A Life in the Library

Born in London, Ontario in 1887, Lillian Helena Smith graduated from the University of Toronto in 1910 and went on to train as a children’s librarian at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Lillian Smith, 1983).

After graduation, she was offered a position in September 1911 with the Children's Department of the New York Public Library under the guidance of Anne Carroll Moore, head of the Children's Department. After three weeks of orientation, Smith was placed in charge of the children's room at the Washington Heights Branch Library (Miller, 2003).

In 1912, Dr. George H. Locke, chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library, invited her to organize the children’s department for the city, becoming the first trained children’s librarian in the British Empire. In organizing the department, Smith worked with community groups and others concerned with children, setting up book displays and publicizing the importance of reading. Much of this work was carried out in a section of the adult department until 1922, when a separate children’s library known as Boys and Girls House was established in a converted home with Smith as head librarian (Lillian Helena Smith, 1983).

At the time Smith took on this challenge, the Toronto Public Library’s children's department at Toronto consisted primarily of gifts, publishers' remainders, and a haphazard group of editions purchased by various people. Her first priority was to establish a collection that met her high standards. Having accomplished this goal, she began a program of school visits to introduce children to the library and its programs (Miller, 2003).

Staff meetings were devoted largely to reviewing and discussing books. These included older titles and classics that were reassessed periodically. Classes were arranged for the study of source material for epic literature and storytelling (Miller, 2003).

A unique event of the year was the "Boys and Girls Work Congress" held in the Public Library during October. The aim of the congress was to bring together all agencies working with boys and girls, and to establish through cordial relations a broader idea and greater knowledge of the work of other organizations, which must result in a spirit of willing co-operation on the part of every agency. By acknowledging the role of the library in the wider world of children's services, Smith was a pioneer in community cooperation (Miller, 2003).

Smith was also a leader in seeing the importance of libraries in schools. In the 1935 Annual Report, she wrote: "The most important problem facing us now is the future of school libraries." Her solution was to have the public library establish branches in the schools, so that quality collections could be built by librarians and made available to teachers and students. By the time of Smith's retirement in 1952, the public library also operated libraries in 30 schools (Miller, 2003).

After the establishment of a library school at the University of Toronto in 1928, Smith taught children's literature courses there until her retirement. Through her teaching at the only library school in Ontario, Smith taught several generations of the children's librarians who worked in the province and across Canada. Her standards for literature and library service became the foundation of children's work throughout the English-speaking provinces of the country (Miller, 2003).

Librarians in the Toronto system were expected to be familiar with all of the books in their collections. The provision of personal service to individual children was stressed as the most appropriate way of developing a love of books and reading. Children's librarians wanted to be able to go to the shelf and easily find the book they were looking for. As the size of collections grew, the weaknesses of the standard classification schemes when applied to children's books became apparent to Smith. In 1930, she introduced a new classification system designed to organize books in a way more suited to children's collections(Miller, 2003).

Smith's classification scheme organized books by broad subject areas that had meaning for children:

X - Picture Books
Z - Little Children’s Books
A - Fairy Tales
B - Legends
C - Myths
D - Epic Heroes
E - Exploration
F - Famous People
G - History
H - Geography and Description
K - Natural History
L - Science
N - Practical Science
O - Things to Do
P - Art
Q - Music
R - Plays (drama)
S - Poetry
T - The Bible
W - Standard Fiction
(Heras, 1999)

This system worked well with the collections of her day and was adopted by several other libraries. It was not until the 1960s that its usefulness was questioned. Since children would eventually have to learn the Dewey classification scheme in order to use high school libraries, there was prolonged discussion about which system to use. When the Toronto Board of Education decided to use the Dewey system, most of the public libraries outside of Toronto followed that move. During the 1970s, the Toronto Public Library began using the Dewey classification system for nonfiction, although the Smith classification was retained for picture books. Its use was eventually eliminated altogether in 1999 (Miller, 2003).

She was also actively involved in guiding the development of librarianship as a profession. She served on the Executive Board of the American Library Association from 1932 to 1936, and chaired the Children’s Services Division of the ALA in the 1920s and 1940s. In Canada, she was instrumental in establishing the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians (Lillian Helena Smith, 1983).

In the year after her retirement, the American Library Association published her book The Unreluctant Years which had a profound influence on children's librarians. Smith gave a broad overview of the entire field of children's literature and wrote about the profound importance of books to children. The Unreluctant Years received glowing reviews and was widely used in library school courses and in-service training. In addition to being widely distributed throughout the English speaking world, The Unreluctant Years has been translated into Japanese and Italian (Miller, 2003).

In 1962, Smith became the first Canadian to receive the Clarence Day Award for “outstanding work in encouraging the love of books and reading.” The award citation, in part, read: “The Unreluctant Years...is a guidepost for librarians. It is used in library schools as widely separated as Australia and Louisiana. The relationship of children’s books to universal literature, standards of judging books for children, the belief that only the best is good enough and that children are unreluctant readers if they have the best to read, are all expressed in this distinguished volume” (Lillian H. Smith, 1962).

Through her long career, Smith exerted a profound influence on the development of children's librarianship. Her reputation was international and many librarians from Great Britain, Europe, and Asia came to work under her direction at Boys' and Girls' House. Her work was recognized in 1949 when Edgar Osborne, county librarian of Derbyshire, England, gave his collection of early children's books to the Toronto Public Library because of its high standards of children's work. In 1962, the Lillian H. Smith Collection of notable children's books from 1910 to the present was founded as a tribute to her (Miller, 2003).

Lillian Helena Smith died in 1983 at the age of 95.


Batchelder, M. (1982). June 1982 Horn Book [Letter to the editor]. Horn Book, 58, 585.

Heras, T. (1999). Lillian’s legacy. Horn Book, 75 (5), 630-633.

Johnston, M.E. (1982). Lillian H. Smith. Horn Book, 58 (3), 325-332.

Lillian H. Smith Honoured. (1962). Ontario Library Review, 46, 164.

Lillian Helena Smith 1887-1983. (1983). School Library Journal, 29, 13.

Lillian Smith. (1983). Quill & Quire, 49 (2), 30.

Miller, Marilyn L. (Ed.). Pioneers and leaders in library services to youth: A biographical dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.