The Case of the Gutsy Librarian

McCarthyism thrived on pliant citizens. Mary Knowles wasn’t one of them.

In the end, it will be librarians who protect our right to think, speak and read. Pick your decade—U.S. history offers numerous examples. In 1948, the American Library Association resisted federal thought investigations and loyalty oaths. In 1979, a Utah librarian successfully fought official efforts to remove Don DeLillo’s Americana from her library’s collection. In 2001, pressure from librarians stopped publisher HarperCollins from pulping Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men after the author refused to rewrite sections critical of the Bush Administration.

In 1954, it was Plymouth Meeting’s turn. That was the year Boston librarian Mary Knowles—fired for refusing a McCarthy-era loyalty oath—was taken in by a Quaker library here. Local conservatives demanded that the privately run William Jeanes Library also fire Knowles, but she remained head librarian for 25 years. “I have committed no crime,” Knowles assured the library committee.

And that assurance was enough.

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Born in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Mary Gardner was the youngest of four daughters—and, apparently, an instinctive librarian. As a high school student, she worked in her school library, then in the Watertown Public Library. As a student at Bates College, she did the same at its library. Following graduation in 1933, Gardner returned to the Watertown facility as a children’s librarian. That same year, she married Clive Knowles, with whom she had a son, Jonathan, in 1937.

In the late 1930s and early ’40s, Knowles took time from her career to raise her young child. From 1945 to ’47, she worked as a secretary at the Samuel Adams School for Social Studies in Cambridge, near Harvard.

The Samuel Adams School was one of many sponsored by the U.S. Communist Party to recruit members and educate older ones. In addition to Marxist theory, these institutions—including the Tom Paine School in Philadelphia, among others—offered courses in art and music appreciation, literature, health, U.S. history and more for urban, working people without access to higher education. Clive Knowles and several of the couple’s friends taught at the school. “Knowles had been a sympathetic member of the American Left since her days as a Bates College student,” says Allison Hepler, associate professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. “[But] she was not involved in any of the ideological work of the Sam Adams School.”

In 1947, Knowles accepted a librarian’s position at a public library in South Norwood, Mass. In 1949, she and Clive Knowles were divorced.

That might have been the end of her association with communists. But in May 1953, Knowles was called to testify before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). SISS was authorized by the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1950 to investigate “persons who are or may be under the domination of the foreign government or organization controlling the world Communist movement.” ISA presumed as fact that such a movement existed and intended to overthrow the U.S. government by force. The act had been passed over the veto of President Harry S. Truman, who called it “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly since the Alien and Sedition laws of 1798.”

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Knowles had been ratted out by Herbert Philbrick, a former communist and FBI informer who identified her as a member of his “cell.” It was the subcommittee’s practice to use such testimony to subpoena additional witnesses who might identify still more communists.

Citing the Fifth Amendment, Knowles refused to testify—an act she subsequently explained to library trustees. Much like a prisoner of war, she gave only her name, address and confirmation of employment. “From the beginning, I have refused, as a matter of principle, to discuss my religion or my politics,” Knowles wrote her employer. “This I did in the firm belief that freedom of religion and freedom of thought are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

According to historian Ellen Schrecker (author of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America), use of the Fifth Amendment emerged as a tactic in the late 1940s after a group of entertainment professionals—the “Hollywood 10”—was convicted of contempt of Congress after relying unsuccessfully on the First Amendment. “Taking the Fifth” worked as a legal defense, but came to be seen as a sign of guilt.

The Senate subcommittee took no action against Knowles, but the library fired her. Rather than upholding the Fifth Amendment, a trustee told the Norwood Tribune, it was more important “to be required to freely and to the proper authorities express opposition to the Communist Party.”

Realizing her notoriety would probably prevent her finding a new job in Boston, Mary Knowles relocated to Philadelphia, where she had contacts in the Quaker community. With her son, she moved into a rented house in Wayne and began what must have been a frustrating job hunt.

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Charles David, library director at the University of Pennsylvania, told Knowles that “the responsibility of taking you into our employment is thought to involve too great a risk.” The Moorestown (N.J.) Free Library was hiring, but Knowles was thought too dangerous.

