Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Carma Leigh (1904-2009)
I first met Carma Leigh in the early 1980s when I was a young librarian with the San Diego County Library. No longer able to drive, she would accompany friends or colleagues to library-related social or professional events. I knew she had been California state librarian, but had no idea what that meant until many years later.
Then in 1996, one of my doctoral studies professors suggested that I do a paper on Carma’s career. My professor had done research on Carma’s husband Robert D. Leigh and, in the process, had become intrigued by his wife. Since I knew Carma from my days in San Diego, I agreed to investigate her accomplishments. I was soon amazed!
An alum of UC Berkeley's School of Librarianship (1930), Carma worked briefly at Berkeley Public Library before becoming director of the Watsonville
Public Library (1931-1935). In 1938, she became Orange County library director and then director of San Bernardino County library in 1942. She left California in 1945 to become Washington state librarian only to return six years later when a search committee recruited her to interview for the job of state librarian. Not surprisingly, she got the job and was appointed California state librarian by Governor Earl Warren in 1951. She eventually retired in 1972, making Carma the longest-tenured state librarian in California library history.
Over the years, Carma was very involved in the American Library Association (ALA)—this despite the fact that long-distance travel was far more complicated then than it is today. In 1952, ALA asked her to be part of a cultural envoy to West Germany as part of the post-WWII reconstruction effort. Among her traveling companions were deputy Librarian of Congress
Frederick Wagman and sculptor Alexander Calder. The following year she
was asked to become part of DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Committee on
Women in the Services), which toured military bases and reported on
the living conditions, etc., of servicewomen.
Although Carma considered the creation of public library systems in California her greatest accomplishment, her influence was far wider than just the west coast. For ten years, she was one of a group of stalwart librarians who regularly lobbied Congress for passage of the first Library Services Act, which finally became reality in 1956. She also lobbied for reauthorization after the law was renamed the Library Services & Construction Act. In addition, she and her husband Robert helped reshape the general library philosophy of the mid-20th century by emphasizing the power of cooperation in maximizing library services for all. In 1996, Carma was honored as one of several “Legislative and Grass Roots Library Champions” feted by ALA in Washington, D.C. I met with her shortly afterward and decided to write my doctoral dissertation about her career.
She was a wonderful research subject—still as sharp as a tack despite her advanced age: 91 years old when we decided to work together on her life story. She was very involved in the research process and opened numerous doors to former colleagues whom I then interviewed. Without any prompting, they all noted how dedicated she was to the profession and how
beautiful and charming she was. (I always imagined actress Geena Davis playing her in the movie version of my dissertation!) One former colleague called Carma’s time as California state librarian a “golden age” of innovation and modernism. My own conclusion was that she was that rare mid-century woman who managed to shatter all gender and library stereotypes.
Carma died peacefully on September 25th. She was 104 years old. She was a remarkable librarian and role model for many of us. To say she led an extraordinary life would not be an overstatement.
(Photo credit: California State Library photo archives - Carma in 1954)