Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Diversity and Discrimination in American Libraries

In the six articles we read for this week, I came to relate the articles to one another through two main questions. First and foremost, is the manner in which libraries are used determined by the society that frequents them, or do libraries shape the way that society uses them? Second is the question of the degree to which the ALA is guilty or not guilty of bad behavior over the years as described as Michael Harris--that is to say, are libraries merely tools of elitist suppression and assimiliation...and is this necessarily always a bad thing if it is true?

Article 1: The Use of Library and Educational Facilities by Russian-Jewish Immigrants in New York City, 1880-1914: The Impact of Culture

In this article, author Nelson R. Beck exposes a glaring flaw in Michael Harris's controversial revisionist history. While the author maintains that many of Harris's critiques of formative library culture ring true, he criticizes Harris's own selective use of facts, as well as Harris's own elitism. Beck admits that assimilation into American culture was the goal of many top-down organizations that intended to educate immigrants of all walks of life. "Indeed, Edward G. Hartmann contends that the Educational Alliance, the Aguilar Free Library, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and the older Americanized Jewish population all worked for the assimilation and Americanization of the Russian Jews" (133). Another signal of top-down manipulation came in the form of librarians denying Russian Jew children material in their native languages (of course, some of this appears to have stemmed from demand for such material from adult users). In the end however, it appears (at least according to Beck) that immigrant Russian Jews shaped the use of the library to according to their own needs and because of a desire to be educated due to the conditions prescribed by their native culture--a direct assault on Harris's own assertion that immigrants did not care to be educated. "In spite of slaughter and destruction, the Russian Jews maintained an educational system that reflected and perpetuated their religion and culture. Central to this education was moral training through the home and Synagogue. The scripturers and the Talmud demanded education" (131). For many immigrants, "Americanization" was a voluntary process as since education was important to Russian Jews, they wanted to learn English. Libraries often reflected what their immigrant patrons wanted in the library. There was no shortage of periodicals in the Aguilar Libraries related to Jewish topics, and Jews in New York City started up at least eleven different newspapers. At the end of the article, the author admits that this is merely one case study, and that while Harris's own elitism and "historical tunnel vision" may have been misguided, in order for his vision to be fully refuted, many more immigrant populations' educational habits would have to be examined.

1) To what extent did top-down assimilation strategies succeed? For example, did libraries succeed in creating a generational divide between young Russian Jews and their parents? Did libraries do anything that may have reinforced such a divide?
2) What are some of the ways in which Russian Jews had an impact on the institutions that helped educate them besides some of the reasons mentioned above?
3) Did Jewish culture have an effect on libraries more than libraries impacted Russian Jewish culture as Beck suggests? Is there a way to refute such a claim in favor of a top-down explanation?

Article 2: White Privilege in Library Land

This article proved a bit troublesome for me, because I could only answer half of the twelve "white privilege" questions with an unequivocal "yes." While I would not deny that I benefit from white privilege, I had to question if the twelve questions were indeed fair to the reader. In looking at the numbers provided by John D. Berry, the racial numbers regarding librarians who received higher education library degrees did not change in very significant ways over time--which is self-evidently significant in its own right. Perhaps we have not come as far racially as Americans as we would like to think we have since 1973. The only number that really evolved over this period is the massive growth in the percentage of females receiving upper level library degrees over their male counterparts.

1) Is the growth in females receiving high level degrees (and hence, leadership positions) in librarianship a boon for women's equality, or does it only serve to reinforce irritating gender-related stereotypes within the library field?
2) How many of the questions provided by Barry did you answer "yes" to? Does this number vary depending on where you have worked in the past? Where does Wisconsin generally fit into this twelve question equation?

Article 3: Toward a Multicultural American Public Library History

"If historians choose to see libraries as earlier forms of communication and information technologies, then it might be possible to look for ways in which libraries and their constituents engaged in similar struggles against restrictions, sometimes on the same side and sometimes not" (78-79). This quote lies at the center of the question that I would like to address today. As Cheryl Knott Malone addresses in her essay, a study of library history and culture tends to focus on leaders--the movers and shakers in libraries from the top down. In our own studies of Apostles of Culture and The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown, we have often seen this to be true. By this time, we know the names of all sorts of prestigious librarians in our field today, as well as many of the prestigious librarians of history. Malone asserts that bottom-up activity holds plenty of sway on the library as well. She cites the impact of Polish and Russian Jewish people on library culture in America, for example. She claims that creating a multicultural library history would involve a study of use, users, and nonusers. In creating a multicultural history of Chicago, Malone suggests leaving no ethnic stone unturned in piecing together a bottom-up epic. As Malone cites, "Takaki asserts that only by recovering different pasts, told from divergent perspectives, can a full appreciation of the complexity of United States history can be reached." Too often, such histories are only told from the top-down instead of the bottom-up--a shift to the latter would be helpful in telling a more complete story with respect to any history.

