Hanson, J. C. M. (1864-1943) | Nordic

Name: Hanson, J. C. M. (1864-1943)
Fuller Form: Hanson, James Christian Meinich

Historical Note:

Jens Christian Meinich Hanson has arguably had the most significant and lasting impact on the library profession among Luther College alumni who have become professional librarians. As a Norwegian-American and Luther College alumnus of both the preparatory school and the college, his background closely reflects the heritage and traditions of the College. His professional life has been well documented in numerous sources.

Hanson was born March 13, 1864, the sixth of eight children to Eleonore Adamine and Gunnar Hansen in Sorheim, Nordre Aurdal, Valdres, Norway. Hanson’s first name was changed to “James” or “Jim” shortly after he arrived in America in 1873. In his autobiography he states, “Owing to difficulty with the name Jens, my early associates in Iowa gradually changed it to James or Jim, a change that to my sorrow I was stupid enough to accept.” He also eventually Americanized his surname of Hanson to be spelled with an “o” rather than an “e.”

In 1873, Rev. Ove Hjort from Paint Creek, Allamakee County, visited Hanson’s parents in Norway and offered the opportunity for one of their children to come to America and attend the preparatory school at Luther College. The child would board with a family named Roberg who were relatives of Hanson’s mother. Since Hanson was the child most eager to go to America, he elected to leave home at the age of nine, intending to stay three years before returning to Norway. Ultimately he returned to Norway 34 years later when only one brother and two sisters remained, never seeing his parents again.

At the time Hanson arrived in Decorah, the town had 3,000 inhabitants. President Laur. Larsen insisted Jens wait a year until 1874 before enrolling in the preparatory school during which time he studied with a tutor and learned English.

While a young student at Luther, he played baseball as his chief sport although he also played football. He sang in a chorus called Maaltrosten (song thrush) and developed a life-long love for choral music. Since he did not pass his final exams in “Quinta,” he was obliged to stay on in Decorah an additional year (1877-78). After this time, he decided to stay in America and finish the college course, saying later America had become “the real home.” He eventually received his BA degree from Luther College in 1882.

After graduation, Hanson planned to go west to the Dakotas but U.V. Koren persuaded him to attend Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he studied from 1882-1884. In his autobiography, Hanson said he learned German and enjoyed church history at Concordia but decided not to become ordained. His life changed direction when he became the principal at the parochial school which was part of Our Savior’s Church in Chicago from 1884-1888. While in this role, he also was klokker (deacon) and superintendent of the Sunday School.

When the school closed in 1888, Hanson enrolled as a graduate student at Cornell University where he majored in European history and minored in economics and political science. At Cornell he was first exposed to a large research library. Later in life he reminisced that it took him four to five months to find the card catalog. The library at Cornell used the Brunet cataloging system and since only half of the library was included in that system, books were difficult to find. Instead, students were sent to the library by professors and directed to look at certain titles. From this experience, Hanson learned that not all European history books were shelved together. While at Cornell, Hanson also took two years of French. He later added four years of Spanish and Italian while at the University of Wisconsin. (Ultimately Hanson acquired a working knowledge of sixteen languages.) Hanson also played baseball at Cornell and continued playing during the summer months to augment his income.

From 1890-93 Hanson assumed an apprentice position at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He noted in later years that he realized he did not want to teach saying, “Fluency of speech, so essential in a good teacher, seemed to be lacking in my case...” Hanson’s principal biographer, Edith Scott, noted in her dissertation that “...Hanson’s choice of librarianship was a result of a basic lack of security, as well as a lack of financial resources, which led in turn to a rationalization based on a lack of fluency in speaking, sometimes extended to an alleged slowness of thought attributed to east Norwegians generally.” Thus, Hanson decided to leave Cornell after two years and relinquished the goal of teaching.

Realizing how much he enjoyed library work, in 1893 Hanson accepted a position to join the staff of the library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The library there needed reorganization of its 45,000-50,000 volume collection. He reported in his autobiography that, “The books were merely arranged roughly in alcoves without any numbering system.” The library then used Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalog by Charles A. Cutter which utilized the letters of the alphabet. This system influenced Hanson as he later helped develop the Library of Congress classification system.

