In search of more library histories, I’ve been spending time with Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand (Oxford University Press, 2015). Beginning with the premise that Americans love their libraries, Wiegand looks back through history at the role public libraries have played in the lives of their users. In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), this book presents a history built as much on oral history as on records. The texture of life in and around libraries is always shifting.
Wiegand’s exhaustive research leads him to conclude that, since libraries were first established in the not-yet-United States, Americans have loved them for providing three basic resources: useful information, public spaces, and stories.
Useful information and stories appear in early conflict, and “public” spaces haven’t always been inclusive. In colonial America, social libraries like Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia extended discourse-based learned societies to disseminate “useful knowledge” through books. Circulating libraries, on the other hand, charged patrons by the title and over time came to stock more popular books as part of this business model. Early libraries were built around books but not necessarily around private reading. Wiegand writes, of the black men and women who formed colonial-era social libraries, most often separately from white institutions: “Because members were less interested in fostering literacy than cultivating character, readers often read aloud to extend appreciation of texts to the semi- and illiterate” (p. 22). Wiegand situates social libraries in a landscape of rapid technological change growing access to public communication, including “improvements in publishing technologies, expanded availability of printed materials and their methods of dissemination, artificial lighting, and the increased availability and improvement of eyeglasses” (p. 22). Social libraries were also an element of civic life emerging in frontier settlements — a sign that, if not necessarily booming, these towns were certainly experiencing good times.
The 19th-century “offspring” of social libraries included mercantile libraries, YMCA reading rooms, Sunday school libraries, and school district libraries (introduced via legislation beginning in the mid-1830s). Meanwhile, circulating libraries gave way to public libraries legislated into existence in cities and states. In 1852, City Document No. 37 argued the importance of a public library in Boston, recommended free admission and borrowing to all, and called for a blend of useful information and popular material:
“It is of paramount importance that the means of general information should be so diffused that the largest possible number of persons should be induced to read and understand questions going down to the very foundations of social order … which we, as a people, are constantly required to decide, and do decide, either ignorantly or wisely.” (quoted in Wiegand, 2015, p. 27)
As Part of Our Lives points out, the report is full of assimilation rhetoric. For example, the value of popular literature is tied to its ability to build “national character” and draw in “the lower classes” — in other words, growing immigrant populations. Libraries continued to be sites of assimilation well into the late 20th century as “newcomers to American shores between 1981 and 2000 generally found public libraries comfortable places not only to assimilate into their new environs but also inviting spaces to celebrate the cultures they represented” (p. 232). Sanctioned and unsanctioned expressions of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity are delineated throughout the history of American public libraries.
Unsurprisingly, libraries in the United States have always been vectors for enforcing (and attempting to enforce) social values. Classification systems and censorship are two other examples. Wiegand contextualizes classification in an emerging late-19th-century bibliographic infrastructure. Hope Olson analyzed the writings of Melvil Dewey, Charles Cutter, and other players in this infrastructure in The Power to Name (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002) — a good read alongside Part of Our Lives. Beginning in the Depression and World War II, censorship and intellectual freedom emerged as major issues for public libraries. Librarians fell on both sides of this debate, favoring more and less control. In an excellent tour-through-time of the Bibliothèque de Montréal / Montreal Public Library, HLS alumna Laura Sanders explains how censorship can shape the infrastructure of library systems.
To Wiegand, the use of libraries to control social values has also been a source of conflict between libraries as institutions, librarianship as a profession, and the communities they serve:
“Each public library had to find an acceptable center for its community’s literary values in order to operate comfortably. But as literary history shows, that center shifted over time. For public libraries, these shifts created a set of dynamics requiring constant attention, frequent debate, and regular adjustment” (p. 39)
In some instances, “public libraries brought people together to oppose library actions” — often in response to censorship or budget priorities (p. 206). Debating the purpose of public libraries has been a constant over time, and not only in the United States.
