June 18, 2018

Editorial: Dewey’s ALA Motto Still Works Fine

By John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief

“The best reading for the largest number, at the least cost”

It is vintage Dewey. Carved across the entrance to the model library that the American Library Association (ALA) built at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, it showed the world what the modern library movement had to offer. It is, of course, the oft-forgotten motto of ALA, coined by Library Journal‘s first editor, Melvil Dewey: “The best reading for the largest number, at the least cost.”

The old slogan was invoked again by the newest member of ALA’s Executive Board, Janet Swan Hill, at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego last month, if only to propose that it be dumped because it is “no longer adequately reflective of the aims, mission, and activities of the association.”

The motto fell into disuse and was revived once before. At the 1988 Midwinter Meeting, LJ contributing editor Norman Horrocks, who in San Diego was named to receive ALA’s highest honor, Honorary Membership, saved the day. He explained the history of the epigram and convinced ALA Council to reinstate it.

So, with all due respect to Hill and her seconder in the rescission proposal, Executive Board member Michael Golrick, I am delighted that ALA Council had the good sense and acute historical appreciation to reject rescission and keep the old ALA motto.

Atypical of Dewey’s usual exhortations, the motto is a refreshingly brief statement of what a good library, run by a competent professional librarian, ought to do. It defines the purpose of the exalted work of librarianship in easily understandable, simple language. That is a lot more than you can say for the buckets of spume that pour forth today from ALA’s Council as its members rehash the motto debate on their electronic list, or from ALA’s deliberative bodies on such fundamental matters as the profession’s core values.

Dewey said he thought up the statement some time between ALA’s founding in 1876 and 1892, while riding his horse the ten miles between his suburban home and his office in Boston. Fearing misinterpretation, he explained the phrase in the 1906 run of the journal Public Libraries (p. 55):

…back of all our technical discussion and study for improved methods the supreme thing was to approximate at least the best reading, to make it reach as many people, young and old, as possible, and as a corollary and necessity for efficiency, with the limits we should always find in everything, to utilize the principle of cooperation to make our money go farther, first by combining to supply books for common use in public libraries, since cost made it impracticable for each person to buy all the books he ought to read, and in the next step to increase efficiency of such libraries by adopting every labor-saving method or device that would enable us to do more with the time and money at our disposal….

Old Dewey got it right. “Best reading” is either a value judgment, or it simply means collections carefully selected by librarians to meet that most basic criterion, that they best serve the library users. It may seem like a stretch, but “reading” can mean electronic databases, DVDs, or printed books, as long as we accept the kinds of “literacy” libraries promote these days.

“The largest number” clearly means librarians believe in doing what libraries have always done: provide something for everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest patron.

Finally, lest we misinterpret, “least cost” pertains to carefully managed purchasing and skillfully negotiated licenses and contracts. Dewey agreed that it is part of the library’s mission to provide access to the most expensive book, database, or item for those who can’t afford it for themselves. He would have cheered our modern consortia and the tough negotiators who get libraries and their users the most bang for their buck for library resources.

I rejoice that Dewey’s motto for ALA and librarianship has been preserved. It is a fitting mantra for our association and our profession—one that embraces our future while it respects our past.