Hanson worked at the reorganization of the University of Wisconsin Library until 1897 when he received an offer from the Library of Congress to be chief of the Catalog Division. The Library of Congress was preparing to move out of the Capitol into a new building, the largest structure built in America exclusively for library purposes. The classification scheme in use at the time was the one devised by Thomas Jefferson and thus was badly antiquated. The new classification system for the 800,000 books at the Library of Congress was chiefly prepared by Charles Martel but other collaborators contributed as well. Hanson was mostly concerned with codifying cataloging rules and was known for his meticulous attention to detail and appreciation for form and method. Instead of using a book catalog, the new catalog was created on 3” x 5” cards arranged in a dictionary format (author, title, and subject headings alphabetically arranged), an innovation which fundamentally changed the way American libraries were organized.

In 1898, it was decided that 50 copies of each catalog card should be printed and distributed by the Library of Congress to American libraries to expedite cataloging for them. The cataloging would be contributed by numerous libraries besides the Library of Congress and shared via the printed LC cards. Hanson planned and formatted this project. In 1907 he visited Norway for the first time since leaving to come to America, with the trip sponsored by the Library of Congress. He was charged with visiting various European libraries to review their cataloging systems and also intended to visit family. Well equipped with knowledge gained from his trip, Hanson was made chair of the ALA committee in 1908 which created the Catalog Rules, Author and Title Entries, published jointly by the American Library Association and the British Library Association. Hanson was deeply involved in negotiating the Code with British librarians. During his time at the Library of Congress, he also dramatically increased the number of staff at the library.

Although Hanson and his family enjoyed their years in Washington D.C., they decided to make a change when an offer came to return to Chicago. Hanson recalled thinking that not only did they have family in the Chicago area, but the climate would be better, opportunities for educating his children would be superior, and it was “almost a duty to the capable and devoted assistants who had stood by me during those difficult years of organization and whose only chance for promotion depended on vacancies in the higher positions, to step out now that an opportunity offered, perhaps the only one likely to come my way.”

In 1910, Hanson became the Associate Director of the University of Chicago library. The position operated like an acting directorship since the Director was responsible for many duties at the university unrelated to library activities. Hanson argued for disbanding departmental libraries to centralize the library, thus saving funds on duplicate subscriptions and books and increasing efficiency. He began to classify a large collection of 200,000 volumes purchased from a dealer in Berlin which contained a considerable number of fifteenth century imprints (incunabula) and over 200 imprints of the period 1501-1599. However, his main task was the reorganization of the collection, developing a reference collection and building a cataloging and classification system for the library.

Nearing retirement in 1928, Hanson took on a different role by accepting a professorship at the new graduate library school at the University of Chicago to teach cataloging and classification. That same year, he was asked to go to Rome as a member of a bibliographical commission appointed and financed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to “assist in a projected reorganization of the catalogs and classification of the Vatican Library.” Hanson was reluctant to ask for a leave of absence from the library school since he felt the work could better be done by younger, more energetic individuals, but was finally convinced that the pool was not extensive for people with his expertise.

At that time, the Vatican would only accept men for this task and most men in the library profession had opted for administrative rather than cataloging and classification work. As a devout Lutheran, Hanson was prepared to be uncomfortable while working at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. However, in his autobiography, he recounted the excellent experience he enjoyed there with officials who went out of their way to be hospitable, even recognizing his fondness for choral music by arranging choral concerts of old church music for him to attend. At that time, the Vatican library had 600,000 volumes and 550,000 manuscripts which were listed in 12 different catalogs, some dating from the 17th century. No attempt had been made to bring together books on the same or related subjects. The pope at the time, Pius XI (1922-1939, formerly Cardinal Achille Ratti), had been the librarian of the Vatican when elected Pope and so was especially interested in having the library reorganized. According to an article in Chips, Hanson was in charge of a small party of American librarians who would spend three to four months studying the situation and if possible, “make some beginning on the actual work of recataloging and classification of the printed books.”

The library had been established at the end of the 4th century and reflected the fact that early Christians attached great importance to sacred books. The major difficulty was books given by donors who wanted the collections they donated preserved as a memorial. Hanson reported that efforts to change this were largely unsuccessful. Still after spending four months at the Vatican, he could point to important progress. He was very influential in preparing the Norme per il catalogo degli stampati (Rules for the Cataloging of Forms) published in Vatican City in 1931 which is a cataloging code for the Vatican Library that reconciled European and American cataloging practice. In order to expedite the reorganization efforts, the Library of Congress donated a complete set of their printed cards to the project; in return, the Vatican gave some significant books to the Library of Congress.

During that same year in 1928 Hanson received the Commander of the Order of St. Olav of the second class from King Haakon VII of Norway. As reported in Chips, he was given this award in recognition of his outstanding work in the library profession. On June 3, 1931, he received the honorary degree LL.D. (Doctor of Laws) from Luther College, also in recognition of his career accomplishments.

