Ellen Elizabeth Dorrance was born November 22, 1884, in Pawnee City, Nebraska, to Joseph and Elizabeth Dorrance. She was raised on her family’s farm in rural Pawnee County and attended school in Pawnee City. After graduating high school, she taught at the elementary and high schools in Pawnee City from 1902-1906. Ellen married Boteler Chernocke Smith on June 2, 1906. The couple had five children: Charles, Boteler C. Jr., Elizabeth, Mary Janet, and Eleanor. The family resided in Pawnee City and Hendley, Nebraska, until the death of Boteler in February 1921.
Six years later, Ellen moved her family to Hastings, where she accepted the position of head of the newly established Children and Young People’s department of the Hastings Carnegie Library, in 1927. She began her career by training as an apprentice under graduate students and took professional development courses through the University of Nebraska Extension. Hastings College, and the University of Chicago’s School of Library Science. Ellen was appointed as acting head librarian for a period of six months in 1933, while the City looked for a new librarian. She was chosen as head librarian in 1936.
During the late 1930s, the Nebraska Public Library Commission introduced a Works Progress Administration (WPA) Library Service Program. The program had two objectives: 1) to give assistance to established, publicly supported libraries in all parts of the state, and 2) to provide a practical demonstration of county and regional library service in selected areas in Nebraska not having such service. In 1939, the Nebraska Public Library Commission announced that Adams County was chosen to be part of the WPA’s library demonstration program based on its rural location and good system of county roads. The Hastings Public Library was selected as the main library of the newly developed county system with Ellen serving as director. A bookmobile, on loan from the Library Commission, was used to bring library services and materials with regular stops in Pauline, Ayr, Roseland, Holstein, Prosser, Juniata, Hansen, and Kenesaw. The county library services were so popular that in 1940, the Adams County Board of Supervisors took over funding once the project was complete and the bookmobile was returned to the Nebraska Public Library Commission. In 1966, a new bookmobile serving Adams County and is still in operation today.