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Etta Josselyn Giffin: A Role Model of Women’s Enduring Leadership

March is Women’s History Month and a perfect time to celebrate an inspiring role model of lasting leadership: Etta Josselyn Giffin (1863-1932). Giffin was the first director of what has become our National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.

Memorial bust portrait drawing of Etta Jossely Giffin. Smiling with her mouth closed, she has a friendly and determined look; her hair is short and wavy with some curls falling on her forehead. She is wearing a dark choker necklace.

Portrait Drawing of Etta Josselyn Giffin, by N. Holt (1933). Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/2004662431/

The story begins on October 6, 1897, when John Russell Young, the Librarian of Congress, opened a reading room for the blind with around 200 volumes of books and music items in raised characters. The Washington Sunday Times from December 4, 1898, specified that some important works in the collection included the “bible printed in nearly all the braille systems, Irving’s works, some good musical manuscripts, Pilgrim’s Progress, miscellaneous poems, etc.” The Librarian of Congress chose Etta Josselyn Giffin to lead this part of the Library.

Having just one room with a few desks and a long shelf with braille materials, Giffin started adding objects by talking to members of Congress and asked for used chairs and tables they no longer needed. Word got around and she received the desired items. Somebody even donated a grand piano for the cause.

Reading room in the Jefferson building. Black and white photograph taken from behind 17 adults and one child sitting on chairs, around the arched pillars, facing the main reception desk behind which a woman (Giffin?) is sitting.

Reading room for the blind, Library of Congress, 1900. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002716648/>

Shortly after, in 1899, she successfully installed two types of outreach that would go beyond her directorate: public readings and concerts.

For public readings, Director Giffin recruited prominent people and local celebrities to volunteer as readers and asked them to commit to a few hours each week. The event’s premiere was presented by the Librarian of Congress’s wife Mrs. John Russell Young, and future readers would include celebrities such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Thomas Gallaudet, lawyer and writer Thomas Nelson Page, Minnesota House Representative James Adam Bede, and others.

For concerts, performers included the singer and President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Margaret Wilson, “America’s Representative Contralto” Jessie Bartlett Davis, a piano student of Franz Liszt named Hermine Lüders, violinist Louise Farrow, blind composer Adam Geibel, and Marie Benedict, who at the time was a famous blind pianist from Philadelphia.

The events were so popular that in 1900, the Library started offering music recitals and public readings at the library for the blind on a daily basis from Monday through Friday. The programs were announced in local newspapers. The list of blind persons and famous people who attended these popular events included American poet and newspaper founder Sarah Jane Lippincott (also known as Grace Greenwood), Edward Everett Hale, Dr. Henry Van Dyke, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Reginald de Koven.

Events continued on a lighter schedule during a temporary displacement of the library services for the blind from late 1910 to early 1912, when services and events were provided at Washington D.C.’s public library building. Once back on Capitol Hill, the recitals and readings series resumed as their own popular event within the Library, and in 1912, Gertrude Rider became the Director of “Weekly Entertainment for the Blind.”

Furthermore, under Giffin’s guidance, Congress approved the extension of library services beyond the Washington D.C. area. NLS now became a national circulating library that would distribute books from branch libraries in every big city in the United States, at no cost to the patrons.

A Washington Sunday Star article from January 12, 1913, said that Director Giffin had expanded the services and turned the Library into an organization “to help the blind help themselves.” In addition to growing the braille collection with vocational and instructional materials, and providing public readings and concerts, she used the library space as a clearinghouse for various homemade things, such as scarfs, mittens, caps and baskets!

A second room was added to the library for the blind. They used it for games including dominoes “studded with brass tacks and cards with pin-pricked corners, so the player can feel the denomination,” and there was always the braille sheet music for those who wanted to play the piano or use vocal music scores in “raised notes and words.”

Giffin took her endeavors further. She instituted the practice of paid work for the blind through braille production jobs. At that time, the library was sponsored by membership dues and philanthropists’ gifts. Giffin utilized part of that money to pay wages for blind braille copyists. “The objects of the National Library are to furnish reading matter to the blind and to furnish employment for them in copying books and music,” stated the Washington Post on December 10, 1912. Blind braille copyists received five cents per transcribed page, which showed that, as the Washington Sunday Star article from 1913 pointed out: “with a little practice they are able to earn a dollar and a half by working six hours.” Thanks to Giffin’s initiative, in 1914, the library had five regular employees who were blind braille transcribers.

Library services and patron numbers kept growing, and Giffin kept asking for support.  President Theodore Roosevelt denied one of her requests in a letter he wrote on March 1, 1915: “My dear Miss Giffin: I am sorry that I cannot do as you request. You have no idea of the multitudes of demands that are made upon me and of my inability to comply with one in twenty of them. Sincerely yours, T. Roosevelt.” While we don’t know for sure yet, it is likely that her request had to do with assistance for the reading room for the blind.

However, Giffin managed to expand services and ensured that they were also provided to American soldiers and veterans overseas. A Washington Post article from December 9, 1915, quoted: “5,000 books were loaned and 1,000 readers took advantage of the library, according to the report of the director of the library, Miss Etta Josselyn Giffin. Blind inmates of the Soldiers’ Home have prepared decks of playing cards, which will be sent to the blind soldiers in Europe.”

By 1930, Giffin’s directional governance had led to the Pratt-Smoot Act. The Act, which was passed on March 3, 1931, authorized funds “to be expended under the direction of the Library of Congress to provide books for the use of the adult blind residents of the United States.” To this date, NLS observes its own birthday as March 3, 1931. Director Giffin died July 29, 1932.

To celebrate the first NLS Director Etta Josselyn Giffin, check out some of the musical works that were performed at concert events held during her tenure in the library for the blind.

If you would like to check out these works, or are interested in accessible music materials, check out the NLS Music Section website. To borrow music related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact us either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Pieces from the program performed on Tuesday, June 20, 1899:

Edvard Grieg, Piano Sonata, op. 7 in E minor, in bar over bar format. (BRM00226)

Franz Schubert, “Ungeduld,” from Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795. for high voice and piano.  In bar over bar  format. (BRM36359)

Frederic Chopin, Nocturne in G major, op. 37, no. 2, transcribed from 1998 Dover edition in bar over bar format. Title made available courtesy of the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) via the Marrakesh Treaty in 2021. (BRT37145). Also available transcribed from Edwin B. Marks Co, 1921 edition (BRM00133)

Frederic Chopin, Mazurka in B minor, op. 33, no. 4, in section by section format (BRM28066 vol. 2). Also available in paragraph format (BRM21707).

Frederic Chopin, Berceuse in D flat major, in bar over bar format (BRM00123). Also available in paragraph format (BRM20154).

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Capriccio brilliant, in bar over bar format. Arranged for solo piano and piano accompaniment (BRM24678)

Songs from the program performed by Margaret Wilson Wednesday on December 10, 1913

Franz Schubert, “Ave Maria,” Latin and English vocal scores, and piano score. (BRM34867)

Gabriel Fauré, “Les berceaux,” Songs op. 23. (BRM22895)

Gabriel Fauré, “Les berceaux.” Includes performance of the song with accompaniment, a reading of the lyrics for diction guidance, a translation of the song, a recording of the melody (on piano) and a separate recording of the piano accompaniment alone for use in practice.  (DBM01876)

Gabriel Fauré, “Clair de lune” opus 46, no. 2, for high voice (BRM22873)

Loch Lomond” and other old English Songs, included in: The Home and Community Song Book. (BRM04984)

Richard Strauss, “Morgen,” for voice and piano. (BRM20425)