Friday, June 3, 2016

Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library - by Wayne A. Wiegand

Wayne Wiegand was one of the first people I remember learning about in library school in the early 1990s. He was like the E.F. Hutton of libraryland, whatever he said was gospel. When I took a course on Scholarly Communication and we learned about how the peer-review process worked, it was also explained to us that there were certain people who would always get their works published, Wiegand being one of them.

Predictions of the demise of the public library are common in the twenty-first century. I've certainly heard them myself. After all, everyone can access whatever they want from their own home computer, right? People who work in libraries can tell you that libraries are still used, and loved, by the many people who frequent them. They are safe havens after school for students, places for those who do not have internet access at home to research and job search, and according to this New York Times article, the trendy hot spot for the under-five set (for story time). I expect libraries will be around for a while yet. They do however, evolve, and, as always, librarians will be at the forefront of the changes. Just as libraries 100 years ago sponsored cooking, sewing, and English language classes when the need became evident, libraries today have started loaning out tools, gardening supplies, cake pans, and seeds in response to demands.

In reading this book I was especially interested to find out about how librarians' own views of their profession and duties have transformed. Whereas today we librarians largely see our roles as connecting people with whatever information they want, many of our ancestors saw themselves more as gatekeepers. When the Boston Public Library opened in the mid 1800s it had rules in place to "protect ladies' delicate ensure that none got questionable materials" And for a very long time librarians put a lot of pressure on themselves to make sure their patrons read "good" books, by which they meant non-fiction. It seems that there was quite a bit of hand-wringing over the fact that most people wanted to read fiction. Some libraries considered not stocking any, others required that patrons who wanted a fiction book, also had to check out a non-fiction work. Once librarians conceded to keeping fiction, they then clashed with their patrons about what was considered "trashy". The people wanted series fiction. Librarians saw this as frivolous. From Horatio Alger, to Nancy Drew, to the Sweet Valley High series the same debates have played out for over 100 years.

Questions about censorship, and what constitutes it, have been a perpetual theme in libraries. Are librarians guilty of censorship when they select certain works over others? Is it ever okay to remove a controversial work from the collection? Who gets to decide? Libraries may reflect their own community standards, but often librarians are helping to create those standards. During World War I patrons were likely to find books about Germany (or written in the German language) had "disappeared" from their local library shelves. By World War II, however, librarians were more actively fighting censorship. It was just before the United States' involvement  in the war that the Library Bill of Rights was adopted and waiting lists grew for library copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf.

One new thing I learned about in this book was the word "Inferno" used as a place that libraries designate to "sequester certain books" which must then be specially requested. Librarians are then put in the place of deciding whether or not the requester should be able to have the book. I have been aware that many libraries have such policies, I did not know that there was a special word for it.

While librarians today are sometimes characterized as "hysterical" liberals our profession has not always shown itself to be as actively politically as might now be expected. I was surprised to learn that the American Library Association took no stance on desegregation of libraries in the south during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Throughout the book, though, what I saw was that "the more things change, the more they stay the same". Librarians used the same excuses for refusing to purchase Valley of the Dolls in 1967 as they did in 2014 for not buying 50 Shades of Gray: it wasn't the content they objected to, but rather that the books were poorly written. This is really hogwash. No librarian reads all the books they purchase. All libraries have poorly written works in them. When reading about Madonna's 1992 book Sex ("largely a book of nude photos") I realized that binding the book with cheap spiral was probably the biggest favor the pop icon could have done for librarians. They could refuse to purchase the book based on the fact that it was poorly bound, and would not hold up to wide circulation. Just the kind of thing that was probably already part of the many libraries' collection development policies. A search of WorldCat indicates that today there are only 215 libraries in the country that own a copy. I seem to remember that when I worked at a public library in Texas one of the nearby libraries owned a copy, but it was in the "Inferno". I do recall, though, that at least we librarians got to make a lot of jokes at the time about whether or not we should have Sex in the library.

People still "cover up" Mickey's naked body in Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (I discovered shorts pasted on the otherwise bare protagonist in my own (academic) library's copy of the book. Reading about people listening around a radio at the New York Public Library to hear the news that Pearl Harbor had just been attacked in 1941was reminiscent of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the public library I worked in set up a television set in a meeting room so people could follow the news. We did the same thing when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced.   Just as in the 1960s people of color, and LGBT individuals, struggle to find books that represent their own experiences; and libraries that serve largely African American populations find themselves with fewer resources that those that serve affluent white communities. And yet, despite all the naysayers and budget cuts, people still love their libraries and  librarians still do change lives.

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