Friday, January 27, 2006

Fain, "Books for new citizens, 1900-1925"

Until the Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, millions of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere entered the United States each year. (Although it should be noted that these supposed "boom years" of immigration are easily outstripped by recent statistics; the year in which the single greatest number of immigrants came to America was 2002). Elaine Fain talks about the response of many urban librarians and their efforts--some hotly nativist and aggressive, others more soft-pedal and merely laughable--to "Americanize" the newcomers.

I finished this article with a few observations:

1.) Fain quoted Joseph Foster Carr of the Immigrant Publication Society saying, "...Rigorous and 'Prussian' methods of Americanization accomplished nothing but bitterness, stirring incredible resentment and antagonism among our foreign born. They directly nourish the Bolshevism that we fear."

My own wonder is how much the 'Americanization' drive was propelled by fear of communism? If there had been no communism, would the early twentieth-century immigrant wave have remained less assimilated and thus not been subsumed under the general grouping of "white" Americans?

My own feeling is that, yes, it might have at least cut down on the conscious efforts to Americanize immigrants--i.e. the outreach efforts by librarians.

2.) After the immigration restriction laws of the 20's, Fain says that the same librarians who did so much work with immigrants tried to change gears and begin work with other groups, but, "An attempt in 1935 to set up a "Section for Inter-Racial Service" was denied by the ALA Council because a majority feared that the word "inter-racial" might be offensive in some parts of the country."

That to me seems like the huge blind spot of all this: That the librarians were willing, eager, and able to to so much work with these populations of new Americans while essentially neglecting a population of Americans that had been "on-site" since the beginning.

Still, there's a pretty mendacious argument peddled by anti-immigrant groups today that if we allow in more immigrants, it will only undercut the status of existing groups like African-Americans and poor whites. I'm not inclined to take this argument seriously, not only because I don't think it's true on its face, but also because anti-immigrant groups haven't ever made much of an impression on me as people with a deep and abiding concern for any group of poor people.

9 comments:

Eileen H. said...

I think communism probably played a role in library Americanization efforts, but I don’t think that by taking communism out of the picture, the extent of the movement would lessen greatly. The high immigration rates of the late 1800s and early 1900s led to drastic changes in many US cities and brought with it a myriad of urban problems. Fain mentions how: “adjustment to American life was extraordinarily difficult for immigrants, faced as they were with the immediate problems of making a living, finding housing, dealing with a strange culture.” Many immigrants were poor, lived in ghettos and dealt with prejudices both from “established” Americans and members of other immigrant groups. As I see it, based on the reading, the Americanization movement among librarians grew out of a larger movement to deal with the “immigration problem” or new urban problems. In this way, I think the push wasn’t just to avoid the spread of communism, but to help immigrants to assimilate into life in America—help with finding work, housing, etc. Some librarians probably also viewed it as a way to break down stereotypes and work towards ending some of the conflicts between people of different nationalities. As Fain points out, “Carr and the other ALA Committee members genuinely believed in the ideology of the melting pot. Immigrants and natives together could build America into the greatest nation in the world.” The question I had, however, was amongst these more moderate or progressive Americanization leaders, in their push to assimilate people were they also forcing them to loose or give up their own cultural identities so that we could have a more uniform nation? Also, I think the goals of the Americanization movement shifted with changes in political realities, e.g. the push to stem the spread of Nazism and fascism during WWII.
This reading also made me think about libraries and immigrants today. Having grown up in Madison and worked at the Central public library off and on during the ‘90s, I have seen an increase in the world languages collection, which I think in many ways has been driven by the growth of the immigrant population in Madison. While working at the library, however, I did encounter patrons who thought we shouldn’t be expanding the world language collections at all, and that the money put into that should go into the ESL collections instead. I also have heard complaints from people that Spanish language materials make up too large of a proportion of the entire collection; other languages are not as well represented. What have other people’s experiences been around these issues?

Jeremy4031 said...

In this way, I think the push wasn’t just to avoid the spread of communism, but to help immigrants to assimilate into life in America—help with finding work, housing, etc.

Hmm, but Fain expressly says that that's what these librarians at the turn of the century did NOT do: Help the immigrants with practical problems like jobs and housing. The librarians of that time period saw themselves working solely on the cultural level--giving the immigrants American patterns of thought. It was only later with the settlement-house movement that they moved into providing actual social services for immigrants.

Eileen H. said...

