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The Library Luncheon Club

By Sarah Finn on Apr 25, 2024 12:00 AM

The Library Luncheon Club was organized by the staff of Central Library from 1920 to 1934. It served as an informal meeting where colleagues could gather and exchange ideas while eating a simple meal for a modest price. The idea was conceived by Matthew S. Dudgeon, Head of Central Library, in October 1920.

The first luncheon took place in the “Library Grill” on Central Library’s third floor, and consisted of weiners, potato salad, olives, rolls, rye bread, doughnuts, apple sauce, and coffee. About 35 people attended and it was pronounced a huge success. The following week, another luncheon was given for the opposite section of the staff. It was decided that a club would form and the following officers were elected: Miss Miriam Tompkins, President; Miss Nellie Brady, Secretary; and Miss Helen Griswold, Treasurer.

Guest lecturers would come to speak before the group, and it was the secretary’s responsibility to reach out to speakers and set up these talks. The Milwaukee Public Library annual report notes “Some of those who have addressed the club are: Dallas Lore Sharp, essayist; Vachel Lindsay, poet; Charles D. Stewart, critic and novelist; Theodore W. Koch, librarian at Northwestern University; Carl B. Roden, librarian of the Chicago Public Library; Carl H. Milam, secretary of the American Library Association.”

The food at the luncheon was prepared by a rotating group of committee members that would change from week to week. It typically cost between twenty-five and thirty-five cents per plate. The committee members preparing the food were almost always women, and it was considered a real treat by the female staff when the men working at the library put together the luncheon. On January 13, 1921, three men cooked a lunch consisting of beef loaf, cream of tomato soup, wafers, scalloped potatoes with bacon, cheese salad, Parker House rolls with butter, pickles, olives, fruit compote with marshmallow dressing, and coffee. Miss Nellie Brady, the club’s secretary wrote: “This luncheon, and the previous one of Jan. 6th were prepared by the gentlemen of the institution, as a dare given by Mr. Dudgeon and accepted by Mr. Killop. We are inclined to think that the above won the blue ribbon.”

The Milwaukee Public Library 1922 Annual Report put together by the Board of Trustees boasted of the benefit the Library Luncheon Club had to the library system as a whole:

“Owing to the shifting schedule of the library it is possible for all members of the staff to attend these luncheons at different sessions. The occasion, therefore, serves the purpose, to a large extent, of a staff meeting, and undoubtedly has contributed to a fine professional and institutional spirit. There is practically no expenditure of time or money involved except that the library, out of its fund for instructional purposes, secures the out-of-town speakers.”

This same annual report explained the purpose of “Selling the Library Idea,” and that “in order to make the library a success it is up to the library staff to sell the library idea to the community. They must by a persistent and continuous process of publicity convince every individual that there are books in the library suited to his special needs.”

It follows, that the happiness and commitment of the staff to the library as an institution would be of great importance. In 1924, Mr. Dudgeon wrote that “the most notable thing about the library is the institutional spirit constantly exhibited by the staff.” The luncheons served as a way to garner institutional loyalty by providing a place for staff to come together and exchange ideas, learn from guest speakers, celebrate holidays/special events, and have fun.

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