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Jennie Maas Flexner

(1882 - 1944)

For the last twenty years of her life, Jennie Maas Flexner was the readers' adviser at the New York City Public Library and author of many books on the library and librarians.

She was born on November 6, 1882, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Rosa and Jacob Aaron Flexner. The Flexners were a distinguished family in many areas of life in America. Her uncles were Simon Flexner, the eminent bacteriologist, Abraham Flexner, known for his studies and surveys of medical colleges and higher education in the United States, and Bernard Flexner, a noted attorney.

Her sisters were Hortense Flexner King, a poet and a teacher at Bryn Mawr and Sarah Lawrence Colleges, and Caroline Flexner who was with UNRRA in Washington, D.C. Her father was a pharmacist and then a physician.

Jennie Flexner never finished college. She joined the staff of the Free Public Library of Louisville as a secretary, 1903-04, and then became a member of the library professional staff. She served as head of the circulation department from 1912 to 1928.

Flexner was a strong advocate of the newly developing library concept of a reader-centered philosophy as against the older book-centered one. She was soon in the forefront of writing and talking about this new concept. In Louisville, she was an advocate of service to the black community and the training of black and white librarians.

In 1926, she took a leave of absence to serve on the curriculum staff of the American Library Association. Flexner worked on developing criteria and materials for the professional education of librarians. As a result of her involvement, she wrote a book, "Circulation Work in Public Libraries," 1927, which was a standard text in library schools.

In 1928, The New York Public Library added her to the staff to initiate a special counseling service for adult readers. They opened the Readers' Advisers Service Office, in 1929, which gave her the opportunity to develop the most productive period of her life.

She worked closely with the book selection department to build up a collection of materials to meet the needs of individuals of all ages and varied educational, racial, social and ethnic backgrounds. Flexner developed a staff from the main library to service the branch libraries.

Flexner believed that the library should go beyond its physical borders to bring it closer to the people. Her innovations were supplying reading lists to the radio program Town Meeting of the Air, the Great Books Program, concerts of recorded music in the library and the library's involvement in the adult education program.

In the thirties, she became involved with the education and training of the refugees coming to America. In World War 11, she was an adviser to the Council on Books in Wartime in helping them prepare lists for the war effort at home and abroad.

On November 17, 1944, she died in New York City. She was buried in Adath Israel Cemetery in Louisville. She left behind a strong functioning Readers' Adviser's Office in the New York Public Library. She was a catalyst in raising the criteria, standards and ideals in the library profession. Jennie Maas Flexner will always be remembered for her many contributions in helping libraries serve all of the people.

Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.