso

A woman of extraordinary business ability, quenchless energy, and a great executive force. — Charles Lummis

(image via Los Angeles Public Library)


In 1889, Tessa Kelso became the fourth woman hired as the head librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. But she was the first head librarian to institute some radical changes: she pioneered a branch system to open multiple locations across the city; under her leadership, the library adopted the Dewey Decimal System to organize volumes; she hired an assistant librarian dedicated to training young women in library sciences.

The Ohio transplant raised some eyebrows about town. She bicycled to work, smoked in public and never wore a hat (!!! — quite scandalous at the time). In 1894, a local minister accused her of "sin" because her library kept copies of Le Cadet, a book described as "extremely bohemian." Tessa fought back, suing the minister for slander. The church settled the next year.

In the 1920s, Tessa and her assistant librarian moved to New York City, where Tessa worked multiple jobs and even wrote a column for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1924, she brought Melvil Dewey's long history of sexual harassment out into the open. She demanded that the New York Library Association move its annual conference from his estate, where he'd been known to harass young lady librarians. Again, Tessa was on the right side of history — in 2019, the American Library Association stripped Dewey's name from its once-highest honor, the Dewey Medal.

Today, Tessa's library legacy lives on at her original library in Los Angeles. Visitors can search Tessa — the name for the digital collections — to learn more about the city's history.

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** A note about yesterday's edition on Marsha P. Johnson — some of you reached out questioning my use of "drag queen" to describe her. While Marsha herself used it (one of my favorite quotes of hers: "I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen," she said), several readers rightly pointed out that the label doesn't sum up Marsha's identity. As subscriber Penny points out:

People in the 1970's didn't understand, nor did they care to learn, what the difference between a drag queen and a transgender woman is. A Drag Queen is a male-identified person who dresses as or impersonates a woman for entertainment value. A transgender woman is an assigned-male-at-birth (AMAB) person who identifies as a female. Marsha was AMAB, but identified as a woman, and lived her life as such.

Thank you for taking the time to make sure this newsletter is as accurate and inclusive as possible. Means the world that you all value the accuracy in my recounting of these women's lives. Keep me correct, y'all!! **

** Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition. You can browse the archive here. **