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Herbert Putnam


Centurion, 1916–1955

Full Name George Herbert Putnam

Born 20 September 1861 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Died 15 August 1955 in Quissett, Massachusetts

Proposed by Edwin H. Anderson and Henry Holt

Elected 3 June 1916 at age fifty-four

Archivist’s Note: Son of George P. Putnam; brother of George Haven Putnam

Proposer of:

Century Memorial

Herbert Putnam graduated from Harvard College in 1883, studied law at Columbia University, and was admitted to the Minnesota bar in 1885. Originally, it was his intention to ractice law in Minneapolis; but, having taken a temporary position as librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum, a private library, he became so interested in bibliographical matters that he abandoned the law. Three years later, when the Minneapolis Public Library absorbed the proprietary institution, he became public librarian.

In 1895 he accepted the post of librarian of the Boston Public Library. During the four years he headed the Boston institution Dr. Putnam, whom President Eliot called “one of the three best librarians in the country,” made of the Boston library the foremost public library in the United States.

President McKinley in 1899 offered him the post of librarian of the Congressional Library, but he declined it. The President then offered the librarianship to a former Congressman. This caused a great commotion in academic and intellectual circles, and the President turned back to Dr. Putnam with considerable urgency. He accepted the position as a call to duty, and the rest of his career was spent in Washington making the Library of Congress one of the greatest libraries of the world.

He was the active head of the Library of Congress for forty years; and when he turned over his duties in 1939 to his successor, the huge Library contained more than five million volumes and four hundred miles of steel shelving. He was appointed librarian emeritus, and used to go every day to his office for a few hours for consultation.

Putnam was a slight, modest person but exceedingly astute. His reserved and disarming bearing won the confidence of the most Philistine of the Congressional Committees and convinced the members he was talking about their Library—while he was really building a great national library without the name. He never seemed to have to battle for appropriations, but he was most remarkably firm about what he required, and he always seemed to get it in the end.

He was President of the Cosmos Club for a time, and he used to sit at the round table there and talk and listen, picking up ideas and making suggestions, to the end of his life. His father was the founder of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, the publishing house, and Herbert—the last of eleven children—was born in Civil War days and brought up among books and in the New England tradition of letters and learning.

Of making many books there is no end, but inspired librarians are exceedingly rare. Let us rejoice, therefore, and be grateful that a compassionate Creator provided the nation with this great scholar to administer its library these many years.

George W. Martin
1956 Century Association Yearbook