Jennie Maas Flexner was the New York Public Library’s original readers’ adviser and an innovator in the use of public libraries for adult education, especially for minorities, immigrants, and refugees during the unsettled years of the Depression and World War II.
Born on November 6, 1882, Jenny Maas Flexner came from a prominent Jewish family in Louisville, Kentucky, the firstborn of Jacob Aaron Flexner, a pharmacist, and Rosa (Maas) Flexner. Her paternal uncles included the educator Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; Bernard Flexner, a distinguished lawyer and Zionist; and Simon Flexner, pathologist and scientific director of the Rockefeller Foundation. Her father, who helped finance his brothers’ education, eventually was able to attain his own medical degree, but Jennie, the eldest of four daughters and one son, never attended college. Her sister Hortense published seven volumes of poetry and taught at Bryn Mawr and Sarah Lawrence colleges. Another sister, Caroline, became the aide to New York governor and senator Herbert H. Lehman, and held important positions in the Joint Distribution Committee and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
Jennie Flexner went to the local public schools and did not take a paying job until age twenty-four, when she became a secretary. After two years, she moved on to more congenial work in the Louisville Public Library. In 1908, she was able to study at the School of Library Service at the Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She returned to Louisville and became head of the circulation department at the Louisville Public Library from 1912 through 1928, publishing Circulation Work in Libraries (1927), long a standard text for library students, and devoting her attention to library training issues and community service in Louisville and throughout the country for the American Library Association.
In 1928, Jennie Flexner was hired as the readers’ adviser at the New York Public Library, a post she retained until the end of her life. In a Library Journal article, “Readers and Books” (1938), she explained her mission: “As the Readers’ Adviser, I am especially interested in assisting those readers who voluntarily and for the joy of achievement wish to go ahead with constructive reading as a basis for further education. People come to a realization of gaps in their education, [and] … they are aware that they can go farther both in life and in work, if they know more. Some are those who have not had rich opportunities in formal education. Others have had college education or special training, but find themselves at a loss when they wish to read about unfamiliar subjects.” As the readers’ adviser, she not only compiled individualized lists for readers and taught them how to make the best use of the library themselves, but advised the growing ranks of unemployed Americans and new immigrants about retraining and adult education opportunities beyond the library. When the influx of European refugees from fascism began to arrive in New York in the 1930s, Jennie Flexner was active in helping them find new resources for their professional and intellectual lives. During World War II, she advised the Council on Books in Wartime and chaired the committee that selected books for the Armed Services Editions.
Her final effort was Making Books Work: A Guide to the Use of Libraries (1943), written not for fellow librarians, but for the common reader in all his or her variety. Her colleagues and friends remembered her for her warmth, vivacity, and the breadth and depth of her sympathies. She died in 1944 and was buried in the Adath Israel Cemetery in Louisville.
SELECTED WORKS BY JENNIE MAAS FLEXNER
Making Books Work: A Guide to the Use of Libraries (1943).
“Readers and Books.” Library Journal 63, no. 2 (1938): 55–56.
Bulletin of Bibliography 17, no. 1 (January–April 1940): frontispiece, 1–2.
Danton, Emily Miller. Pioneering Leaders in Librarianship (1953).
DAB, supp. 3.
Obituary. NYTimes, November 18, 1944, 13.
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Halpert, Susan. "Jennie Maas Flexner." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/flexner-jennie-maas>.