Meanwhile, Edith Sawyer fell and broke her hip. Sawyer was librarian at the William Jeanes Memorial Library. Founded in 1933 with a $75,000 bequest, the Jeanes library functioned as a community library, although it was located on the grounds of Plymouth Friends Meeting House and most board members were Quakers. The library also received small contributions from Plymouth and Whitemarsh townships and their school boards. For this reason, two Plymouth Township appointees were added to the board.

As the elderly Sawyer convalesced, the board sought a temporary replacement. Knowles was suggested and came with strong references. Henry Cadbury, a divinity professor at Harvard, wrote, “If you can escape the bogey of a distant past and her use of the Fifth Amendment, you will have secured, I think, a very capable person.”

Knowles told board chair Lillian Tapley about her work at the Adams school, her firing in Boston and that she had taken the Fifth. She also said that she was not a communist. And so, in October 1953, satisfied with Knowles’ qualifications, the Jeanes library hired her for six months. “Within a few months, many on the library committee saw that the library flourished under Knowles’ direction,” said Hepler.

This didn’t require much. Sawyer’s performance had been the subject of complaints. She often disappeared to play cards, and after she left, unopened boxes of books were found in the basement. Knowles increased circulation and the library’s accessibility to schoolchildren.

In February 1954, the library committee began to discuss hiring Knowles permanently. Plymouth commissioner Henry Hemsley then asked that she take the state loyalty oath, even though the library was privately run. The committee declined this request.

Before offering Knowles a permanent position, the committee asked the Plymouth Meeting Friends whether they would support the library if hiring Knowles caused it to lose public funding. The Quakers—mindful that their denomination had been founded by people who refused oaths for biblical reasons—backed the committee. Knowles began work Sept. 1. On the same day, Plymouth commissioners Hemsley and Lewis Sheppard resigned from the library committee and, soon after, reported at a township meeting why they had done so.

The fat was in the fire.

Plymouth Township soon voted to withhold its $500 library contribution. The Plymouth school board withheld its $100 contribution and stopped sending children to the library. The local American Legion post went on record opposing Knowles’ employment “until such time as the matter of her loyalty has been cleared by the proper authorities.” The Valley Forge chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution expressed “wholehearted” support for the commissioners and the school board, while the community group Alerted Americans made mimeographed news-letters asking, “Shall we honor the FBI or the FAU (Fifth Amendment Users)?”

According to Schrecker, Knowles was the target of a collaborative type of persecution typical of McCarthyism. Usually, the government started the process by identifying a suspected communist. Then the employer would punish the individual, and the community would acquiesce. That’s what happened to Knowles in Massachusetts.

In Plymouth Meeting, however, Quakers refused to follow the script. Instead, the library committee released a statement defending Knowles’ competence and loyalty, and confirming its intent to retain her. “Few persons today are in a situation more uncomfortable than one accused, rightly or not, of association with the Communist Party,” read the statement. “No situation requires more Christian forbearance and understanding. These we have tried to employ.”

That summer, the Quakers found a weighty ally. The Fund for the Republic, a subsidiary of the Ford Foundation formed to defend freedom of conscience, announced a $5,000 award. “I hope that Plymouth Monthly Meeting’s example will be followed elsewhere in America,” said fund president Robert M. Hutchins, “particularly when our libraries—which seem to be a special target of self-appointed censors and amateur loyalty experts—are involved.”

The award enraged McCarthyites. In 1956, when a House subcommittee investigating the fund subpoenaed meeting and library minutes, Plymouth Quakers refused and deplored Congress’ fishing expedition into their affairs. “We regard such inquiries as a serious transgression upon the complete division between church and state,” read a statement, “which is one of the important foundations of our democracy.”

Meanwhile, Knowles had been recalled by the Senate committee whose investigations had led to her dismissal in Boston. She again refused to answer most questions and, in 1957, was convicted on 52 counts of contempt. The verdict was overturned in 1960 by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which agreed the questions to Knowles exceeded the committee’s authority.

The $5,000 award was donated to the Jeanes library, which, in 1971, was itself donated to Plymouth Township. Knowles turned a ceremonial shovel when ground was broken for the current building on Joshua Road. She retired in 1979, having never taken the loyalty oath.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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