Finally in 1934, after six years of teaching at the library school at the University of Chicago, Hanson retired as a professor emeritus. To mark the occasion and in honor of his seventieth birthday, he was given a Festschrift of contributions by 30 men and women with whom he had worked (reprinted in the April 1934 issue of Library Quarterly). One contribution was written by Karl T. Jacobsen, then head librarian at Luther College, who also worked with Hanson at the Library of Congress as well as at the University of Chicago. Hanson and his wife, Sarah Nelson (whom he had married in 1892), retired to Sister Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, for the summer months and St. Petersburg, Florida, for the winter months. His wife died in 1936. In 1937, Hanson made his final and fourth trip to Norway. Hanson died at the age of 79 on November 8, 1943, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and is buried in the Lutheran cemetery at Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. Hanson and his wife were the parents of five children: Karl, Thorfin, Valborg, Eleanore, and Harold.

An important publishing event occurred in 1939 when the University of Chicago Press published Hanson’s Comparative Study of Cataloging Rules Based on the Anglo-American Code of 1908, which summarized the points of agreement and disagreement between nineteen codes in nine languages. Along with this significant work, Hanson also was the author of other books as well as articles focusing on technical library matters or Norwegian-American issues. He also wrote numerous book reviews. He is especially remembered for the four reorganizations of libraries in which he played a leading role: the University of Wisconsin Library, 1893-1897; the Library of Congress, 1897-1910; the University of Chicago, 1910-1928; and the Vatican Library, 1928. His professional memberships included the American Library Association, the Bibliographical Society of America, Kappa Sigma, and the Norske, Quadrangle and University clubs.

Hanson’s connection with Luther College remained strong throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1920-1923. He also chaired the Building Committee for Koren Library, starting in 1912. Speaking at the 60th anniversary celebration for Luther College on October 14, 1921, which commenced with the dedication of the new Koren Library, Hanson said of the library, “The gradual acquisition through gift and purchase of some of the best works of Scandinavian writers, particularly in literature and history, has resulted in one of the best collections of books on the north of Europe to be found anywhere in America.” As one of the dignitaries who gave an address for the occasion, Hanson also discussed the technical aspects of the library and its possible future development. Hanson’s relationship with the Luther College Library continued after his death since his will stipulated that, “The sum of $500 is to be given to the Luther College Library, Decorah, Iowa, to be devoted to purchase of the local history and literature of Valdris. The interest only to be so expended.” It also noted that all of his books relating to Valdres be turned over to the Luther College Library and that the library may also “select from my other books what is needed, particularly from the books on bibliography and library science.” These books can be found, in addition to the books he donated to the Luther College Library during his lifetime, by searching on the title phrase “J.C.M. Hanson Collection” in Magnus. Many of Hanson’s personal papers, including the book manuscript of his autobiography, were designated in the will to be donated to the Luther College Archives.

In response to a request from the Library concerning expansion of the narrow parameters of the original $500 endowment, Hanson’s heirs determined in 1955 that the interest “could be used to purchase books about other parts of Norway.” Terms of this endowment have been followed since that time to purchase materials focusing on the history and culture of Norway or the Norwegian language.


Hanson ble født i Valdres. Han studerte ved Luther College der han tok bachelorgraden i 1882, og studerte så ved Concordia Theological Seminary. Han hadde en allsidig bibliotekarkarriere.


Nelson, David T. Luther College: 1861-1921. Decorah, IA: Luther College Press, 1961

Luther College Through Sixty Years: 1861-1921. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1922

Hanson, J.C.M. What Became of Jens? Ed. Oivind M. Hovde. Decorah, IA: Luther College Press, 1974

Pioneering Leaders in Librarianship. Ed. Emily Miller Danton. Chicago: American Library Association, 1953

Ylvisaker, Erling. Eminent Pioneers: Norwegian-American Pioneer Sketches. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1934

Scott, Edith. J.C.M. Hanson and His Contribution to Twentieth-Century Cataloging. Thesis (Ph.D.), University of Chicago, 1970

Manning, Martin. “Hanson, James Christian Meinich,” American National Biography Online, 2000

Obituary, Library Journal, December 1, 1943

Obituary, Library Quarterly, January 1944

Obituary, New York Times, November 10, 1943

Chips, January 11, 1928; October 17, 1928

Festschrift reprinted in the April 1934 issue of Library Quarterly

Note Author: Jane Kemp