Elizabeth Howard West: Texas Library Pioneer

Gina Watts, Reference Librarian

Elizabeth Howard West, state librarian, 1918-1925. Prints and photographs collection, 1/103-124-West. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

When Elizabeth Howard West was hired as state archivist at the Texas State Library in 1911, she had been through library training, worked in manuscripts at the Library of Congress, and held a master’s degree in history from the University of Texas. Her first task was to organize more than a thousand boxes from the Comptroller’s Office that had been collecting in a basement, and she went on to create the calendar (annotated listing) for the Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar papers. She departed in 1915 and went to the San Antonio Public Library, where she served as director.

Today we recognize Elizabeth Howard West as a pioneer in Texas history. In 1918, she became the first woman to direct any state agency when she accepted the position as state librarian. West had a vision for a state library that expanded library services to reach all Texans. When she began as state librarian, only 16 percent of citizens in Texas had access to a free public library. She worked to improve this statistic by serving as president of the Texas Library Association and helping establish a county library system. West was so skilled at this work that she helped other states do the same.

Elizabeth Howard West, state archivist, 1911-1915. Prints and photographs collection, 1/122-9. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

West also provided library services to groups and individuals who had limited or no access to books. She initiated library services for the blind in 1916 while serving as director of the San Antonio Public Library and brought these services to the Texas State Library in 1919. She acquired books in earlier forms of braille to better serve this population. She also provided services to African American library patrons despite the segregation practices of the era. Schools serving African American students were regular customers of the Texas State Library, but these patrons were not welcomed by everyone working in the Texas Capitol at the time. West developed a process to serve this group by having their requests prepared in advance and ready for pick-up when they arrived.

West was a strong advocate for maintaining a professional staff and added staff raises to her budget requests. She also stipulated training requirements for library and archives positions so that the legislature did not place well-connected but unqualified individuals in library jobs, as was a common practice by Texas politicians of the day.

After years of battling for higher budgets, more space, and better staff support, West eventually sought work outside of state government. In her wake she left behind a library that was made better by her diligence and care. Most important, she left TSLAC as a library that served everyone, not just a privileged few.

Elizabeth West’s records can be found in several collections:

Sources:

Gracy, David B. The State Library and Archives of Texas: a History, 1835-1962. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

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