Almira L. Hayward, circa 1880s, the second librarian of the Cambridge Public Library
Almira Leach Hayward began her tenure as Librarian of the Cambridge Public Library in 1874. It ended in 1894 with her untimely death due to a fall which happened right in the Library, but more about that later. She was actually not the first librarian. That honor going to Caroline F. Orne, who served from 1857-1874. Ms. Hayward was born in Weston, Mass in August of 1838 and was a graduate of Wheaton Seminary. In her earlier life, she taught school in Cambridge at the Shepard and Putnam Schools and also out of state. She was elected City Librarian in June of 1874. Almira was, as one might say, “from the old school” of librarianship. As a result of this philosophy, she didn’t get along too well with the Trustees of the Library and often disagreed with some of their decisions and ideas. For example, she did not approve of the library being open on Sunday. She apparently was afraid that, “it may lead to disorder and misuse of the books.” In the book, History of the Cambridge Public Library, published in 1908, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the Library Trustees at that time, tells of how she would very smugly report to him every Monday morning about the low attendance on those first few Sunday openings. He also tells us that, “there was another point from which she shrank—the giving of immediate access to books, even of reference books.” When the Trustees made the decision to place a very moderate number of books for free access in the reading room, he says, “Miss Hayward came to me with, I fear, a little gentle triumph and showed me a large and valuable illustrated medical book in which whole pages had been taken out, torn out by some medical student, without detection.”
Coming from a teaching background, Almira had a lot to offer the library. In fact, she was very concerned with the needs of children. In 1894, a new wing, which featured a children’s reading room, was added to the library. Higginson credited this addition to her efforts and stated, “The plan of an addition to the building, with special reference to the needs of the children, was largely hers.” In an odd way, you could say that this accomplishment led to her death. On the morning of October 11, 1894, Almira was busy rearranging books in the reference room, a job which had to be done as a result of the addition. A ventilator grate had been left open in the floor in order that the iron work might be cleaned. Being preoccupied with her task, she inadvertently stepped into the opening and fell to the basement below, hitting her head on the asphalt and fracturing her skull. She never regained consciousness and died right in the library with a volume of the Atlantic Monthly under her arm. What a way for a librarian to go! Or as Higginson put it, “She died literally in harness, as she always wished to die; and her name will be forever associated with the most important formative period of her beloved institution.”
This article was generously written by Susan Ciccone, Reference Librarian and history specialist at the Cambridge Public Library.