Point taken, I agree that librarians weren't working directly in the area of social services--that the settlement house movement dealt more directly with this. However, by working on a "cultural level-giving them American patterns of thought" this might indirectly make it easier for immigrants to find work and/or housing. It might make it easier to deal with issues they might be facing at work or in their neighborhoods.

Deanna Olson said...

In response to your comment, Eileen, about the push to Americanize and if it forced immigrants to loose their cultural heritage…This article made me think about what it means to be Americanized. Is it when an immigrant learns English? Is it when an immigrant adopts ways of doing things in both leisure and work that reflect the American way? Is it when an immigrant adopts the values of the culture he or she lives in? One of the points that I think this article makes is that the American culture that immigrants were supposed to adopt was actually based on American middle-class ideals. These were the same ideals that librarians were trying to impress upon the lower classes by selecting books that reflected good morals. I think in the process of Americanization, many individuals hoped that immigrants would loose their cultural heritage and transform into the ideal American. John Carr talks about a “gentle assimilation program” (268). He recognized that the most effective way to assimilate immigrants into American culture was a steady and slow program. This process was accomplished through enticing immigrants to use the library by offering books in foreign languages and then slowly exposing them to other aspects of the library that would require the immigrants to learn English in order for them to use these aspects efficiently. The library had and probably still has a hidden agenda for patrons. Yes, the library encouraged immigrant use but only because it would also encourage Americanization. This is similar to how the library encouraged the lower and working class to use the library in hopes of imposing certain values and morals on the individuals.

Nancy S. said...

Deanna- I agree. This is an interesting insight. Librarians were interested in "Americanizing" immigrants into ideal Americans and not necessarily into the Americans they wanted to become. I found interesting how Carr's opinions changed throughout his involvement with immigrants according to Fain. Towards the end of the article Fain writes that Carr later encouraged librarians to carefully screen books written in foreign languages for content. This goes back to your same point that librarians wanted serve immigrants for their personal agenda of forming ideal Americans rather than simply offering reading materials. The censorship of materials reiterates this platform.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

I like Jeremy's comments on the article, and we have hit upon a few issues that should keep the pot cooking on Thursday. Is 'Americanization' a means to help our immigrant friends to become assimilated in our society, or is it a smack to the back of the head of the unwashed masses? Is this a tack that has/was taken by Canadian Librarians in the face of rising immigration levels? I guess I see this article as the genteel 'slap to the back of the head' approach taken willingly by many librarians in the face of rising immigration levels and seemingly high levels of avarice and vice.

Deborah said...

In response to your second question--you raise a really intriguing point about how the library neglected existing minority populations. But could it be for innocuous reasons? Was the focus on immigrant populations rather than African-Americans a result of geography? Fain writes that public libraries, at the turn of the century, were "expanding quickly in growing industrial cities with large immigrant populations." Perhaps the plight of immigrants was just more pressing to urban librarians in New England at the time. Or maybe the potential political repurcussions of "inter-racial" service were just too risky for the ALA Council to adopt.

ellen said...

I think Deborah makes a good point concerning the effect of geographic location on the immigration vs. exisiting minority populations. Much of the history of American public libraries thus far has been focused on urban New England libraries. As Phyllis Dain points out in her article a 1938 nationwide survey "revealed the scanty public library service in economically and educationally undeveloped regions like the South and Southwest." Perhaps the immigrant population was both more glaring in New England but moreover the social elite had more money and influence to contribute to controlling this "problem," which would be consistent with Harris' arguement.

Katie K said...

I thought it was really interesting the two very different kinds of service that urban librarians performed for immigrants. There was one motion to accomodate and embrace the immigrant's cultures--books in that language were purchased, librarians made an effort to learn basic aspects of the language to make the visit easier, holidays from that culture were celebrated, etc. Then, there was a large shift in which the libary's role was basically to create good American citizens, even if a person's cultural identity was lessened (or erased) because of it.

I think this was the most interesting part of the article because, as eileen already mentioned, we're still facing the same issues. Do we as reference librarians learn spanish and other languages to help accomodate our patrons--in our collection development do we purchase the world language collections? Or do we live by the motto that seems to be a common right now: if they live in America, they should speak English--thus, emphasizing the need to teach ESL classes and create programs to help them assimilate.

I certainly don't know the answer to the question, but ultimately, one thing that I really would have liked Fain to discuss was if there were efforts to track which was more effective in creating a positive experience for the new Americans. Obviously the second, less accomodating type of Americanization isn't as PC as most would like it, but did this help them get jobs, start a family and find a place, an identity within the US? Or was the effort to preserve the culture more effective. No answers on my part... just lots of questions.