Jennie Maas Flexner was born in Louisville as the daughter of a prominent Jewish family. Her uncles included the celebrated physicians Abraham and Simon Flexner and the attorney Bernard Flexner. Her parents, Jacob Aaron Flexner, a pharmacist and physician, and Rosa Maas Flexner, were both born in Kentucky to parents who were immigrants from German-speaking Europe. Support for woman suffrage seems to have been a family tradition: both of Jennie’s parents, Rosa and Jacob Flexner, were members of the Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville (LWSA).
Jennie Flexner attended the local public schools and took a job as a secretary after her high-school graduation. In 1905, when the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL) was opened, she joined its staff, and later received a certificate from the School of Library Service at Western Reserve University. She served as the head of the LFPL's circulation department from 1912-1928. In her books on circulation management and library services, she pioneered a new role for the librarian, whom she encouraged to assist readers rather than simply manage books. She modeled this new approach by asking readers about their interests and then guiding them to the books they could use and enjoy.
Jennie Flexner was a member of LWSA and an active proponent of woman suffrage on the local, state, and national levels. In 1912, Louisville women who could read and write gained the so-called “school suffrage,” that is, the right to elect school board members and vote on school bond issues. Flexner joined members of almost all the city’s women’s organizations to urge qualified women to register and vote in the first elections in which they were allowed to participate. In this effort, Jennie was joined by her sisters Hortense Flexner, later a well-known poet, and Carolyn Flexner, who moved to New York and worked for the United Nations; both were members of LWSA.
In 1911, Jennie Flexner headed the Legislative Committee of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Louisville, and helped to make arrangements to hold the annual convention of the National American Suffrage Association in the city. She also served the state organization, the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, as the head of its Press Committee.
Jennie Flexner moved to New York in 1928 to take a position with the New York Free Public Library. She opened the Readers’ Advisers’ Service Office and worked with the book selection department to build a collection that would serve readers of different age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and interests. In the 1930s she educated and trained refugees who came to America and during World War II she served on the Council on Books in Wartime—a group that provided books to people in military service.
Rosa, Jacob, Jennie, and Caroline Flexner are buried in the Temple Cemetery in Louisville.
Prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, University of Louisville
Jacob A. Flexner
Rosa Maas Flexner
Flexner, Jennie Maas. Making Books Work: A Guide to the Use of Libraries. New York:” Simon and Schuster, 1943
Louisville Courier-Journal: May 5, 1905;Oct. 5, 1911; Oct. 25, 1911; April 27, 1913; Nov. 17, 1913; Oct. 31, 1915.
Halpert, Susan. “Jennie Maas Flexner, 1882-1944.” Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/flexner-jennie-maas