21st Century Librarianship vs. The 1876 Special Report


As I was browsing through some library literature, I found myself confronted with The 1876 Special Report of Public Libraries in the United States of America, published by Department of The Interior, Bureau of Education, U.S. Government. If you’ve been through a MLIS program you’ve no doubt heard of it, but I’m curious if anyone has ever read it. It’s quite interesting, and I think its contents should put our librarianship profession in a very self-aware perspective, which I’ll explain later.

In Chapter IX – Professorships of Books and Reading, the section on Reading As Now Managed, Part I authored by F.B. Perkins, reported that;

So far as ordinary readers are concerned, the printed records of past and present human knowledge and mental activity are thus a trackless, if not a howling wilderness, in which a guide, philosopher, and friend will find ample occasion for his services. The matter of reading is at present in a wholly unorganized, unscientific, empirical condition, like navigation before the use of the compass and the application of scientific astronomy, or like mining before the introduction of scientific geological and mineralogical investigations and of scientific engineering. Every one digs wherever he fancies; he may possibly find a deposit of gold, but he may find only mere barren rock or slag or dirt. Perhaps it may be still more aptly compared with the physician’s profession, in which famous and successful practitioners begin their lectures by saying, “Medicine, gentlemen, is something that physicians know nothing about,” and in which an advertising quack, whatever his effect on the graveyard, will sell a great many more doses to fools, and make a great deal more money out of them, than a conscientious and scientific gentlemen in treating people of good sense.

So that in fact it is only just now that we are coming to the social state where we are ready to produce a trained literary class. Thus far we have not done it, whatever may have been the case with a few individuals, and we have had no business to do it. Ax, plow, steam engine, not pen and palette, have been thus far our proper implements; and we have done a noble “spot of work” with them. Exactly now, at the end of our first national century, it is good to sum and value just this total of attainments. And exactly such a scientific instruction in books and reading as is here discussed is one of the influences which will do most to correct our views, to raise our ambition, to bring us up to the present limits of attainment in knowledge and in thought, and to prepare us for extending those limits. [page 235] [Emphasis added.]


America’s society in general and librarianship specifically, has progressed on this premise for over 100 years. It was the right emphasis at the right time in history and social development of a new nation. It was also the root from which library schools, and eventually a librarian “profession” sprang. It was quite adequate until the 21st Century. That was when the efforts of an army of catalogers and electronic data experts made complete and total organization of that “howling wilderness”; at least as far as concerns organizing that “wholly unorganized, unscientific, empirical condition, like navigation before the use of the compass and the application of scientific astronomy….” world of information. As a result, this role of the librarian as the “guide, philosopher, and friend” is obsolete, or will be in the very near future.

One can justifiably ask – Is the librarian obsolete? At a minimum, librarians must find a new mission – a new purpose for being.

In my Blog Post of June 3, 2010 “Are We in a 21st Century Library Paradigm Shift?, I wrote; “Today there are different factors influencing the library profession that make a paradigm shift inevitable and essential, based on my assessment of the literature. The most profound factor is the change evolving among youth toward information literacy that will challenge librarians’ “information specialists” role. Within the next 10 years librarians will not be the ONLY “information specialists” who are able to retrieve and assess information.” (See also 21st Century Library Issues – Revisited.)

George M. Needham, VP Member Services of OCLC, is quoted as saying; “The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis.” The whole “gestalt” [the essence of an entity’s complete form taken in its totality] of the academic library has been set up like a church, Needham said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.” (When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library, Inside Higher Ed., June 25, 2007.)

I think everyone agrees that this sacrosanct role of academic reference librarian has gone with the last century, just as other traditional librarian roles are going away, and for essentially the same reasons. Librarians for too long have taken the “gate keeper” / “guide, philosopher, and friend” role too literally. And, although there seems to be no source for the attribution to Melvil Dewey that; “The librarian must be the librarian militant before he can be the librarian triumphant.”, my personal opinion is that, if Dewey said that, he was operating from the same premise expressed in the 1876 Report, and that “library militant” referred to dictating what people should read, along with an abundant amount of SHUSHing! Neither of which are compatible with 21st Century librarianship.

