Justin Winsor

Justin Winsor

Justin Winsor c. 1885
Born January 2, 1831
Boston, Massachusetts
Died October 22, 1897(1897-10-22) (aged 66)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Occupation Librarian, Historian, Author

Justin Winsor (January 2, 1831 – October 22, 1897) was a prominent American writer, librarian, and historian. His historical work had strong bibliographical and cartographical elements. He was an authority on the early history of North America. His self-confidence, energy and congeniality augmented his entrepreneurial skills and were well received by his peers, who elected him as the first president of the American Library Association.

Background and education

Winsor was born in Boston, Massachusetts, son of Nathaniel Winsor III (1806-c.1890) and Ann Thomas Howland Winsor (1809–1893). His father was a shipping merchant who had established the "Winsor Line," one of the first regular lines of clipperships between Boston and San Francisco. Shortly before his birth, his parents had recently moved to Boston from Duxbury, Massachusetts where the Winsor family had been involved in shipbuilding for generations. His grandfather's home, the Nathaniel Winsor, Jr. House, is now the headquarters of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society.[1] Justin Winsor graduated from the Boston Latin School. He entered Harvard, but left in his senior year and never finished his education at the university.[2] He then studied in Paris and Heidelberg. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


In 1855, Winsor married Caroline Tufts Barker (1830–1911), daughter of Ebenezer and Sally Fuller Barker of Charlestown, Massachusetts. They had two children, Mary (b. 1860) who died in infancy, and Constance (c. 1861-1895).

Writer and editor

Justin Winsor published his first book, A History of the Town of Duxbury (1849), during his first year at Harvard.[3] He contributed to many periodicals, and, in addition to editing many smaller works, he edited some of the most important historical works of the 19th century, among them: Reader’s Handbook of American History (1879), The Memorial History of Boston (4 vols., 1880–1881) and the Narrative and Critical History of America (8 vols., 1884–1889). The latter was a standard history reference for decades.


Boston Public Library

Winsor was one of the creators of the librarian profession, a strong proponent of the ability of libraries to uplift, and a leader in the effort to make libraries the center of universities.[4] He started his library career as a trustee (1867–1868), then superintendent (1868–1877) of the Boston Public Library. As a member of the Boston Brahmins, Winsor found an opportunity to engage in social reform while pursuing intellectual interests. He reflected the Brahmins’ strong belief in self-help, uplift, and social progress. They espoused the Socratic idea that knowledge creates virtue and Winsor saw the public library as a way to educate common people so that the traditional order of the republic would be maintained.

At Boston Public Library, Winsor undertook many projects used to track and help library use. He employed innovative statistical analysis of the library’s use and used the finding to promote the idea that libraries were not just institutions and repositories of books, but were a process. He also dedicated a great deal of attention to the compilation of bibliographies and guides to public reading. Also, Winsor annotated the catalog to give it an educational character. In an effort to increase book use, he worked for the establishment of branch libraries, extended hours, and relaxed restrictions on use.

Harvard Librarian

In 1877, following a struggle with Alderman Hugh O'Brien over the professionalism of library management, Winsor left Boston Public Library to become librarian of Harvard University, where he served until his death. In his dual career as librarian-historian, he was a prototype of the ideal academic librarian.

Winsor came to Harvard at a time when research was gaining emphasis. Faculty and students assumed ready access to large collections. Winsor wanted to make the library the center of the university. In this effort, he pushed for more books and greater accessibility, improved the catalog, informed faculty of new acquisitions, liberalized the library use policy, instituted a reserve system, and wrangled with administration over the installation of electric lights for extended hours. During this time, he also influenced the field though reports when library literature was scarce.

Winsor was also a founder of the American Library Association and the Library Journal, serving as president of the ALA from 1876 through 1885.[5] In this position, he emphasized the need for trained professionals and provided a rationale for the need for libraries in combating attacks on American morals and social standards. The Library History Round Table of the ALA awards the “Justin Winsor Prize”, established in 1978, for exceptional library history essays.

Winsor is a member of the Library Hall of Fame.


He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1880.[6] Winsor was a founding member of the American Historical Association and served as the president during the 1886-1887 term. The Justin Winsor Prize was the first prize established by the AHA and was awarded from 1896 through 1930 and from 1936 through 1938.

Works by Winsor

Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Justin Winsor


Harvard series

He edited the series “Library of Harvard University: Bibliographical Contributions” (begun in 1887). Among his contributions to it were:


Key writings on the library


  1. "Duxbury Rural and Historical Society". Duxbury Rural and Historical Society.
  2. Davis, D. G., Carpenter, K.E., Wiegand, W.A., and Aikin, J. (2002). Winsor, Dewey, and Putnam : the Boston experience. Champaign, Ill.: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  3. Channing, E. (1898). "Justin Winsor". The American Historical Review. 3 (2): 197–202. doi:10.2307/1832499.
  4. Brundin,, Robert E. (January 1975). "Justin Winsor of Harvard and the Liberalizing of the College Library". The Journal of Library History. 1 (10): 57–70. JSTOR 25540606.
  5. "Justin Winsor (American librarian)". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica. Retrieved 16 February 2014.
  6. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory

Further reading

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