Librarians are quiet heros; in many cases even the most courageous of their deeds go unsung. How many know of the work of librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara and his band of book rustlers? These librarians devised and implemented a plan to smuggle to safety over 400,000 priceless, ancient Islamic manuscripts before they were destroyed by armed militants in Timbuktu, Mali.
Or of Alia Baqer, the librarian and her staff that saved 30,000 priceless works during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Two children’s books tell Ms. Baqer’s story: Librarian of Basra by Jeannette Winter, and graphic novel Alia’s Mission, Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty.
In addition, there are those librarians that deliver books to children in remote and often dangerous conflict areas by whatever means, be it camel, burro, or back pack.
Today, March 19th, is the birthday of another quiet hero, Clara Estelle Breed. Ms. Breed was the children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library from 1929 to 1945. After the United States entered World War II, Japanese-American families were moved from San Diego to internment camps. Many of the children that were patrons of the San Diego Public Library were sent to the Poston War Relocation Center internment camp in Arizona. During their time there, Ms. Breed “became a life-line to ‘her children’ as she called the middle- and high-school-aged Japanese-Americans.” As the children were leaving she gave them addressed-stamped post cards so they could write to her. She wrote letters, sent packages, and visited the children and their families.
Ms. Breed advocated against Executive Order 9066, the internment policy instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942. In 1943 she wrote two articles about the unfair treatment of the children and the other Japanese Americans placed in internment camps. “All but Blind” (Library Journal) and “Americans with the Wrong Ancestors” (The Horn Book Magazine).
Journals and over 250 letters sent to her by the children during their time in the internment camp form the permanent exhibit, “Dear Miss Breed: Letters from Camp,” held at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA. There is also an online exhibit. Using four of the letters, the Smithsonian has created a lesson plan on primary source materials.
Ms. Breed served as the City Librarian, San Diego Public Librarian from 1945 – 1970. She was honored for her advocacy and support of the Japanese American families by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Dear Ms. Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim tells her story and the lives of the families she cared for so deeply.
Book cover image credits: Jeanette Winter, Mark Alan Stamaty, and Emily Waters and Tatiana Sperhacke.