Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Michael Harris, "The Purpose of the American Public Library: A Revisionist Interpretation of History"

Michael Harris writes that his intent at publishing this work was to “emancipat[e] the library profession, at least for a moment, from its dependence on an idealized history” (2514), and to question the “public library myth.” Certainly he has accomplished this goal in that all of the articles that we have read for this class (that were written after 1973) have made reference to Harris’ work. Wayne Weigand writes in “American Library History Literature...” that Harris “set on edge the world of American library history, until then so used to celebrating itself,” (4) and that until the publication of Harris’ article in 1973, the library profession didn’t take itself very seriously (6).

Intentionally representing library history in a less than glorious light, Harris presents four stages of history within the public library. The first, that of the founders, which happened around the establishment of the Boston Public Library in the 1850’s. The main goal of the founders was to open a library that would be free to all people, and Harris argues that the founders were aristocrats whose role in this process was one that would assimilate library users into the founders’ own image and ideals. The second phase of the public library was that of the technicians, who “civilized” the profession, holding out the carrot of fiction in order to attract patrons who could then read “better” works that had been chosen by librarians (who had no qualms about censorship), and who made libraries inflexible through bureaucracy and abandoned the more theoretical goals of the founders. Third was the phase of rampant immigration in the 1890’s in which Harris cites that financial woes made librarians cut popular programming to fund services for scholars, and at this time librarians increased their role as elitists via these decisions and also through the philanthropy of wealthy and controlling Americans such as Andrew Carnegie, despite the fact that they still held onto a smokescreen of egalitarianism. The final phase of librarianship came after World War II when Harris asserts that librarians further abandoned their theoretical background and stressed services over library philosophy. In light of the propaganda and suppression of thought in WWII, librarians became advocates of a “right to know” and abandoned their mission to attempt to tell patrons what information was valuable and what was not. Harris argues that this mission was one that backed the status quo of librarians as passive persons and placed the responsibility of use on library patrons, and that this self-selecting group of middle-class citizens is one that agrees with the librarians sensibility of a constructive user, and thus they do not challenge the librarian to become actual advocates of a “right to know” on a large scale of demographics, but still back a elitist and small group of patrons who self-determine their library use.

Thus far in our readings there has been a great deal of discussion of the revisionists, and as a library student, I have responded more fondly to the criticisms of Weigand and Harris due to their willingness to see fault in libraries, and I think I am willing to agree with their perspective in order to attempt to make libraries better, or to avoid what they describe. I see a clear difference, but how do all of you see the works of the revisionists in comparison to those written by librarians in support of a celebratory history of librarianship? Do you feel that there is a different relationship between a historian telling the history of librarianship vs. a library professional, and does this difference, if there is any, play into your reading of texts like Harris’ or Garrison’s? Are Weigand or Harris right that librarians have created merely a congratulatory history to date and that the revisionists offer a more realistic perspective?

Do you think that library founders and philanthropists were attempting to control lower, immigrant or common classes through libraries? If so, why? What threat exists within these groups that would require control via the channels of the library (information, reading, etc.)? Is the library capable of this type of social control (especially in light of the fact that Harris asserts that patrons are self-selecting)?

At the end of his article, Harris feels that there “the very existence of the public library is in jeopardy.” Do you believe that this was true in 1973? Do you think that this is still the case, or what other reasons or context do you see for Harris to make this assertion?

What is your reaction to the way that Harris treats librarians’ devotion to intellectual freedom and neutrality?

Has there been a “public library myth” where ideals have differed far from practice?

5 comments:

Brendan said...

Do you think that library founders and philanthropists were attempting to control lower, immigrant or common classes through libraries? If so, why? What threat exists within these groups that would require control via the channels of the library (information, reading, etc.)? Is the library capable of this type of social control (especially in light of the fact that Harris asserts that patrons are self-selecting)?

I think they were, to some extent, because they felt threatened by the growing masses of non-English speaking, "un-American" immigrants that were surging into the country at that point. The philanthropists behins some of the first public libraries liked their position in society, and the population surge brought on by immigration, coupled with the growing middle and lower classes, probably showed them that some form of control was necessary (aside from formal government) or sheer numbers would overthrow them. By providing public places with the intention of introducing the general population to "good literature," the hope was to keep the masses happy and sort of sedated, I guess. A positive outlet for pent-up energy and a way to introduce immigrants to American culture and how they were "supposed to act."

