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Illinois librarians go West at the turn of the 19th century

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From Library Journal, 1921

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Dee Garrison's Apostles of Culture

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Over the weekend, I gave a quick skim to Dee Garrison's influential and much-cited book, Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920.  It is wonderfully written introduction to the leaders of the public library movement (Poole, Cutter, Winsor but especially Melvil Dewey, who occupies a third of the book).  The main issues developed are the "great fiction question" and the feminization/professionalization of librarianship....chock-full of interesting facts and observations about the public library movements.  What is remarkable, for an economist, is that Garrison's book, and the truly enormous library history literature she is participating in, has absolutely no idea of the validity of the rhetoric that is the object of discussion!

That is, did access to libraries quell the rising tide of class resentment and conflict that surged with industrialization in the 1880s? Did "low fiction" affect readers in any particular way?  Would people who only had access to "high fiction" turn out "better" in some measurable way?  If libraries had not insisted on cleanliness, would more workingmen have come to read?  If librarianship had been a male profession, would libraries have evolved differently?

In the great library debates,it was these counterfactual questions that were at stake, and yet for all their insistence on knowledge and scientific approaches to problem-solving, librarians had very little understanding of how to answer these questions.  Admittedly, almost nobody else did either, and indeed it was not until Ronald Fisher publicized in 1935 the nascent emerging consensus on experimental design. But the lack of modesty on the part of the library leaders is somewhat disconcerting, and surely their "critics" like Garrison and others in library history should remark that they are aware that there is actually no credible evidence one way or the other (maybe the apostles of culture were right, who knows!?).
It's from BiblioBitch... there, I get to write that!

Everyone knows librarians are just timid, dowdy women who spend all their time in a room full of books perpetually "shush"-ing people, right? Rest assured, we can now say confidently that that stereotype, while not only false and played out, is also wildly historically inaccurate! In her book Cultural Crusaders; Women Librarians in the American West 1900-1917, Joanne E. Passet outlines a thorough, fascinating, and charming history of Progressive Era librarians that gives context to the library systems we enjoy today while also shedding light on the great deal of hard work these women put into starting the US American West's first libraries.

Library schools started to gain popularity in the late 19th century, around the time that Andrew Carnegie tempered his huge wealth with social services like library creation in the United States. ... Librarians could find themselves in charge of fancy new "Carnegie Libraries" that housed outdated or unappealing materials that were rarely used by the communities they were in. Despite these obstacles, successful librarians could transform their libraries into the cultural centers of their towns through the creation of traveling libraries for especially rural ares and community-building exercises for the more developed locations. According to the book, librarians were often found "working alone, and with inadequate supplies, they took short cuts in the mechanical work in order order to create time for work in the public," and "while few could be categorized as radical feminists, they did blend feminist ideals with rational values and an ethic of caring as they extended their spheres of influence throughout the region." Despite many limitations, these librarians were dedicated to the mission of fostering a rich and educated American culture.

Librarians were often unmarried women who lived in boarding houses or with the town's schoolteachers, and it was not uncommon for these women to bring a widowed parent with them out to the west for a chance at a fresh start. ...Granted, the freedom of being a librarian in the west during this time was unparalleled: women were trained to be respected and valued members of the community, trusted with the task of educating and exposing their neighbors to the literary lifestyle, and they had the option of seeking new work in a huge variety of locations. These "cultural crusaders" pioneered a profession that gave other women a chance to join in academic and educational pursuits as well as create a literary community wherever they went.

If you're interested in learning more about women during the Progressive Era or the history of libraries in the US, this quick read comes highly recommended for its funny anecdotes, thorough research, and engaging biographies of four of the west's most prominent women librarians.


I really enjoyed reading this.... Wiegand's basic thesis is that libraries were established by Midwestern protestant elites as mechanisms through which the virtues they appreciated of civicness could be expressed.  In the back of the local elites minds was the hopeful idea that libraries would contribute to local social harmony.  And by and large, their bet paid off.... in the 50 years after the Civil War, when the entire nation had been militarized, and huge swathes destroyed, there was remarkably little social disharmony in these thousands of Midwestern towns.  (The South is another story of course!)

Here's a blurb from the Mitchell County Press News...

The former Osage Public Library (now the location of Osage City Hall) is featured in a new book that was released just last week. The classic Carnegie library here is one of four Midwest libraries featured in the book "Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956, published by University of Iowa Press. American library historian Wayne Wiegand is the author of the book.

In addition to having its own chapter, David Rottinghaus, a local artist used the old "Sage Public Library" as a background for a painting he entitled "Little Bird Watchers."  The Rottinghaus image was used for the book's cover.

The book, which featured libraries in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan is available at the current Osage Public Library, (constructed in 1995) and will soon be available nationwide. The American Library Association is also reviewing the book in major periodicals.


Did the Civil War cause Americans to become readers?

