Tuesday, January 31, 2006

J.P. Quincy, "Free Libraries"

In his chapter entitled “Free Libraries,” (1876) J.P. Quincy’s argument has two main components. First of all, he posits that the library, as “the one secular institution which encourages self-development as an aim should be especially favored in the times upon which we have fallen” (390). Clearly, he is referring to the important role the library can play in the “Americanization” and education of the growing immigrant population.

The second part of his argument is that libraries should use discretion, and censorship, in order to supply their patrons (who obviously, at least in the opinion of the “intellectual elite,” are unable to make this choice for themselves) with materials which will teach them morals and how to be better citizens, thus making the country more democratic, more economically productive, and just an all around better place to live.

I am curious about this shift in the role of the public librarian and library from the late 19th century to the present. It seems as though a complete turnaround has occurred. Today the attitude is more along the lines that reading of virtually any material is better than none at all. Public librarians, though they are expected to be knowledgeable and helpful, would most certainly be overstepping their boundaries if they behaved in the way Mr. William Kite, librarian of the Germantown, PA public library advised his employees to.

While using local factory girls as an example of the lower, uneducated population, most interested in reading these “baser” forms of fiction, he said, “According to our gauge of their mental caliber, we offer to select an interesting book for them. They seem often like children learning to walk; they must be led awhile, but they soon cater for themselves; we have thought but few leave because they cannot procure works of fiction.” (394)

What were the prevalent attitudes at the time that allowed, and even urged librarians to treat their patrons in such a condescending manner? What changing ideological frameworks have changed the role of librarian from a custodian of knowledge, doling out reading materials according to perceived mental capacity, to an objective reference source? Why is it that Quincy’s hope that public libraries would be “the centre of the higher life of its community, and will successfully appeal to private liberality for an increasing attractiveness” (401) is no longer seen as the ultimate goal for public libraries today? I would argue that academic libraries have instead taken over this role, and public libraries have turned largely to popular fiction and other forms of popular media as their main draws for the average American. What are some possible explanations for these changing attitudes?

5 comments:

Deborah said...

What were the prevalent attitudes at the time that allowed, and even urged librarians to treat their patrons in such a condescending manner?

Dain's article offers a theory for the condescending way in which librarians treated their patrons--"how could librarians, struggling for status, be regarded and regard themselves as professional if they acknowledged the right of their clients to tell them what books to buy or if they abandoned canons of literary taste to cater to the less sophisticated wants of their communities?"

Dain posits that the 'librarian-as-gatekeeper' role helped lend legitimacy to a marginalized and fledgling profession.

Deborah said...

Also, ALA's stance on intellectual freedom wasn't really formulated or made official until the post-war/civil rights era. Miss Ruth Brown should help us flesh out this idea later in the semester :)

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

Deborah's comment on the 'librarian as gatekeeper' seems to hit the nail on the head with this article (at least for me). If you are in a profession that receives little recognition or respect, how do you intend to garner that respect you need in order to be taken seriously? It seems from this article that the librarian needed to say "hey, I am the expert, I know what is good and what is bad, and I am indispensible!" The library community may have committed professional suicide at this time by not putting themselves across as consumate information gatekeepers. Who at this time in our history would have taken librarians seriously if they would have not acted in an elite manner?

Kelly said...

I thought it was interesting and kind of funny that his argument against "dime novels" is almost exactly the same as that made against violent comics/video games/music/movies today. There's even an example of a young man corrupted by their influence and turned into a killer!

The more things change...

Katie K said...

While reading this article, what struck me most was the heavily middle-class, suburban mind-set that Quincy was writing from, which I think has a lot to do with the "gatekeeper" idea that was mentioned previously. It was that idea that "yes, take the knowledge, use the knowledge, be better because of the knowledge but only take the knowledge that we approve of." While censorship had a lot to do with the upkeep of moral ideas, I also think had something to do with keeping the lower class in mind. If the only information they received was from that of the upper and middle class, the proper social heirarchy would still exist and all would be right with the world.