This is a draft of an essay for my history of the book class on the book Apostles of Culture by Dee Garrison. (Buy it here)
If there is any question of why libraries are currently struggling to validate their existence in this 21st century environment, this book should be consulted. Garrison presents an immense and detailed history of the role, actual and perceived, of the public library. Garrison views this history through the lens of the role that women played in the growth, development and spread of library services while also dealing with the Victorian stereotypes that defined women’s roles through the late 19th century into the 20th. While this book is focused on the history of public library it is also a history of books. It is a history of books in examining what librarians tried to get their public to read versus what the public actually wanted to read. Libraries were not originally created for readers; they were created by the ‘gentry’ to attempt institute a level of control through what this ‘genteel tradition’ defined as culture. The cultural, economic and social changes in the 19th century caused these gentry, who saw themselves as cultural guardians, to turn to the “…public library as one means of broadening the base of refined and right-thinking citizens. Initially, libraries were beneficial to the users only as long as the users were willing to submit themselves to the educative mission based upon the desire of the upper-class to, essentially, bring these urban-industrial workers to their level and restore the societal balance that they perceived as being necessary for the continuation of things as they were . The strictures that this fading gentry class attempted to place on the lower class went directly against the freedom of the individual that was being realized. However this individual freedom was still largely a male-dominated one, especially in the professional realm. While women were able to move forward in other occupations toward the end of the 19th century the myth of the women’s sphere was very effective in “confining women to domesticated roles and the guardianship of culture.” This domestication played directly to the role libraries played because of two reasons that Garrison bring to light. The first, since the women’s primary role at this time was a domestic one, that the library was an extension of the home and that the women was able to domesticate it. Note that the women’s individual freedom is still restricted to a home-making process. The expressions of creativity were allowed as long as they did not conflict with societal norms. The second reason was that since the library offered one of the few place of employment for an educated/intellectual women, other than teaching, that women did not want to remove this outlet from the realm of employment possibilities and contributed to their continued marginalization. The “…female dominance of librarianship did much to shape the inferior and precarious status of the public library as a cultural resource; it evolved into a marginal kind of public amusement service.”(emphasis mine) This is one of the most important points that Garrison makes in examining the roles of public libraries and which can be abstracted out to libraries in general. Any attempt to understand the difficulty that libraries in the 21st century are having in relating and serving their local patrons and users it is because they were/are sources of amusement. With the advent of new media amplifying the isolation of the individual, public amusement was no longer as important as private amusement. Why should one travel to a public place to engage in an activity of private activity for persona amusement when the comfort of one’s house doesn’t have to be left? Libraries have not been able to successfully and consistently answer this question. This is not to blame the feminization of the history of the library but rather to draw attention to the fact that this shift did not happen in a vacuum but is directly related to the history of the library. Garrison emphasizes in this work that the history of the library has recently been marginalized to a small section of the library science curriculum often hidden in a history of a book class. This neglect of library history is to the detriment of library students. While web 2.0 tools, FRBR and open source OPACs are necessary to understand, librarians cannot adequately respond, or plan to respond, to the cultural, societal and economic shifts without correctly understanding how the institution of the library was created. Librarians cannot respond by only looking into the future. The past must be applied to the future to understand what changes in strategy and direction can be made.
The success of the library in incorporating itself into the public school system is really one of the triumphs of library history, though in recent years the school library has had continued difficulties in obtaining funding. This success is due to the particular reason that libraries were able to convince schools to broaden their curriculum and extra-curriculum approaches by taking advantage of the supplemental materials that the library offered. However this approach was not successful in the public library because the library had no means of “coercing the people to make use of its service.” The fact that these individuals believed that readers could be lead via the printed word from ignorance through the vaunted halls of the public library seems somewhat naïve to the present-day reader. However this mode of thinking is not that different, if at all, from the current mode of thinking that many libraries, both public and academic, are still struggling to awaken.
Even with current news articles highlighting the growing use of libraries because of the economic recession, which is seemingly transforming the library from a marginal place of public amusement to an information/job resource center, what happens when this recession is over? Will people remain thankful to the library or will it retire to the background to wait for the next societal crisis to be remembered and fight for its existence?