American Librarianship – 19th vs 21st Century


I’ve recently been reading in more depth the PUBLIC LIBRARIES IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 1876 REPORT to the Congress by the Bureau of Education, which was under the Department of the Interior at the time. From Page xxiii of the Introduction, this statement of the purpose of the librarian is very telling of the times and the infancy of professional librarianship in America.
Boston Public Library

Page xxiii
THE STUDY OF LIBRARY SCIENCE.
Considerable space has been devoted, under the title of Professorships of Books and Reading, to the discussion of the question of a new college professorship the duties of which should be to teach students what and how to read. While this would meet the needs of college students, the much larger constituency of the public libraries would still remain, as now, generally dependent on the librarians for advice and direction. Hence, it is clear that the librarian must soon be called upon to assume a distinct position, as something more than a mere custodian of books, and the scientific scope and value of his office be recognized and estimated in a becoming manner. To meet the demands that will be made on him he should be granted opportunities for instruction in all the departments of library science. [Emphasis added.]

On the surface “…something more than a mere custodian of books, and the scientific scope and value of his office be recognized and estimated in a becoming manner.” appears to be totally reasonable regarding the role of the librarian at the time, until one reads the rest of the report and places it in the proper context and inclination toward education. When I say “telling,” it may be obvious from this excerpt that the role of the librarian was esteemed as highly as any teacher, academic or upper class regarding their obligations toward the public they were ‘serving.’ Unfortunately, from reading the vast majority of the Report, it seems that the idea of “service” was not anywhere in the vocabulary of educators, or librarians. In fact, it appears evident that the role of the librarian should be “recognized and estimated in a becoming manner” as all other educators with the obligation to educate the common man.

CHAPTER IX
PROFESSORSHIPS OF BOOKS AND READING.
I. – BY F. B. PERKINS.
II. – BY WILLIAM MATHEWS, A. M.

I. – ON PROFESSORSHIPS OF BOOKS AND READING.
Page 237
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.
The tendency to reading for mere amusement should be carefully watched and limited. [Emphasis added.]

While this attitude and approach to librarianship may have been acceptable, or even considered appropriate for students and institutions of the time, it seems clear that the same attitude was held regarding the public librarian toward the general public.

Page xi
THE LIBRARIAN AN EDUCATOR
The influence of the librarian as an educator is rarely estimated by outside observers, and probably seldom fully realized even by himself. Performing his duties independently of direct control as to their details, usually selecting the books that are to be purchased by the library and read by its patrons, often advising individual readers as to a proper course of reading and placing in their hands the books they are to read, and pursuing his own methods of administration generally without reference to those in use elsewhere, the librarian has silently, almost unconsciously, gained ascendency over the habits of thought and literary tastes of a multitude of readers, who find in the public library their only means of intellectual improvement. [Emphasis added.]

Today this seems not only unconscionable, but a bit scary – “the librarian has silently, almost unconsciously, gained ascendency over the habits of thought and literary tastes of a multitude of readers, who find in the public library their only means of intellectual improvement.” As I noted in Curation – A New 21st Century Librarianship Skill? this past April, I believe…

Librarianship has always been about facilitating access to information. While I recognize that information is becoming too vast for the average individual to digest adequately, and that librarians still tend to be the “go to” person for many people seeking information, there is significant danger in the librarian attempting to hold tight to the old “gate keeper” role when they should be acting as facilitators.

There is an inherent tendency among the profession, in America at least possibly stemming from its beginnings here, to think we know more than non-librarians, therefore we are not only entitled but obligated to tell people “what and how to read.” Fortunately, this tendency is becoming less as society and technology progress, because there is too much information to know, and more information than most librarians can handle about how to access it.

[More to follow – it is a very long report – ]

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “American Librarianship – 19th vs 21st Century

  1. The University of Illinois republished this in 1966 as part of its Monograph series (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus). Graduate School of Library Science, no. 4) and when I taught there in the 1970s there were many copies available for faculty and doctoral students. We all had copies of this report. It has been very influential in late 20th century librarianship.

    • Thanks for that perspective. Do you have any specific examples of how it has been influential?
      I think it is excellent now to see the origins of our profession in America, and contrast what we used to do with what we should be doing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s