Monday, March 13, 2006

"In Service to the State: Wisconsin Public Libraries During WWI": The upside of "Bowling Alone"?

Ignoring the section on censorship and fervent, frankly toadying desire of librarians to be seen as "patriotic", even the first part of this article on libraries' efforts to support the war effort serves as a cautionary note for those who claim that a robust civil society is an unalloyed good. Someone should send a copy of this to Robert Putnam. The slavish obedience with which libraries and "150 other organizations" mentioned in this article offered to the federal government to support the war demonstrates a kind of cheerful insanity.

To me it seemed that mere jingoism and hysteria isn't enough to explain to ardour with which librarians went about this awful work. It seems more that they wanted so badly to be seen as real "professionals"--and particularly, to convince, "Young men that library work is a profession." (emphasis mine)--that ethics fell by the wayside. You could even see this as a miniature parable of modernism or of the First World War itself: A desire to be "modern" and "useful" that blinded people to the idiotic consequences of their actions.

2 comments:

Nancy S. said...

Jeremy makes an interesting point that I also picked up on. It seemed as though librarians were working so hard to be seen as professional and forward themselves as professionals through war work. Especially interesting was the effort to prove librarianship could be a "male career" by serving servicemen well. I could only smile when later in the article librarians are assumed to be solely female. When discussing the library science students at Madison she and her are the only pronouns used (not he and his). Interestingly, librarians worked to promote their professionalism but not much seemed to change. Maybe that is because efforts by librarians revolved mostly around stereotypically female concerns. i.e. cooking, gardening, children's programs. Just an idea.

Deanna Olson said...

I have to agree that librarians wanted to be seen as professionals so badly that during the war they gave up striving for uncensorship in an effort to please the public. I am sure that librarians thought that if they supported the war effort by censoring certain types of materials then they would gain the support of the public and society would see librarians for their professionalism. Unfortunately, I think succumbing to the biased opinions of society at the time portrays an unprofessional attitude in the library field and shows just how much librarians were trying to gain the approval of the public to define their professionalism.