MI's First Female Librarian: Mary Carmody | Mechanics' Institute

You are here

MI's First Female Librarian: Mary Carmody

In 1918, the world was changing for women.  For the first time, women were empowered to work in non-traditional roles outside of the home while men were fighting in World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic led to an increase in female nurses, and the Mechanics’ Institute hired its first female librarian, Mary Carmody.

Mary was born (1882) and raised in Minnesota where she attended the University of Minnesota.  In 1906, she married Frank E. Carmody and they moved to San Francisco just 4 months before the big earthquake and fire. Her son, James, was born the following year. When her husband enlisted to work as a marine engineer on ships in the Pacific during World War I, Mary went back to school to study librarianship at Mills College. It was at Mills that she met then MI Head Librarian, Frank Graves, who offered her a job as an Assistant in the Reference Department at $50.00 per month.

She was devoted to MI working her way from Reference Department Assistant to Head Reference Librarian in 1928 to the Head Librarian position in 1934. A 1964 San Francisco Examiner article, published just a few years prior to her death in 1967, described Mary as a ‘tall, erect and handsome’ woman who remembered her time at the Mechanics’ Library as ‘too busy keeping track of the 150,000 volumes, the steady stream of literary notables who considered the reading rooms their almost professional rendezvous, and buying the books to please the exacting 5,000 or so members’ to spend her free time reading until her retirement.  Some of the authors that MI counted as members during her time there included Jack London, Stewart Edward White,Charles Caldwell Dobie, and John Cowper Powys.

By 1934, when Mary became Head Librarian (shown here on the right), there were at least seven female librarians working at the library.  The women were limited to working 44 hours per week while their male counterparts worked 48 hours per week.  Mary was Head Librarian for 15 years.

Mary Carmody retired from the Mechanics’ in 1948. She was replaced by John C. Stump and it would be a quarter of a century before another female held the office of Head Librarian.


Posted on Sep. 24, 2020 by Diane Lai