more library histories, please

Having traveled back in time with Revolting Librarians and Paper Knowledge (as well as Library: An Unquiet History a few summers ago), I’m on the lookout for more perspectives on library history.

Many of you have read (or will read) Jesse Shera in library school, maybe even his essay, “On the Value of Library History.” In it, Shera argues that knowledge of library history is essential for librarianship and that we must learn to think like historians to better understand libraries’ place(s) in society. He reviews the American history of libraries while speculating where librarianship and history appear to have parted ways.

One pattern he points to is the “eagerness of librarians to ally themselves with a social movement so obviously less stable than their own,” first social sciences, then adult education, and perhaps entrepreneurial thinking into the present day. I don’t agree that this pattern is necessarily to the detriment of libraries, whose stability and history may lend credence to emerging disciplines. But Shera’s broader point is that, through such alliances, libraries risk erasing their own history through repeat, short-term self-reinvention.

This is a personally resonant argument since I happen to be studying a newish field (digital curation) that itself emerged from the intersection of several other newish disciplines, with roots in the late 1990s and a dedicated professional literature beginning in the mid-2000s. Having narrowed my focus before applying to library school has definitely contributed to my sketchy grasp of library history; and the curriculum in my specialization might also fall prey to the forgetfulness Shera described. Picking up Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), edited by Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins, has been a way to fill some of those gaps.

This collection of essays emerged from work presented at a 2010 conference — Library History Seminar XII: Libraries in the History of Print Culture — and is one volume in a series titled Print Culture History in Modern America. Both conference and series were produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture. Libraries and the Reading Public is particularly interesting to consider alongside From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), another collection of essays that extends the study of reading and readership into contemporary, non-library contexts.

"Library" by Norman Hurst [ca. 1973-1974]. Courtesy of Arlington Historical Society, Arlington, Massachusetts. Licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License (CC BY-NC-ND).

“Library” by Norman Hurst [ca. 1973-1974]. Courtesy of Arlington Historical Society, Arlington, Massachusetts. Licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License (CC BY-NC-ND). Available online via Digital Commonwealth.

Libraries and place

Wayne A. Wiegand’s chapter sets the stage for the major themes explored throughout Libraries and the Reading Public: that libraries were closely tied to place in the 20th century; that readers took on different roles and libraries served different purposes in users’ lives over time; and that library history is more heterogeneous than is often reflected in professional literature.

Wiegand’s approach to place and changing roles in libraries is reflected in the subsequent chapter about What Middletown Read, a database of library records from Muncie, Indiana — “Without exaggeration… the most closely studied small city in the United States of America.” In a short section called Working with our library ancestors, the authors reflect on changes to librarianship since the time these records were created, and wonder how today’s information infrastructures will appear (if at all) in the historical record of the future.

The frame story for this chapter is the diary of young Muncie resident Norene Hawk. Through her entries, the authors map the introduction of new technology to the Muncie public (X-ray machines, record players, QWERTY keyboards) and the role of the library in public social life. Studying Hawk’s diary alongside library circulation data is a way to improve understanding of how different kinds of knowledge — including popular culture — were shared. Deeper dives into demographic, format, and genre data are recommended as promising directions for future research.

Library policy and censorship

Ellen M. Pozzi digs deeper into the relationship between library, press, and place in her chapter “Going to ‘America’: Italian Neighborhoods and the Newark Free Public Library, 1900-1920.” She concludes that understanding the library in the lives of readers begins with a study of those lives, rather than the reverse. However, several other contributors to Libraries focus their attention instead on library policy and practice as a lens through which to better understand the reading public, looking outward. Censorship and collection development*, professional communication about intellectual freedom, the Family Friendly Libraries movement, and book challenges are some of the topics in this long section devoted to library policies and the restriction of reading.

The 20th century’s many social, political, and intellectual upheavals meant that negotiating the terms of control over what the public could read was a major site of interaction between libraries and readers. How are today’s upheavals perhaps fomenting similar conflicts between access to information, privacy, trust, and security? What questionable policies and behaviors might librarians and the public excuse out of anxiety, prejudice, or outright fear?

Reader networks

While place and libraries are closely tied, reading is not necessarily so situated in libraries. Fans of One-Star Book Reviews might enjoy Ross Harvey’s chapter on 1920s member book reviews from the Boston Athenæum. Review slips circulated in a number of the Athenæum’s books — Harvey found 140 in a sample of 6,925 — and members occasionally added brief comments and their initials as a form of book review. Their comments, limited to five words or less, mix glowing praise (“inventive, fantastic, entertaining”), disgust (“Impossible, sordid and banal and uninteresting”), and (my favorite) surprised and reluctant compliments (“Not stupid at all”).

Harvey tracks “peer-to-peer knowledge flow” through these annotations and questions the extent to which “the library mediates between book and reader” when reader networks are involved; furthermore, when such networks operate directly through books. This chapter is excellent reading alongside Julian Pinder’s chapter on LibraryThing and Joan Bessman Taylor’s chapter on book groups in From Codex to Hypertext.

Both Libraries and Codex include chapters on zines and alternative publications. In Libraries and the Reading Public, Alycia Sellie traces librarians’ involvement in the alternative press over time. Many contributors to Revolting Librarians receive mentions. Zine librarians are a key focus both for this chapter and for the following one by Janice Radway — one of two authors to contribute to both Libraries and Codex. In Codex, she traces zines’ trajectory from photocopied print pamphlets to webcomics and early websites like Radway, who has long studied girl zines and their cultures of production, turns her attention in Libraries to their afterlives. Where do zines go? What happens to them? And what roles can and do librarians play in their preservation and continued circulation?

Then and now, more than books

The chapters in Libraries and the Reading Public focus on American reading cultures, often using library records to identify moments in which the incursion of external forces upon communities uses books and/or libraries as vectors. From Codex to Hypertext captures a snapshot of the aftermath of these incursions, momentous changes in how we read that sets the stage for more change to come.

Read together, whether side by side or consecutively, Readers and Codex offer a valuable framework for considering the role of “the library in the lives of the user.” This phrase is taken straight from Wayne Wiegand’s work and speaks directly to the need for librarians to understand how people build and exchange knowledge through library resources. Making connections between reading today and reading in the previous century can enrich our understanding of both. As Libraries demonstrates, a penumbra of documentation, archival material, and cultural history surrounds book-centric libraries and users. In mid-century, Main Street America, libraries were always more than “just books.”


Looking for more resources about library history? Be sure to check out Julia’s introduction to the ALA Library History Round Table (LHRT). And if anyone has a library history class to recommend, syllabi and reading suggestions are always welcome in the comments.


*Julia Skinner, who was until very recently Senior Editor of Hack Library School, has a chapter in this section about WWI-era censorship in Eastern Iowa libraries. Julia wrote about her experience attending Library History Seminar (LHS) XII at her research blog; you can see the seeds for many of the papers that would become chapters in Libraries and the Reading Public.

Categories: Reviews

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