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I was skimming a fun book by library historian David Kaser Books and Libraries in Camp and Battle: The Civil War Experience where he suggests that in 1860 American men were pretty much 90% literate and books had become incredibly cheap (especially with the introduction of the dime novel, introduced in 1860 at the advent of the war, primarily as the price of paper continued to plummet),

But men had almost no time to read.  Male culture at the time emphasized work and sociability, and reading would have been an odd pastime (pace Lincoln?!). 

The civil war unintentionally gave millions of men unprecedented amounts of idle time, as they sat in camps awaiting orders etc.  With little entertainment, men turned to reading light fiction in massive numbers, which Kaser compellingly demonstrates through extensive anecdotes from letters written back home during the period and other evidence.  Once bitten with the escapism of light fiction adventure tales, men kept on reading and the book industry flourished.  So a large constituency that might have been quite hostile to spending public money on libraries, may have become very encouraging!

Hope for libraries even here in the U.S.!

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A new library?  Incredible!

A vast building in McAllen, Texas, was once home to a Wal-Mart -- but no longer. When the discount superstore moved to a larger location, it left behind a vast empty building. The community took advantage of the space and converted the warehouse-like building into a public library.

The size of more than two football fields, the McAllen Public Library is the largest single-story library in the country, the website PSFK writes. Its conversion from vast warehouse space to functioning library has recently made it the winner of the 2012 Library Interior Design Competition by the International Interior Design Assn. 


Adriana Ramirez, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, grew up in McAllen. "The old library on Main Street was not beautiful," she told Jacket Copy. "It was packed with books and seemed too small for the people it serviced. Of course, that was part of the charm -- always waiting your turn for the computer and spending a good amount of time finding a corner where you could read uninterrupted. The new library solves all that."

HT: Bill Sundstrom

Progress in Texas public libraries in 1915?

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When you come across something like this, in the Texas legislature statutes from 1915, it really makes you wonder about calculating all the tax payments that black people (virtually all descended from slaves and disenfranchised but taxpaying in the South from around 1880-1960) made that went to pay for services for white people only...

libraries in texas.JPG

History: Library philanthropy with no effects...

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We like to think that philanthropy isn't wasted, but there are plenty of stories of how a generous impulse ended up with little to show for it.  See Playpumps.  There are a host of reasons. 

As I continue with background research on history of libraries in the late 1800s in the United States, I am continually amazed at some of the stories of individual philanthropy.  Today, though, was a distressing story.  I came across this pithy summary of the library philanthropy of William Maclure a wealthy Scottish immigrant, world traveler and geologist who donated his fortune to establish libraries in Indiana (after a falling out with Robert Owen's New Harmony society in Illinois):

"In a number of towns in Indiana and a few in other States free libraries for workingmen have been established through the liberality of the late William Maclure of Philadelphia whose gifts and bequests for this purpose amounted to about $150,000 in sums of from $400 to $500 for each library With two or three exceptions these libraries have been unfortunate and many of them have become extinct Seventeen of them in Indiana reported in all 11,495 volumes in 1874 75 with a total circulation of 13,380 volumes Only two reported a yearly income which for both amounted to but $110. The administrator of the estate writes: "As all the funds of the estate have been expended and as there is no mode of forcing the societies to carry on the intention of the testator the libraries will probably be lost""  From Public Libraries in the United States of America, Issue 4, Part 1, 1876, p. 454.
So his fortune established perhaps 300 libraries (at $500 each; remember that around 1840 a book cost only about 30-50 cents $100 would have purchased 200 books, more than enough for a nice small town library in 1840).  But only 17 appeared to be functioning in 1876, 35 years later.

One of them was the library of Poseyville, possibly:

In the early 19th century, a Scotsman named William McClure came to Southern Indiana. He was interested in the education of the working man, and upon his death left his property so that each Township in the State of Indiana could recieve a portion to be used for the 'Workingmen's Library'. Robb Township was given $500. A selection of books was made and a small 2 room cottage was rented, becoming Poseyville's first library. 

1861 began the Civil War. Poseyville's young men left the area to join the fight. Interest in the library ceased.  In 1901 the state of Indiana passed a law giving the right to levee a small tax for the support of libraries. Poseyville incorporated and officially became a town in 1901 and had a township library. The Town Hall was built, and the upper room was furnished by Mr. George Waters and books were moved into it. Miss Ottie Sands was elected its librarian.

Between 1901-1904 George Waters wrote to Mr. Andrew Carnegie to establish a library in Poseyville. At first there was no response to this letter. Mr. Waters went in person to meet with Andrew Carnegie about building a library in Poseyville. He recieved little encouragement. He was not easily discouraged, and wrote to Mr. Carnegie again. This time the reply came and stated that if a site were found and 10% of the money could be raised as permanent support, the sum of $5000 would be given.  Mr. Leroy Williams donated the ground for the library to be built upon. Andrew Carnegie supplied the $5000 in 3 installments for the building of the library and later donated another $500 for library furniture.
Now I want a grandchild named Ottie Sands, of course.
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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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