It might be possible to write a history of American public libraries without discussing the Carnegie library, but it wouldn’t be easy. Scott W. H. Young, a librarian at Montana State University, recently blogged about Andrew Carnegie’s legacy in libraries and higher education, drawing parallels between past and present experiments in library-based social control. Each Carnegie library was built from one of six modular, efficient designs. These library layouts — plus Carnegie’s documented distaste for the liberal arts — convince Young that the Carnegie library was a joyless place churning out productive members of society through carefully controlled reading. Part of Our Lives suggests there’s more to the story, as a staggering variety of leisure spaces and activities were built into public libraries in this era. That said, sanctioned leisure activities seem of a piece with a production- and self-improvement-based view of society. I see parallels today in how Maker spaces blur the lines between “fun” and “productive,”especially since the case for establishing them in libraries often hinges on their educational and economic value rather than on the (innumerable) joys and satisfactions of tinkering.
Part of Our Lives has much ground to cover in just over 300 pages. Wiegand moves between vignettes, allowing the vitality of life in public libraries to shine through in anecdotes. He doesn’t belabor points, but neither does he delve too deeply, an approach that might seem meandering and frustrate some readers. Still, I appreciate that the book resists metanarratives — the whole point of a “people’s history.”
Wiegand allows different themes to surface and fade back repeatedly. A few of the more interesting threads to follow are longitudinal looks at specific library services. The evolution of bookmobiles is fascinating, from delivery trucks bringing books to remote agricultural and industrial workers, to traveling libraries catalyzing urban events around books, music, and community. One chapter discusses the emergence of action libraries: “urban institutions that functioned as community centers” (p. 199). Wiegand’s characterization of public libraries in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s — action libraries helping users find “individual meaning” in library collections and services — may be heavy on nostalgia, but it also shines a not-so-flattering light on some of the practices we take for granted today. For example, there’s little discussion here of library brands, strategy, and other ways in which libraries have adopted business rhetoric to focus on “survival.”
Over the past 40 (or so) years, Wiegand maps the emergence of terms like “information profession” and “information science” thanks to futurists (not that kind) advocating for information technology adoption in libraries. Library forecasters were talking about the death of libraries, not-dead-yet libraries, and dead-but-still-standing-zombie libraries as early as the 1960s and ’70s. As Wiegand tells it, a key rhetorical and philosophical shift can be traced from Melvil Dewey’s “best reading for the greatest number at the least cost” to 1980s “information.” Part of Our Lives represents this shift as a top-down change in outlook that may not have reflected changes in users’ lives, or in what they needed from libraries.
Even if we don’t work in or directly with public libraries and their users, the three themes in this book can still guide how we understand and express the value of working with information. Providing “useful information” is part of e-government, competitive intelligence in special libraries, and curating research data for reuse. “Public spaces” mean not only the built environment but also public contexts for the interaction of people and ideas. For example, libraries are heavily invested in the ecosystem of public conversation, from public records to publishing and scholarly communication to social media. Reframing “stories” might be the least intuitive but also the most powerful of the three. Since I began working in libraries (about six years ago), impact has been a constant refrain, as in, “How can libraries and archives demonstrate our impact?” One possible answer to this question is turning to metrics, data, and a culture of assessment. But another is to embrace the power of story. Advocacy campaigns — like SAA’s Archives Change Lives — are a story-based tactic. Qualitative and mixed-methods research can also be really effective in crafting narratives about the role libraries play in (yes) the lives of users.
Wiegand’s project echoes themes from another work by Howard Zinn: his 1970 address to the Society of American Archivists, titled “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” In it, Zinn discredits the neutrality of archives and exhorts archivists to actively surface new stories and perspectives. Wiegand undermines libraries’ neutrality by pointing to gaps between top-down and bottom-up attitudes on the purpose of libraries, demonstrating that tension between libraries and communities was a significant social force. Zinn called for archival collections to examine “movement” and “the dynamics of social interaction” rather than the lives of “great men.” His sharp criticism — that “far more resources are devoted to the collection and preservation what already exists as records, than to recording fresh data” (p. 42) — also speaks to the stories we tell about libraries.
For more about Dr. Wiegand’s work, you might revisit Ryan Randall‘s post onhumanities methods in LIS and my review of a collection of essays on library history. And if library history piques your interest, keep an eye on the growing Librar* Histories reading list in the #critlib Zotero library.
— Amy Wickner (@amelish)