NYPL’s Mabel Williams: Giving Teens a Voice

By Anne Rouyer, Supervising Young Adult Librarian
March 8, 2021
Mulberry Street Library

In honor of Women's History Month, the Library is taking a look back at some of the remarkable women who changed The New York Public Library—and the field of librarianship—forever with our new series, Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each week this March, we will be sharing reflections from our current staff on how the impact of these trailblazing figures from the Library's 125-year history are still felt today. 

American Library Association Yearbook, 1981. Chicago: ALA, 1981, p. 79

About Mabel Williams

Mabel Williams was instrumental in adding a teen section at the Library. Hired in 1916, Williams worked with schools and teens to engage them around using libraries. She curated lists of books, mixing adult and youth collections, that would be useful to teenagers both for education and as reading for pleasure. Her groundbreaking work culminated with the creation of the Library's first “NYPL Books for Young People” list which is currently called “Best Books for Teens.” At the time, the list was sent all over the country to schools and libraries looking to bolster their own collections for teens. Williams also identified librarian Margaret Scoggin (also on this list) as a future leader in teen services and strongly supported her rise at NYPL. 

Mabel Williams’s Legacy

Reflection by Anne Rouyer, Supervising Young Adult Librarian, Mulberry Street Library

When I started at NYPL so many years ago, I realized pretty quickly that it was thanks to Mabel Williams that I was there at all. Mabel believed that not only did teens (or adolescents, as they were called then) belong at the library and deserve their own spaces and collections, she believed they deserved their own librarians too. She advocated tirelessly for the teens of New York City and for their reading and programming needs—and this included hiring librarians who would understand and meet those needs. Every time I advocate for my teens, from programs to new tech to books to just space for them to hang out, I know that I’m upholding Mabel’s legacy. 

Mabel’s legacy is also in every outreach visit and book talk I do. She made visits to schools and other places teens gathered in order to entice teens to read and to put a friendly face on the sometimes intimidating institution that was the Library. I remember I was visiting a Harlem high school and was in a class full of what the teacher described as “reluctant readers.” As I talked about books, I had boys and girls scribbling down titles they wanted to read. One boy in particular was excited about a horror novel I had talked about and was asking, “But, Miss, how does it end?!” “You have to read it to find out!” As the class ended, the teacher mentioned that she didn’t think that boy had finished a book the entire year in that class and she was so happy he was finally excited to read something. 

You can also find Mabel’s legacy in the work we do with incarcerated teens. Over the years I have visited detention centers, I would talk about books and tell the teens about the library services and programs waiting for them when they got out. I remember one teen asked if they would be able to get a library card: “Even me Miss? Even though I’ve been in jail?” I said, “Yes! Especially you! We want everyone to use the library and to feel comfortable there.” I think Mabel would have approved. 

Mabel Williams doesn’t have the name recognition of other librarians or awards named after her, but she is the reason we are all here and why we do the job. She was quiet and shy but no less passionate in her advocacy for teens. She is a great example for all of us, someone who quietly did their job with passion and zeal and made a difference just by serving and advocating for her staff and patrons. 

This is part of the Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL series. Find out how the Library is celebrating Women's History Month with recommended reading, events and programs, and more.