1) If libraries are an earlier form of communication like the article suggests, what parallels can be drawn between the way the library is shaped and the way later communication technologies were shaped (think bottom-up vs. top-down, think technological determinism vs. social shaping of technology perspective)?
2) What are some reasons that historical stories always tend to be told from the top-down? Is it so difficult to imagine a world in which such stories are all told from a bottom-up perspective and the top-down point-of-view is neglected?
3) Why has such close attention been paid to black-white relations in library history as opposed to more focus on American immigrant history?

Article 4: The Ugly Side of Librarianship

This is an article in which Michael Harris's distaste for ALA self-aggrandizement seems to be warranted. While the ALA took responsibilty for immigrants (a widly diverse group), African-Americans were dismissed as being a problem too wildly divergent between various American regions. Such hypocrisy appears to be impossibly thick-headed for a supposedly progressive institution--at least on the surface. Hatred towards black people was intense enough in the South that librarians did not want to alienate their white patrons by admitting black people to their libraries. Again in American history, separate but "equal" was thought to be the only solution. Librarians such as Rachel Harris celebrated the existence of ANY library that catered to the African-American population, even employing the writings of W.E.B. DuBois to back up her position. After all, the library did indeed offer education for those for whom it was lacking. In fact, the opportunities provided by the Louisville Free Public Library (Eastern Colored Branch) allowed some African-Americans to become college students, medical students, or university professors. Through 1950, virtually no library in the South was truly "'unrestricted'" (86). Northern libraries weren't terribly accomodating, either. The ALA was a complicit partner in American racism.

1) Would integration in American libraries circa 1900-1950 have been asking for too much, too fast? Could libraries as well as society as a whole expect to see a backlash from forced integration too early? In matters of racism, is there ever any room for compromise--even though racism is wrong?
2) Why did immigrants receive special attention from the ALA and not black people? Could it be that Michael Harris is right?...that the ALA and other interested parties wanted to assimilate immigrants into American culture?...perhaps African-Americans were deliberately excluded from such assimilation?

Article 5: Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library

The story of Regina Andrews might be considered a story of "middle-up-and-down" as opposed to top down. She was a member of her Harlem community--an active participant in the Harlem Renaissance. From her position within the NYPL, she fought her superiors alongside W.E.B. DuBois for equal pay. Still, this is a bit of a top-down sort of act (while also fighting from the bottom-up)...she was a "mover and shaker" within the library, and eventually came to hold a position of prominence. Regina Andrews invited controversial topics into her library with open arms, but also was in charge of more mundane Family Night at the Library program, a program that died with her retirement.

1) "Perhaps, though, the very ethnic background that at first impeded her progress also gave her the strength to ultimately succeed" (419). Please relate this to Louise Robbins's discussion of Barack Obama and Geraldine Ferraro from last week.
2) Is this story more of a top-down or bottom-up affair? Please explain your answer.

Aricle 6: Gays in Library Land: The Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association: The First Sixteen Years

While the ALA has been cowardly in taking a stand against discrimination in the past, there is an instance of forward thinking that might give Michael Harris reason to pause and take notice. In 1970, the ALA recognized the Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association. This group was responsible for such successes as the Gay Bibliography, the Gay Kissing Booth, and the Gay Book Award. Though "[their] job was as much to unsettle ALA over gay issues as to settle into the ALA fabric," the branch was still nonetheless approved by the ALA and its SRRT. The TGFL had its share of failures too, however. Their Gays in Hollywood Film project, AIDS Awareness Project, and a discrimination survey were all busts.

1) "And I think it was more than chance that ALA was the first professional organization to be liberated by gay activists. Librarians are after all committed to inquiry, the open mind, and dissemination of information" (92). Has it been your experience that this is entirely true of libraries? What about from 1970 to the present day?
2) Could such promotion of LGBT culture be considered top-down indoctrinating elitism as defined by Michael Harris?...or would this be a step foward according to Harris? (I'm asking because I really don't know.)

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