Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Public Library Inquiry

This article by Robert Leigh describes the results of a study investigating the status of public libraries in the 1950s completed by a group of social scientists. The questions below come from Molly, Alycia, and Tonia.


The social scientists who performed the inquiry into the public library system entered into their research with a set of basic assumptions and premises about the public library system based on their conceptualizations of the type of society our library system had originated from. The author outlined his six basic assumptions in regards to freedom of communication, the opportunity to learn, popular control and expert direction, special groups and mediating function, centralization and local participation, and technological change and institutional tradition. Are these issues still the six most important issues when looking at the functionality of libraries? Have the interactions between these factors changed due to changes in our legislation, level of technological advancement and popular culture?

The study also predicted that “conflicting concepts and values will appear in the description of library policy and practice,” and that many of the public library’s main problems would arise out of their attempt to reconcile those conflicts (11). Are any of the conflicts and problems later discussed in the study “new,” or are these problems that have also been coming up within the profession in library history up to this point?


What does the Leigh article, which describes the status of public libraries at the end of the 1940's tell us about who was using the library in the Barelson article? Does Leigh's article add any perspective as to why some groups would or would not appear prominently at the library, or do you think Leigh's perspective differs from librarians of this period in terms of what he thinks is valuable reading material? How do the problems or controversies regarding popular fiction (that we have discussed in the past and that are
mentioned here) inform us about who might use the library in this time period or about who might find the library the most useful?

From Christine Pawley's book we know that there were often many diverse groups of people within one geographic area served by a public library, and that within a larger community there may be smaller "imagined" communities networked through commonalities in thought or opinion. Do you feel that Leigh or Barelson are making assumptions here about who they are referring to when they talk about the "community" or were users of the library (any readers of these articles) predominantly white, middle class urban folks so that it is justified to use assumed values of the middle class in arguing against having popular culture, fiction and "trashy" or "unorthodox" materials widely available in the library? Does the dominant culture (whatever it may be within different libraries or areas) always dictate what is found in the library rather than "imagined" communities or minority groups and values? Does the Library Bill of Rights have any effect on this?

What does it mean that Leigh's study was 1. completed by sociologists
(or non-librarians) within a sociological framework 2. requested by the
ALA and 3. funded by the Carnegie Corporation, if anything at all? How
should these facts inform our reading from what we have learned of
these aspects in class thus far?

Do the social scientists’ conclusions about public libraries differ from the perceptions provided by librarians? How does their conclusion regarding library schooling that “it would seem desirable to distinguish sharply between instruction for nonprofessional technical jobs…and graduate instruction for the professional degree” compare with our knowledge of library schools and the desire of librarians to establish themselves as professionals up to this point? Consider the conflict between the status of professionals and paraprofessionals in libraries today. Has the social scientists’ recommendation for library schools been resolved?

3 comments:

Laura Elizabeth said...

[Do you feel that Leigh or Barelson are making assumptions here about who they are referring to when they talk about the "community" or were users of the library (any readers of these articles) predominantly white, middle class urban folks so that it is justified to use assumed values of the middle class in arguing against having popular culture, fiction and "trashy" or "unorthodox" materials widely available in the library? Does the dominant culture (whatever it may be within different libraries or areas) always dictate what is found in the library rather than "imagined" communities or minority groups and values?]

To what extent does funding impact the debate over shelving types of popular culture, fiction, and “trashy” or “unorthodox” materials? If you have a small budget, don’t you want to provide the items that the greatest amount of readers will check out? It just doesn’t make sense why librarians would want to purchase items any library member is likely to read. If no one requests certain kinds of materials, should librarians have to spend dollars of their precious budget to buy them? But if interest is shown, how large does the selection have to be in order to ensure representation?

[What does it mean that Leigh's study was 1. completed by sociologists (or non-librarians) within a sociological framework 2. requested by the ALA and 3. funded by the Carnegie Corporation, if anything at all? How should these facts inform our reading from what we have learned of these aspects in class thus far?]

I would imagine that it would be advantageous for the study to be completed by non-librarians to prevent any potential biases from sneaking into the research information. I don’t think that the fact that the study was requested by the ALA and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, primarily because of the non-librarian researchers.

By the way, this was a great set of questions. They were a bit intimidating being all grouped up together in one post, but they were still really great questions all the same.

Eileen H. said...

To answer your first set of questions, I think that six basic assumptions outlined by the researchers are still major issues in public libraries today. Libraries are still viewed today as a place that provides people with the "opportunity to learn". Many librarians still work tirelessly today to protect the "freedom of communication" by opposing censorship. This just touches on two, but connections can be drawn to the other issues mentioned as well.

While reading this article I was struck by how many of the recommendations made for the "direction of development" are things that actually have taken place in libraries. Particularly, the discussion on the need to create larger public library systems to gain greater financial support and to pool resources. This is clearly seen today in library systems and consortia. In addition, they talk about making connections between school libraries and public libraries, since "for the next decade neither..is equipped or operated so as to perform the whole function itself" (p. 233). I think today there is still a lot of overlap between the two and coordinated programming often occurs.

I agree with Laura, that the fact that social scientists rather than librarians conducted this study has the benefit of bringing in a different perspective--one that is not so intimately connected with what is being studied.

Emily Schearer said...

I think these questions, as most of the questions we have discussed in class, relate back to what we think the purpose of a library is. As an institution of the community there is a need and responsibility of the library to represent both the mainstream and smaller “imagined” groups within a community. Basing a collection on circulation data and requests, while very pragmatic, seems like it would harm the ability of the library to service all of the potential users. There are monetary restraints on what libraries can and cannot do, but does that justify the denial of access to materials that a portion of the community deems unorthodox? What about the possibility that some of these “imagined” communities are underrepresented users of the library, because they know that the material of interest to them is not available. Is it up to them to force the library to be accountable to their needs, or should the library actively recognize them as part of the community and pursue a policy of inclusion? I guess it is easy to be idealistic about this when you have no experience with the problems of budget constraints or outside pressures in the real world. Laura talked briefly about budgets, but I would like to hear more responses and experiences that some of you may have with this on a daily basis.