Daily Archives: October 22, 2012

American Librarianship – 19th vs 21st Century – Literacy

In a previous Post relating to the 1876 Report on PUBLIC LIBRARIES IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA to the Congress by the Bureau of Education, I noted that the prevailing attitude among the profession toward the reading public was that “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.”

On Page 4 of the Report is Benjamin Franklin’s account, from his autobiography, of establishing his subscribers library in Philadelphia.

So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry, to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. … The institution soon manifested its ability, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

In large part Franklin’s description explains the well established foundation of educators’ belief that librarians had the obligation to decide what people should or should not read – that role found validation among the likes of Franklin – still in 1876. Self-education was considered the best education, because it was assumed that if some could benefit from it, everyone could benefit from self improvement through reading. Fortunately, by the time of this report, the concept of “free public education” had taken hold, but the gatekeeper role of the librarian was still strongly entrenched.

In order to show a balance between that attitude and one verging on “service” to the reading public, the following excerpts from the Professorships of Books and Reading chapter should be considered.



Page 249
No course of reading, however ideally good, can be exactly adapted to all minds. Every student has his idiosyncrasies, his foibles, his “stond or impediment in the wit,” as Bacon terms it, which must be considered in choosing his reading matter, so that not only his tastes may be in some degree consulted, but “every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.”

A professor of books and reading should be a man of broad and varied culture, with catholic tastes [what would be referred to today as “parochial tastes”], a thorough knowledge of bibliography, especially of critical literature, and much knowledge of men; one who can readily detect the peculiarities of his pupils, and who, in directing their reading, will have constant reference to these as well as to the order of nature and intellectual development. While he may prepare, from time to time, courses of reading on special topics, and especially on those related to the college studies, he will be still more useful in advising the student how to read most advantageously; in what ways to improve the memory; how to keep and use commonplace books; when to make abstracts; and in giving many other hints which books on reading never communicate, and which suggest themselves only to one who has learned after many years of experience and by many painful mistakes the secret of successful study. …
Perhaps one of the greatest services which such a teacher might perform for the undergraduate would be in showing him how to economize his reading – how to transfer or inspirit into his brain the contents of a good book in the briefest time. At this day, the art of reading, or at least one of the arts, is to skip judiciously, – to omit all that does not concern us, while missing nothing that we really need. Some of the best thinkers rarely begin a book at the beginning, but dive right into the middle, read enough to seize the leading idea, dig out the heart of it, and then throw it by. In this way a volume which cost the author five years of toil, they will devour at a night’s sitting, with as much ease as a spider would suck the juices of a fly, leaving the wings and legs in the shape of a preface, appendix, notes, and conclusion, for a boiled joint the next day. [Emphasis added.]

One has to wonder whether this description and exhortation to teach people how to read equates to their concept of “literacy” at the time. It could be argued that teaching the generally under-educated, even uneducated, population how to become more literate was the proper role of the librarian. Recognizing that “The idea of a free public library could hardly find general acceptance until the idea of free public education had become familiar to men’s minds, ….” [Page 1], it seems natural and proper at that time.

How does this translate to our 21st Century? What is our understanding of “literacy” and the librarian’s role in fostering it among the general public? Is it the exclusive role of the school teacher-librarian? Is it also the role of the public, academic and special librarian?

Further reading illustrates the condition of “public education” of the time, and reinforces the “gate keeper” role of the profession even further.


Page 38
A careful study of the history of the school library system in the several States where it has been tried develops the causes of the dangers and failures that have attended it. These may be grouped in two classes: first, defects and frequent changes in legislation; second, incompetence and indifference in the administration of the law. …

First. Defects of legislation: In permitting school districts to raise by tax and expend money for libraries, without providing for State aid, or supervision of the selections of books; in granting State aid without supervision of selections; ….

Page 39
Second. Defects of administration: As shown by the selecting and purchasing unsuitable and often improper and immoral books by trustees unacquainted with, or indifferent to, their merits or demerits; ….

Does this pervasive emphasis on the importance of supervised selection of materials advocate for censorship? Or, does it simply establish the foundation of the state’s and school district’s prerogative to determine the school library’s collection? How different are school vs. public libraries in terms of directors determining what will be available in the collection?

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