Wednesday, February 01, 2006

“Ambivalence and Paradox: The social bonds of the public library”

In the article “Ambivalence and Paradox: The social bonds of the public library” the author, Phyllis Dain challenges the conclusions of Michael Harris, author of “The Purpose of the American Public Library: A revisionist Interpretation of History.”
Although both she and Harris deem the amount of useful historically supported facts pertaining to the creation, growth, and maintenance of the public library insufficient neither is shy in stating their interpretation of these scant facts. Her analysis of the founders and the trustees of the public library system is nonexistent; she merely states that there is a chance that Harris is incorrect in his assumptions and does not have enough corroborating evidence to support his “interpretation”.
The whole of her article is in the same vein and while she offers little or no evidence to support her stance she does ask several important questions that, if there were correlated evidentiary support for, would substantially damage the conclusions that Harris drew within his article. But it is unlikely that long work hours, manual labor and demographic instability, while historically accurate and supported, will ever be adequately linked to low library usage; very few people left written evidence as to why they chose not to make use of their libraries.

What is the minimum of historical documents needed to make an interpretation of past events? What type of documents should a historian use? Is it possible to make an accurate interpretation of any historical event or movement since we are all limited in perspective to our place, time, our moral and/or religious systems, our political and our social understandings?


Katie Hanson said...

Is it possible to make an accurate interpretation of any historical event or movement since we are all limited in perspective to our place, time, our moral and/or religious systems, our political and our social understandings?

This is a really interesting question, one that is well illustrated by all the various readings for this week. I would take the position that how we tell our history, library or otherwise, tells more about the opinions of the time the history was written than it does providing an 'accurate' interpretation of history. Let's take Ditzion's book for an example. It's generally held nowadays that Ditzion painted a rosy picture of library history. Given the times that he was writing, this isn't suprising (coming off of victory in WWII, America as a beacon of democracy, no thoughts of the civil rights or women's movement, etc). And his history was generally satisfying when it appeared. Now, looking at it with the experiences of the last 60 years, it doesn't make sense to place the same value on portions of library history as Ditzion does. Dain's and Harris' respective articles demonstrate the messy change as the shift in thinking occurred.

Eileen H. said...

Is it possible to make an accurate interpretation of any historical event or movement since we are all limited in perspective to our place, time, our moral and/or religious systems, our political and our social understandings?

I think that your question in a way answers itself (with an answer of no) or leads to the further question of how do you define "accurate"? What is an accurate history to me, might not be an accurate history to someone else. When looking at history, I think you have to take into account both the context of when your primary and secondary sources were written and the fact that one's own biases or lenses (ways of looking at things) are also going to come into play. This is why in the readings for this week, working from similar or the same historical data we have various interpretations of how and why libraries were developed.

Brendan said...

Along the same lines as the other comments, everyone's perspective of history is going to be slightly different, regardless of whether or not we all have the same material to go from. I think it's especially important to consider conflicting points of view (for example, the Dain and Harris articles) and try to figure out what conclusions can be drawn based on both the similarities AND differences in their theories. Just as they found their own interpretations based on the research that was available when these articles were written. Looking at things from a historical perspective always involves building on to the groundwork that has already been done. Hopefully, this leads to new and more involved analysis, but I think it's definitely possible to get nowhere new at all, due to a simple lack of material. Yes, it would be great to have some first-hand accounts (especially from new immigrants) about why they did or did not use the public libraries of the time. Unfortunately, we just don't have that option.

Emily Schearer said...

I also think that this is a really interesting question, and there have been some really good points made. I would just like to add that there is no definitive history. Brendan was right about the value in comparing conflicting points of view. I think that you could argue that all historical analysis is, in some form or another, revisionism. Dain raises some great points about Harris' essay. She also points to the lack of research in the field as a whole, and I think this is very important. The fact that he submitted his essay as an "exploratory theory" was an invitation for people to contest it. I guess I'm just having a hard time with the term "accurate interpretation." I'm not sure if it is being used in the same sense as correct, but if so I think it is dangerous to assume that you can determine whether or not a historical interpretation is correct. Harris' essay challenged the theories previous historians had made, and provoked a dialog within the study. His contribution to the historical study of librarianship, regardless of whether or not his thoughts become part of the mainstream accepted theory, is very valid.

Kelly said...

That's the trouble with history -- it's so difficult to find things out unless someone thought to write them down! (And even then, the writings need to have been preserved.)

It would be interesting, albeit difficult and time consuming, to look through period letters and journals to see what people wrote about the library. Of course, the people most likely to have written a lot of letters or journals were probably middle and upperclass anyway, and it's unlikely that anyone of any class ever wrote "I still didn't visit the library because..." Some people might have written about their first visit to the library though, and maybe even why they didn't go before or why people they know don't go.

SarahStumpf said...

I think that everyone has hit on really important things in this post, not just about library history, but about any kinds of history.

What sources do we use? What sources are reliable? How do we define who and what is reliable? Is anything that we deem unreliable worthless?

Where do we draw the line between interpretation and fact? Is history functionalist, meaning does it have cogs and wheels like a machine that we as historians just need to figure out how to make the machine tick? Or is history more relativist, where we think everything is so different, diverse, and individualistic that we can't make any widespread statements of fact at all?

I'm getting the feeling so far in this class that library history, weather do to poor sources or mediocre academia or just the fact of the matter is very culturally relativist. I'm having a hard time picking patterns in anything we use, so I'm begining to think that possibly there are none.

Gillian D. said...

Since a fair amount of what I was going to say has been said, I'll take another angle.

Harris argues about certain things that may have caused low library usage. tbuleza says that it seems unlikely. What do others think? And what are other factors that might have been causes? I wish we had stats from that time, including looking at the age of patrons.

I for one feel that the long hours of workers in combination with the limited hours some of the libraries were open, almost certainly did not allow for a large percentage of the population to go. Also the fact that there were likely those who did not trust the library, simply as it was a gov't free organization.

I think this is a problem that continues to this day, and that we can draw some interesting paraells between.