Thursday, January 19, 2006

Space to discuss Passet, Wiegand readings for first week

Since we didn't have time to discuss the "extra" readings for week 1 in class, I thought I'd open up some space on the weblog for students to provide feedback or ask questions on those readings. In particular, if you have anything to say about Joanne E. Passet's encyclopedia article on “United States of America [library history]” or Wayne Wiegand's article, “American library history literature, 1947-1997: Theoretical perspectives," please leave comments below.


Jeremy4031 said...

Hi everyone. Just a general piece of advice: Anyone who hasn't gotten their course packets at ASM print yet should know that they're out and will only print more if you specifically ask them to and pay in advance. They then need 24 hours to make it up for you. But the Wiegand article at least is available on Library Literature online through UW libraries, so you can get a head start that way.

Anyway, here are 2 questions/comments I had about Wiegand.

1.) Right from the abstract, I had a problem. Wiegand sez: "An examination of fifty years of published research literature ...[shows] a relative dearth of theoretical perspective."

Great. My impression of that is that statement is, "Library history is too gosh darned factual and detailed: We need to make it more abstract and boring so that it'll be really good and impenetrable to non-specialists."

2.) Why do library historians (or even just librarians) have this obsession with uncovering Carnegie's dark and nefarious motives?

Yes, he was fabulously wealthy. Yes, a good part of his wealth came from breaking laws or strong-arming his workers. Yes, he probably could have done something more helpful to poor people than to give away funds for library construction. Yes, there are parallels between what he did and what Gates did to outfit libraries with internet connections. And yes, Carnegie's own rags-to-riches narrative is probably doctored in many places.

Still, imagine if a major figure of wealth and controversy today were to give away literally billions of dollars for libraries. Let's say, Dick Cheney. How many communities--heck how many of us as librarians--would really turn him down?

Eileen H. said...

I disagree with your interpretation of Wiegand's statement in the abstract. I think what he was getting at is that he sees much of library history over the last fifty years as focusing on "seeking to answer the 'how' rather than the 'why'. Many writings have been similar to the history we were presented in class--heavy on simply listing facts; very celebratory of libraries and librarians; and not inclusive of all peoples (women, African Americans, homosexuals, etc). His argument is that library history needs to delve more deeply into looking at how libraries and librarians have affected/shaped/been influenced by society and culture and vice-versa.

SarahStumpf said...

I just wanted to address Jeremy's points from my POV as an undergraduate history major in this course.

History as a field is about a lot more then just facts and details. It used to be, history was all about facts and the only facts that mattered were about important dead white men. Historians wrote volumes, basically ooohing and ahhing over them and what they did, meanwhile perpetuating the idea the they were impartial and that all this hero worship was "facts".

However history has really changed gears in the last century, particularly in the last 50 years. Now, it is not enough to write a book where you claim impartiality and lord over while reciting supposed facts. Now the focus is on analysing everything. That means even facts themselves (how are these facts created? what is or is not a fact? who decided the facts?), the role of the writer (can anyone really be impartial?) and using them to propose some kind of theory that explains to us why something happened or changed over time, and not just that it supposedly did. What I believe Wiegand is saying is that Library history has not really moved out of the butt kissing stage and caught up with the rest of the historical field.

As to your comment about "Carnegie's dark and nefarious motives", I think it is important to think about him in the context of these changes in the field of history. Historians are looking for everyone's "dark and nefarious motives" and dirty secrets now. Once you move away from just focusing on a shiny pretty picture of history, you start to see that some people/groups did a lot that we don't hear about. Some of our great men were not nice people. Some of our great men did things that we (in our time, from our own historical perspective) judge to be wrong (morally or legally) or just plain weird. And by focusing only on great men, we ignore so much. Right now, history as a field is leaving no stone unturned. One of the newest fields in history is History of Sexuality, these are people trying to figure out how many women orgasmed durring sexual intercourse in the 1830's or how the Navajo system of 6 genders played into who could have sex with whom. Things that were once unspoken or secret or considered inappropriate for historical study are huge now. So its really not about Carnegie; He is getting ripped on because every historical person is a free target now (in my opinion anyway, feel free to disagree).

Jennifer Gile said...

I agree with pretty much everything Sarah says, as a history undergrad myself. BUT, while it is important that historians turn a critical eye to everything, this can sometimes get out of hand. I think Jeremy may have been onto something when he asked "why do library historians have this obsession with uncovering Carnegie's dark and nefarious motives?" Surely, it is important to look at motivations and justifications from all angles, even the unsavory ones, but not at the expense of reality. Sometimes it seems as if these "new historians" are merely replacing old biases that favored "dead white men" with new biases that condemn them without much thought. I think a balanced, objective dialogue falling somewhere between the two extremes is most useful.

hannahreese said...
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Gillian D. said...

About the dark side of Carnegie.

I think that librarians like to know the truth and facts behind things, especially ones that somehow involved them or their predecessors. Part of that is looking at where we as a profession went wrong in the past, and if the wrongness was outweighed by good in the end. I think this is why we read things like "Double Fold" and "The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown".

In regards to taking questionable money these days, I think it is a question that public libraries in particular still argue with. With funding that has nasty catches attached to it for instance, such as filtering all internet stations. And in the unlikely event that our dear Cheney started handing out money to libraries, I believe that it would definitely draw discussion and arguement.