As for Harris' rather negative revision of library history, I think a major factor is the era during which it was written. In 1973, this country was suffering through the most unpopular war in its history, Vietnam (though our current war is right up there). Never before had so many citizens found their voice and demonstrated, protested, and even resorted to violence on numerous occasions. In addition, the media coverage of that era was far more extensive than ever before, providing almost the entire country with up-to-the-second news and opinions, and other fuel for the fire. Subversiveness was kind of the norm and maybe that played a part in Harris' re-interpretation of library history.

Laura Elizabeth said...
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Laura Elizabeth said...

I wouldn’t say that library founders and philanthropists were attempting to control the lower immigrant communities through libraries, as much as they were attempting to influence them. I think it is a part of our ego-centric human nature to attempt (perhaps unconsciounsly) to encourage others to be like us, or for us to at least hold a desire for people to be like us. Any “threat” the immigrants held would be of a moral nature and not of a physical/power one. After all, isn’t an educated lower working class is more of a “threat” to the upper class than an uneducated lower working class?

Libraries can have a high amount of influence on their patrons, which in a way is a type of social control. However, they have no control whatsoever over the amount of influence that patron allows them to impart upon him or her.

I think Harris’ claim that the existence of the public library is in jeopardy is a wee bit rediculous, but his entire article seemed to come from a completely different angle than any other we have read so far. Some historians portray library history in a glass-half-empty fashion, but this glass didn't seem to have any water in it at all. This article is the first article I have read that has portrayed Melvin Dewey in less than an ultra-positive light*. The article definately caused my eyebrows to raise more than once, but it has also challenged me to more critical of the articles we are reading. I am not ready to accept this article as truth, but perhaps that is because I just don't want to believe that the elite upperclass had so much more influence on libraries than the librarians themselves.

Public libraries still serve as an important part of a community, even if that community neglects it more than it should. The libraries in my area, for example, have developed wonderful reading programs for young children (under 5) during the school year that are very popular among the children and the parents. And as long as public libraries still provide a variety of reading, I still forsee older readers perusing the shelves of the public library for many years to come.


*[Librarians, led by men like Melvin Dewey, spent the majority of their waking hours attempting to reduce library work to a “mechanical art,” and their mind-numbing articles weighed heavily upon the pages of Library Journal.]

Hannah Gray said...

What I found to be the most fascinating aspect of Harris' articles were his assertions about librarians themselves. Instead of paying attention to the "public library myth" I was drawn in by Harris' descriptions of the librarian of yesterday and today's myth. "Librarians," Harris asserts, "seemed to feel that they enjoyed a mandate from God to enlighten the immigrant and went about their various tasks in a spirit of authoritarianism that reminds one of the 'moral stewardship' of an earlier generation of librarians" (2512). Harris further encourages the myth of the stern and tyrannical librarian and though his claims may be true of many librarians (in fact I have known of few to fit this profile), I think these comments are really more of an over-generalization than anything else. As another blogger pointed out neither Harris nor Dain claim to be using statistical analysis in their writings. However, many of Harris' claims are not backed up at all.
It is true, however, that Harris offers a real opportunity for change by pointing out the flaws of the American Public Library System rather than writing a fawning, self-congratulatory piece. Many of his gross over generalizations in their criticism, however, offer no suggestions for change. Harris instead offers that librarians were "convinced that most Americans were unappreciative and unreachable, [and so] they became increasingly autocratic and elitist and made their libraries even less appealing to the common man" (2513). I realize that Harris probably did not intend for his article to be the absolute Gospel concerning the history of librarians attitudes, but I still question how he can infer how all librarians thought and acted during a particular time period.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

I think Harris' article raises the issue that Library History needs to become a serious area of study for all library school students, and even history students. We have now gone from patting ourselves on the back to taking a highly critical stance on our past works and deeds within the walls of the library. How will the historians in 30 years view our work today, in light of Google, technology, the Gates Foundation and so on? Laura's comments on the influence of the library are quite pithy. How much influence have certain groups allowed from the library? Was the library a tool of oppression, and I just don't know it yet?