The Polish Immigrant and His Reading

The Polish Immigrant and His Reading, by Eleanor E. Ledbetter, was published by the American Library Association in 1924. It was the first of a series of pamphlets put together by the ALA Committee on Work with the Foreign Born and it was intended to help librarians in communities with immigrant populations better serve their patrons. I picked up a copy because several of my ancestors were from Poland, and I was curious what America was like for my great-grandparents. I’m also interested in the American Public Library and the history of its relationship with non-dominant groups, and I thought this pamphlet could help me remember that this relationship affects real people, not mere abstractions.

In 1924 Poland existed as an independent country, but from the late 18th century until the end of WWI it was divided up and under the control of Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. The Polish language and religion were suppressed, land was confiscated from native Poles under flimsy pretexts, and the men faced mass conscription into the respective national militaries. This is what drove the mass migration of Poles to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where they settled into factory and mining jobs in New York, Pennsylvania, and major cities along the Great Lakes.

Polish immigrants integrated into American society relatively quickly, and public libraries played a part in this. In the time before internet, television, and even radio, public libraries were important as a source of respectable entertainment, especially for single men who may otherwise have spent all of their non-work hours at the saloon or loafing on street corners. Public libraries also acted as vehicles for such native-born middle class values as thrift and self-improvement. This sounds healthy and virtuous in concept, but after a fourteen-hour shift at the foundry going to the bar with friends can be a pretty attractive idea for the average worker.

This brings context to a primary concern of The Polish Immigrant and His Reading, which was how to get the Polish immigrant to come into the library (outreach to underrepresented communities has been a topic of interest to librarians for a long time now).  While the suggestions are not without value for us today, and I would argue that the underlying intention is good, the attitudes of the time peek through here. “Because the Polish immigrant is shy and timid, the easiest way to introduce him to the library is in a group of his own sort” was the line that stood out to me as the most egregious, and as a profound contrast with the author’s deep knowledge and love of Polish literature. This is the contradiction and the saving grace of this pamphlet, where casual condescension is leavened with inspired book suggestions.

My point, of course, isn’t that someone a hundred years ago was a little rude about my ancestors; it’s that history can help us think about the present. I’ll be starting library school in August, and like most people who go into the library life, one of my chief motivators is to make a positive contribution to society. To help people, even if it’s only by providing a wholesome alternative to the saloon, should anybody want it. But I want to make sure, if I can, that at the end of the day my contribution really is positive, and that I’m not relying on good intentions and wishful thinking. Studying history is one way for me to accomplish this.

Eleanor E. Ledbetter was honored for her work by the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia, so it’s safe to say that her contribution to society was a good one. And here’s the part that’s really got me thinking: I’m confident that The Polish Immigrant and His Reading never got my great-grandparents, or my grandparents, into a library. It has, however, inspired me to take an interest in Polish literature, when a month ago the concept of Polish literature had never entered my mind. I think Ledbetter would be pleased that she finally won us over.

The author attempts to practice reading Polish to her dog.

Cover image is from the Wikimedia Commons and features the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Categories: History

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6 replies

  1. In the mid-90s I took a Polish lit class at the University of Buffalo, a Polish place in America if there ever was, and fell in love with Stanislaw Lem and Witold Gombrowicz. They wouldn’t have been on that pamphlet, of course. But the divided and occupied history of Poland is all over the novels and poetry we read.

    Nice post! Good luck in library school!

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  2. Thank you for sharing this! I actually just ran across the corresponding ALA pamphlet for Yiddish a few days ago, with a similar mixture of being profoundly touched while cringing slightly. Like you, though, I lean toward the former. When I was young I went into the public library in a Midwestern town I had just moved to and looked in the call numbers for Yiddish literature, expecting to find nothing. To my profound surprise, there was exactly one Yiddish book–an old collection of short stories by Sholem Aleichem. It wasn’t much (though, if you’re only going to have one Yiddish book, that’s a pretty good choice), but the fact that there was anything at all meant the world to me, because it meant that this town thought enough of my heritage to make me a part of it before I’d even arrived. The immigrants who depended on those books as a lifeline are long gone now, but the collections that were built still do good service wherever they have been retained.

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    • Yes, this. It’s comforting to know that people were trying to be kind. It reminds me that I can’t know what the results of my actions will be, even if I don’t seem to have any immediate effect.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this! Looks like Eleanor Ledbetter was a librarian in Cleveland, which is where my Czech-American grandfather grew up.

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