Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Apostles of Culture

In reading The Apostles of Culture, it became very clear that Melville Dewey’s ideas for standardizing the library and his contemporaries’ attempts at social control were the defining factors of the early library. While Dee Garrison’s highly developed research on these areas was very informative, I found her discussion of “pernicious” literature and the role of women in the library to be much more fascinating. Overall though, it would have been impossible to really grasp any of the pieces of the library’s history without taking into account Garrison’s thoughtful depiction of its dynamics as a whole.
Garrison’s first job in re-creating the landscape of the 1870’s was to show the reader the class dynamics occurring in that period. For the first time, it was possible for a person to have money without being raised in an upper class family. Thus, there formed two classes: the gentry elite and the business elite. Garrison says that the gentry elite’s response to this shift was to “cling to literary idealism (p 13),” so rather than make any changes, they preferred to try and order the universe around how their sense of things was. The general slowing of religious behavior and less rigid rules about sexuality were just the beginning of cultural changes that completely threw them off balance. The library then seemed to be an attempt to stave off the gentry elite’s feeling that most of the world, and the people in it, were out of control.
With a few exceptions, most of the early librarians were part of this class. Most notable about the early librarians then was a seeming “inability to settle down into their life work (p 18).” Main players included Justin Winsor, William Frederick Poole, and Charles Cutter. These men were the early leaders in libraries, and while they set the tone for a while, already heading into their forties, they were immediately almost a part of the old guard. On the whole, this meant that although they were somewhat innovative at the time for their more passionate attitude toward librarianship and their efforts to increase circulation and organization in the library, they did not seem to accept Melville Dewey’s call to move forward. Garrioson said that Winsor, for example, couldn’t understand Dewey’s “bustling adoration for technical solutions (p 27),” and Poole refused to implement the idea of fixed location books (p 29).
In contrast from these almost shiftless, although well educated early librarians, Dewey made librarianship his life’s work. He was obsessed with not wasting time, and before he had even finished his junior year in college at Amherst, Dewey had created and implemented a new library classification system (p 115). Despite Dewey’s growing reputation as a librarian with novel, useful ideas, Dewey’s business, professional, and personal affairs seemed to be led by one frustrating guiding principle-
“his ability to work mightily for his own advancement while genuinely believing he cared only for the good of others (p 116).”
Dewey’s high moral standards were shared (at least on the surface) by many of his upper class, educated contemporaries. While Dewey did seem to be sincere in his beliefs, the educated elite’s objections on the whole to fiction on the basis of immorality Garrison saw as something more sinister than religiosity alone. There was at the time a population of “religious rabble that challenged established patterns of distribution,” and most literature that the upper class objected to on moral grounds seemed to challenge this as well. Rather than reading this trash, upholders of the status quo were convinced that if unsatisfied labor workers everywhere would just read about business and capitalism, they would suddenly understand “the intricacies of efficient moneymaking (p 47),” and stop striking and forming unions to ask for more money.
In my favorite part of the book, Garrison outlined some of the plots of the objectionable literature of the time. Many of these authors wrote chiefly for women, and their theme centered around “rejection of traditional authority, particularly in domestic life, in religious life, and in matters concerning class distinction (p 75).” These characters- voluptuous, head strong Belinda, dauntless, man subduing May, and Edna Earl, who takes on education and then man with a fervor nearing religious (p 77), all seem a little silly, but for the woman who functioned essentially as a second class citizen, they must have been a breath of fresh air. Moreover, Garrison’s depictions of these heroines demonstrated exactly what most real women of the time were not-especially in the library world.
While Dewey continued to take on libraries with mechanical efficiency, simultaneously endearing and antagonizing library boards with his presumptuousness, Garrison says that he also “openly recruited cultured and educated women to library service (p 128).” This, perhaps equal with the Dewey Decimal System, seems to be have been Dewey’s dubious legacy. Not only did he set the tone for women as the main purveyors of library culture, he also began the trend to pay women less than half of what men made. Even past the middle of the century, women were supposed to feel almost lucky to work, and recognize that their real compensation- the good they were doing, could “never be measured by salary scales…she knows…of that satisfaction which comes of being needed and used (p 228).”
This summary barely scrapes the barrel of the library’s relatively short history. In just under 250 pages, Dee Garrison was able to show her reader not only what she felt where the main motivations of the early library, but also who the main players where, and how the library evolved to eventually come to become what seems very laissez-fair in comparison. Perhaps most importantly was what female librarians accomplished, almost in spite of their low value, which was the eventual creation of vibrant children’s libraries. By the end of the book, I really felt I had a good picture of the best and worst sides of the library, with a dose of thoughtful social commentary to really round it off.

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