We have professorships of agriculture, of physical culture, of political economy, of aesthetics, of mechanics, and so on, every one of them useful and desirable. And in like manner it is in accordance with the spirit of the educational movement of to-day, that we should have professorships of books and reading; for the knowledge of what to read and how to read it is the indispensable completion and finish to any one of the previous or other courses of study in any university or high grade institution of learning. No other department, in fact, could be contrived, so adapted to be the last symmetrizing and polishing process to a complete education. [page 237]

As mentioned above, the librarian – the “professor… of books and reading” – (even though they took ages to emerge despite their necessity 100 years ago), is now essentially obsolete, in the sense that The Special Report proposed. Isn’t that appropriate? Doesn’t everything have its season? Isn’t the era when people needed someone with “the knowledge of what to read and how to read it” over? Once youth are taught this information literacy skill in school, during which time adults out of school can also be taught information literacy, then the time for that role of “gate keeper” / “guide, philosopher, and friend” librarian will also end, whether it was ever appropriate or not.

Books not only enrich and enlarge the mind, [page 240] but they stimulate, inflame, and concentrate its activity; and, though without this reception of foreign influence [“classic literature” of the time] a man may be odd, he cannot be original. The greatest genius is he who consumes the most knowledge and converts it into mind. What, indeed, is college education but the reading of certain books which the common sense of all scholars agrees will represent the science already accumulated? [page 241]

This philosophy to be sure is out dated. Not until the adoption of the common school system of public education did every man, and woman eventually, have the opportunity to learn from those more educated than they. But the model was still “the reading of certain books which the common sense of all scholars agrees will represent the science already accumulated”. Even though the author’s observation that “The greatest genius is he who consumes the most knowledge and converts it into mind.” may be a universal truth, the mode of achieving that has drastically changed in over 100 years, and the definition of knowledge has expanded to include discovery in all its many forms. We recognize now that the engaged student learns better than the previously lectured to student.

While the school librarian, or teacher-librarian, still has a vital role in developing information literacy in youth, where does this leave the public librarian? In my estimation, teaching literacy has not been a role of the public librarian for decades, if not longer, and certainly not literacy in the sense that they provided patrons with “the knowledge of what to read and how to read it”. While public librarians may often be asked to recommend a “good book”, that is not what “what to read and how to read it” meant in 1876. It literally meant that the average citizen was not smart enough to know what they should read to gain the right kind of knowledge, nor were they smart enough to know how to read it to gain that knowledge – therefore the librarian had the calling to educate those poor illiterate people. Hopefully no librarian today would adopt that self-important, ego inflated opinion of their purpose.

This ancient opinion is provided further evidence of its inappropriateness in light of The 1876 Special Report, Chapter XVIII, Public Libraries and the Young, that begins with;

What shall the public library do for the young, and how? is a question of acknowledged importance. The remarkable development of “juvenile literature” testifies to the growing importance of this portion of the community in the eyes of book producers, while the character of much of this literature, which is now almost thrust into the hands of youth, is such as to excite grave doubts as to its being of any service, intellectual or moral. In this state of things the public library is looked to by some with hope, and by others with fear, according as its management is apparently such as to draw young readers away from merely frivolous reading, or to make such reading more accessible and encourage them in the use of it; hence the importance of a judicious administration of the library in this regard.


Which, brings me back to the self-aware perspective of our profession today. Public librarianship is about helping people fulfill their information needs, not in deciding what should be read, or how. Today’s overriding concept of librarianship is customer needs driven – the total opposite of the 1876 perspective. The concepts of the 21st Century librarian below are so foreign to the thinking 100 years ago as to be perceived as total lunacy then.

“1) The 21st Century librarian is both a user and producer of technology to better understand and achieve improved library services.

2) The 21st Century librarian is a master of information literacy who relies on that skill to enhance advanced reference services.

3) The 21st Century librarian understands ALL types of information resources and relies on that knowledge to select the BEST resource for the customer’s information needs.

4) The 21st Century librarian relies on technology to enhance advanced thinking, rather than relying on just what is contained in a collection.”

[Librarianship Is The Foundation Jan. 24, 2011 Post]

4 Comments

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4 responses to “21st Century Librarianship vs. The 1876 Special Report

  1. Thanks Steve for your insight.
    In the Public Library setting, it seems that there might be a few things to add to the list – as libraries develop their role as community hubs for education, the arts and access to other government services. A big part of the job is to keep the Public Library relevant to their communities and to the government that funds the operations?
    Is mastery of information management and delivery enough?

    • Thanks for your comments, and absolutely not to answer your question. Relevance to the community certainly seems paramount to me, but all the other new skills I’ve outlined over the past months are also major factors in making that happen. Skills like; SME in Community, Customer Targeting, Planned Abandonment, Digital Discovery, Open Innovation, Crowdsourcing, Likenomics, Social Networking, Gaming, Business Acumen, Cloud Computing, and Discontinuous Thinking – to name a few. :)

  2. Kay Dee

    Absolutely fascinating!
    Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Pingback: The Round-Up « bringyournoise

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