Every once in a while, I speculate on an alternative history for public libraries. It seems like they’ve always been embattled, and that makes me wonder if the public library movement could have been successful in any other era.
The late nineteenth century was a boom time in American history. America always seems to be booming and busting in forceful ways, but the late nineteenth century was especially booming. Americans still believed in public education and public projects. Towns and cities that had been cultural backwaters in an age of slow communication started to understand that building a few good cultural institutions – schools, colleges, libraries, symphonies, theaters – that it might actually be good for people.
And of course there was Melvil Dewey doing his best to make librarians into professionals of some sort, instead of the loose collection of bibliophiles and bluestockings that ran what few libraries there were. We got the ALA and a small army of library advocates.
The ALA published little gems like Why Do We Need a Public Library: Materials for Library Campaign in 1910. (Thanks to the kind reader who sent this to me.) Citizens who wanted a public library were instructed to write frequent short articles in local publications. “Make the articles breezy, optimistic, with local application. You can get a library if you are in earnest.” Breezy, optimistic, earnest: I’m not sure one could find better adjectives to describe most of the fluff the ALA publishes still. No cool analysis or deep cogitation for us librarians! We’re breezy, optimistic, and earnest, and we hate popular pseudonymous bloggers who aren’t!
Or this advice: “Keep this fact in mind—Your people want a library and only need pluck and a leader.” Pluck! That’s what so many librarians have in abundance. It gets a bit tiresome after a century, though.
But why or why would “your people want a library”? Reading the list of reasons will tell you what librarians thought would be effective a century ago.
1. It doubles the value of the education the child receives in school, and, best of all, imparts a desire for knowledge which serves as an incentive to continue his education after leaving school; and, having furnished the incentive, it further supplies the means for a life-long continuance of education.
2. It provides for the education of adults who have lacked, or failed to make use of, early opportunities.
3. It furnishes information to teachers, ministers, journalists, physicians, legislators, all persons upon whose work depend the intellectual, moral, sanitary and political welfare and advancement of the people.
4. It furnishes books and periodicals for the technical instruction and information of mechanics, artisans, manufacturers, engineers and all others whose work requires technical knowledge—of all persons upon whom depends the industrial progress of the city.
5. It is of incalculable benefit to the city by affording to thousands the highest and purest entertainment, and thus lessening crime and disorder.
6. It makes the city a more desirable place of residence, and thus retains the best citizens and attracts others of the same character.
7. More than any other agency, it elevates the general standard of intelligence throughout the great body of the community, upon which its material prosperity, as well as its moral and political well-being, must depend. Finally, the public library includes potentially all other means of social betterment.
Doubles the value of an education. Imparts a desire for knowledge. Provide for adult education. Furnishes information to professionals. Furnishes technical instruction. We get down to reason 5 before the word entertainment shows up, and even then it’s prefaced by “highest and purest” (you know, like Black Ops!). Libraries attract the best citizens and elevate the general standard of intelligence! If that’s true, I’d hate to know the state general level of intelligence in the country before public libraries.
Would this work today? If the public library hadn’t been founded in a different age, would it still be founded today? All of these reasons appealed to the desire for intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom, or at least the appearance of them.
The funny thing is, libraries are still capable of aiding intelligence, spreading knowledge, and fostering wisdom. It’s just that usually they don’t. It wasn’t very long until the “highest and purest entertainment” became “the lowest common denominator of popular novels,” because it turned out the public didn’t want intelligent reading or high entertainment. That’s why when public libraries want to seem relevant or popular now, they don’t appeal to intelligence or knowledge, but to videogames and movies. “Get free DVDs at the library!” That’s honest advertising, but would it suffice to found a library?
And don’t forget Andrew Carnegie. He helped found a lot of public libraries, as all librarians know. But what most of them don’t know is that he didn’t just hand money over to towns. The town had to vote to found and continue funding the library. Carnegie knew that libraries could help poor boys become robber barons, but he didn’t believe in giving alms to layabouts. Towns that wanted a Carnegie library had to show they would tax themselves to keep paying for it.
Would the same thing happen now? If Bill Gates went to some town that never had a library and said, I’ll pay for a building and some books and computers if you’ll tax yourselves to keep the library running, how many would? What if he threw in a few DVDs and videogames? Would that help?
The big question is, if public libraries didn’t exist, would they be founded today? I suspect not, but I’ll save my reasons for the next post.