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A profile of Edna Yelland

In 1999, the California Library Association began recruiting for a new executive director. At that time, this article appeared in CLA's then monthly newsletter, California Libraries, to honor Edna Yelland, the association's long-time and perhaps best known executive secretary (1946-1964).

As we move forward with recruiting a new Executive Director, perhaps this is a good time to look back and appreciate once again the professional contributions made by one of CLA’s most renowned directors, Edna Yelland. Although she died thirty-three years ago, Edna Yelland is still remembered not only because of the CLA scholarship named in her honor, but also because she was so well-loved by the association’s members. “She was unextolled and unsung,” San Marino city librarian June Bayless eulogized in 1966, “but, oh, so loved by those whose orbit touched hers.”[1]

Edna Holroyd began her library career at the turn of the century as one of State Librarian James L. Gillis’s “girls,” educated at the State Library with the purpose of eventually becoming a county librarian. In those days, few library training schools existed. As Edna herself recalled, “This school was a ‘feeder’ for the county library system, primarily, though many of the graduates went into other library fields. We knew Mr. Gillis well; he was always accessible for talk to any of us; we were taught by Susan Smith, Milton Ferguson, Laura Steffens, Mabel Gillis, Beulah Mumm, and others. People came from the University of California to lecture to us, and Aurelia Rinehart from Mills College. Librarians visiting Sacramento, especially the county librarians like Mary Barmby and Stella Huntington, were often asked to look in on our classes and say something to us.”[2]

After graduation, Edna stayed on at the State Library to work in the reference department. She soon got her first county library job in Monterey, where Anne Hadden served as county librarian. “Meeting me at the train,” Edna reminisced years later, “Anne said, ‘Good, you’re thin, too; there isn’t much room between the stacks.’ There wasn’t. The library occupied a tiny space at the rear of the Salinas Public Library... We worked hard; sometimes we went together to the movies, and always took little boxes of cards to file, in the intermission, or before the show started.”[3]

Once she passed her state certification, which was required then of all county librarians, Edna left for Tuolomne, where she was tasked with setting up her first county library. “[I] was shown into a marvelous room in the court house, full of old water company account books, records of early businesses and organizations. Sent word to Eudora Garoutte, of the State Library, who came post-haste, excited as I was. Word got around of our interest in old things; we were offered souvenirs like an ox-yoke supposedly shed down a canyon by the Donner party, and a partition from the early Columbia post office.”[4] Although some time later she reluctantly left Tuolomne for San Mateo County, she eventually “found it, too, full of interest.” When a problem arose over who was supposed to pay her and other staff’s salaries, all work stopped. “[F]or months new books piled up, uncatalogued; annoyed custodians of branches protested their long wait for pay; one wrote every month quoting ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire.’ I coped as well as I could; in the end, everyone was paid in full, I again had help in the library, and the awful backlog of work was worn down in time... [I]t was delightful to extend the system to branches on the coast--Pescadero, San Gregorio, Pigeon Point--as funds permitted.”[5]

Edna left San Mateo to marry Raymond Yelland, but returned to librarianship several years later during World War II. In 1947, she was hired as Executive Secretary of the California Library Association. “How we worked that year!” exclaimed then CLA president Evelyn Steel Little. “[W]e had almost no money in the treasury to begin with, so like frugal housewives we spent none, even for traveling expenses or typists. We typed our own letters and drove our own cars to district meetings and economized on pencils. But it is all fun to look back on now when we hear the youngsters discussing solemnly the wisdom of the Association’s owning its own building!”[6] Indeed, during Edna’s seventeen years as Executive Secretary, all CLA business was conducted out of her house in Berkeley. “How she did all that she did with almost no office staff is still a wonder to many people,” USC library school dean Martha Boaz marveled, “and the membership in CLA [then]... was between 3,000-3,500.”[7] As soon as Edna announced her retirement in 1963, a committee was formed to find a more permanent CLA headquarters site.

When Edna Yelland retired, librarians around the state not only bemoaned the loss of a gracious hostess, who always made CLA members feel welcome to the meetings held regularly in her home, but also the departure of an efficient manager and event coordinator whose deeds often went unheralded. “Edna Yelland unobtrusively piloted the Conference through the narrow passages,” June Bayless remembered. “While the Association officers relaxed with a sense of accomplishment, savoring the congratulatory letters that trickled through from thoughtful colleagues, Edna Yelland went home to Berkeley to cajole the necessary reports out of delinquent officials, add up the bills, and close the year’s account.”[8]

In addition, Edna Yelland was famous for her devotion to new librarians--a trait most befitting the person whose name graces CLA’s most prestigious scholarship award. Edna “is one of the few persons left in the profession who can inspire the younger generations of librarians with the ideals of librarianship,” former CLA president Edwin Coman, Jr., enthused. “We need more people to teach them to forget salaries, retirement, and smooth administration, and to feel the excitement of fighting for more books for more people.”[9] Thirty-five years later we still need more Edna Yellands.

1. June E. Bayless, “The Edna Yelland Legacy,” California Librarian 29 (October 1968), tipped in between pages 256 and 257.
2. “Edna H. Yelland, Secretary-Treasurer (1947-1963),” California Librarian 25 (January 1964), pp. 24-25.
3. Ibid., p. 25.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., pp. 25-26.
6. Ibid., p. 17.
7. Martha Boaz, Librarian/Library Educator: an Autobiography and Planning for the Future (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987), p. 137.
8. June E. Bayless, “The Edna Yelland Legacy.”
9. “Edna H. Yelland, Secretary-Treasurer (1947-1963),” p. 19.

Source: Mediavilla, Cindy. (May 1999). A Look Back: We Need More Edna Yellands. California Libraries, 9, no, 5: 5,8.