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Blog by Randi Richardson

The Institute for Sex Research (ISR) at Indiana University was established in 1947 under the leadership of Alfred Kinsey.  Prior to that time Kinsey had been extensively involved in sex research and had compulsively collected a great number of books and other related materials.  Obviously thinking ahead to the needs of the Institute, he offered Jeanette Howard Foster a lucrative position as the Institute’s librarian.


Photo from the IU Archive Collection.  Used with permission.

Jeanette was no ordinary librarian.  She was among the first librarians ever to graduate with a Ph.D.  Her degree was obtained from the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago, the first school in that nation to offer a doctorate in library science.  Jeanette entered the library program in 1933 just a few months short of her 38th birthday and received her doctorate in 1935 taking only two, rather than the customary three, years to complete her degree.

Like Kinsey, Jeanette also collected books with a sexual theme.  Unlike Kinsey, however, Jeanette’s collection was strictly focused on lesbianism.  An avid scholar and a lesbian herself, Jeanette hoped one day to publish a comprehensive bibliography of lesbian literature.

When Kinsey offered Jeanette a position at the Institute, she was well aware that the position would provide her with easy access to Kinsey’s goldmine of rare books including those relevant to her own research.  So not surprisingly, she accepted Kinsey’s offer and began working at the Institute in early 1948.

Initially, Jeanette lived in the IU Union Club but soon found more permanent lodging at 416 E. 4th Street.  In 1950, she fell in love with one of her co-workers, Hazel Toliver, who lived with her mother, Myrtle Toliver, in a nearby apartment at 425 ½ S. Henderson.  Although Jeanette found her personal life to be quite to her liking, that same did not hold true for job satisfaction.

The Institute staff found Kinsey to be a leader who always needed to be in control.  He was a micromanager who “cracked the whip” and expected others to be at his beck and call at any time of day or night.  Jeanette, who had held several responsible faculty positions, was not used to Kinsey’s management style.  Additionally, she was offended when Kinsey made sexual overtures toward her.  And lastly, but certainly not among the least of Jeanette’s complaints, Kinsey would not let her catalog books according to the either the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal Classification system.

Kinsey had developed his own system for cataloging his books.  “Using a self-made pneumonic taxonomic system of approximately 25 categories, he expected books on medicine to be classified under M, prostitution under PR, modern fiction under MF, erotic books under ER, and so forth.”  Adhesive tape on the back of the spine, down near the bottom, identified the category and a line under that noted the first three letters of the author’s name.

Jeanette did everything she could to persuade Kinsey to use one of the standard library classification systems, but he simple would not budge.  He boasted of Jeannette’s doctoral training yet made her feel as though she had never had any training or experience.  She found herself playing more of a support role, and a clerical one at that, rather than being an integral part of a team working at the forefront of sex education.  Four years later, she was at her breaking point.  Along with Hazel, they began searching for alternate positions with other universities.

They left the Institute in 1952 and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where both had positions at the University of Kansas City–Jeanette as a reference and interlibrary loan librarian and Hazel as an assistant professor.  Jeannette, however, remained friendly with Kinsey.  They corresponded occasionally until his death of natural causes in 1956, and for the remainder of his life Kinsey never hired another librarian.

SOURCE—Joanne Passet, Sex Variant Woman:  The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster (Philadelphia PA:  Perseus Books Group, DeCapo Press) 2008.  For more information about Kinsey visit

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