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California Library Hall of Fame: Mabel R. Gillis
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California Library Hall of Fame

Mabel R. Gillis (1882-1961)


Born in 1882, Mabel Gillis was 22 years old when her father, California state librarian James Gillis, asked her to work at the state library, where she stayed for the next 47 years. Starting as an assistant in the extension department, she was tasked with developing services for visually impaired readers. When Books for the Blind became its own section in 1911, Gillis was named department head. Four years later, she instituted a statewide plan for in-house training of those wanting to learn sightless reading. Thanks to her work in this area, the State Library was chosen in 1931 as one of 18 regional centers when the Library of Congress initiated a national service to the blind. After her father died in 1917, Gillis was appointed assistant to the new state librarian Milton J. Ferguson. Her main charge was overseeing plans for a new State Library building, which opened in 1928. With Ferguson’s resignation in 1930, Gillis became the first woman to be appointed California state librarian. Among her accomplishments were: instituting an annual conference of county librarians; conducting annual special certificate examinations for county librarians; and expanding the State Library’s union catalog so libraries statewide could share some 3 million books. But perhaps her greatest achievement was being mentor to young, mostly female librarians throughout California. A prolific letter-writer, Gillis provided professional advice and helped her protégés deliver services during the Great Depression as well as World War II. She retired from the state library in 1952.


Mabel Gillis was inducted into the California Library Hall of Fame in 2018. For more information, please see:



Photo credit
: Calisphere