Monday, September 13, 2010

Highlights from Library History Seminar XII

I just got back from an awesome conference experience at Library History Seminar XII in Madison this weekend. All of the panels were incredible, and the people there were so supportive and welcoming of me (especially as a new researcher!) I feel so excited about the whole thing that I wanted to jot down some thoughts I had about the topics, and some questions the presentations raised for me.

Let's start with the panels. There were so many good papers on so many topics that I would have a post that stretched for miles if I tried to cover them. So, I'll just jot down a few things that I found thought-provoking and invite comment from others. I can definitely expand on things if you read a point and want to know more!
The first day had a great panel of speakers from Simmons College, who talked about the history of the Boston Athenaeum.  It was great to learn more about the institution, but also to get some in-depth information on different facets of that history. Ross Harvey did an intriguing paper on these review slips that were tipped in to the books at the library, with comments on them from the 1920s (and some up through today). The rules were simple: write a five-word review of the book, and initial your entry. Most of the reviews were (close to) five words, although there were a couple that were way over. People found some pretty creative ways to say their bit in such a short limit! Harvey concluded the session by drawing comparisons between these little slips and with our modern equivalent: book reviewers on Twitter (or short reviews on pages like Facebook and GoodReads). It would be interesting to look at how reviews were/are exchanged in both contexts (the patrons would write rebuttals below other comments), and compare them.

One of the big topics was alternative publishing models (such as zines, but also small-scale operations like staff magazines at British companies). Alycia Sellie gave a talk on zines with a great overview of their different incarnations and the system of distribution (which I love because it flies in the face of a lot of our cherished models of how publishing and distribution take place). She talked about librarians as creators of zines (and I now have some titles I definitely want to check out) but also as collectors of zines within the process of library acquisitions. Alycia's presentation was more on process than on findings, so it allowed some interesting questions to be raised that can then be examined as her research progresses. One thing she mentioned was librarian hacktivists, and the librarian as blogger. She raised two questions that I think are vital to our discussions of alternative publishing but are not given any attention (yet): 1. How many of these blogs are replacing works that would have been in print (i.e. as zines), and how many would not be able to exist without the Internet? 2. How are these blogs being preserved (if they are at all)? Good stuff.
It also got me to thinking about classification, because of course, the way that we label and define the works in our collections shapes the ways our patrons think of those items. For feminist zine collections, how do we draw out feminist themes without taking away from them or forcing them into the hierarchies we've already established? And at what point do such efforts cross the line from item description to a form of activism? This brought me to Emily Drabinksi's paper entitled "Classification as Text: Legible Ideologies, Resistant Readings." I was actually not able to attend her paper, but she sent me a copy (yay!) so I got to read it today. In it, she discusses lesbian identity and the library, and how the naming structures we have in place (i.e. Library of Congress) create boundaries around the terms that describe and homogenize lesbian identities. However, the lack of such a structured naming within digital information creates problems in our abilities to locate common identity and also resistance to structures as they exist. This is a wonderful paper for a number of reasons, but what I love is her reminder that "digital information is still organized information," and that as we navigate a world where readers are dependent upon locally-made medata or tagging schemes, we both open ourselves up to and risk losing the ability to identify how these digital items are being classified, how those classifications differ, and how they resist or reinforce hierarchies.

Jennifer Burek-Pierce and Matt Pierce gave a talk on broadcast censorship, and what I found most interesting was the widely divergent standards regarding broadcasting sex education information. I wonder if we have (besides national standards) more strict or more lenient guidelines in certain places now (i.e. can a certain town/state create additional restrictions)? This and the other talks on broadcast censorship were interesting because I spend so much time looking at print censorship that I lose site of the fact that everything on our TV/radio passes through filters too (I tend to be more aware of this with the Internet).

There's a lot of great work going on that really helps contextualize my own research, and that I'm really excited to read more on. Derek Attig gave a talk on traveling libraries in Kansas, which were set up so that (usually rural) users would be able to have books sent to them so that they and their neighbors could share them. I had come across traveling libraries in my notes (Cedar Rapids' library apparently was getting materials in from German and Bohemian traveling libraries, both from Omaha I think), but Derek mentioned not having heard of any foreign language libraries. We've said we'll e-mail each other if one or the other finds out more, but it definitely makes me wonder how prevalent these language libraries were!
The panel right before ours on libraries in the mid-twentieth century was a lot of fun.  Jean Preer talked about the Indianapolis Public Library, Jane Aiken discussed the Library of Congress, and Mary Niles Maack presented on American reading in France. All the talks were great (and I learned a lot about reading by ex-pats in Paris in the interwar years, and during WWII, along with a great side-by-side look at a large national library when compared with a midwestern public library). Chris D'Arpa asked a great question at the end that I think is important for us today, especially with constantly evolving media formats: What can we learn from these papers that can inform how we keep records today? In my research, I've had many a moment where I have wished a certain document was available or that more had been said on a certain topic. Of course, we can't anticipate the needs of every future researcher, but libraries (especially public ones) may not consider their own records as something of enough value to preserve, especially when space and funds are at a premium. Only one of the libraries I've worked with (Dubuque PL) is actively preserving and even digitizing their historical documents, because of the passion for the project that the director (Susan Henricks) has. One person in the crowd indicated that Wayne Wiegand (who wasn't there) had said libraries tend not to value their own histories, so do not actively preserve. I would be curious to hear the input of readers on how we can preserve library documents (and what we should preserve) in places without budgets or space for such efforts, and how (or if) digital technologies should play a role in this. It's something especially vital for those of us in the LIS schools--D'Arpa underscored the importance of bringing LIS history into the classroom, and more actively connecting with practitioners, as two ways to inform current practice.

I was the last speaker on the last panel of the last day (ack!) and was fortunate to be on the panel with two speakers with wonderful research! Joan Bessman Taylor has been researching censorship in Dubuque in 1951, which took place after several women's groups tried to ban 'filth' from being sold at drugstores. Even though the library was on the fringes of this debate, it still came under fire after the police entered the building and tried to confiscate materials (and subsequently arrested the librarian). The most interesting part of her talk was how the women framed their arguments. We often find the protection of children as being central to discussions of why we should remove items, but here the women mentioned that such materials were also damaging to adults. That approach tends to not work as well 1. because other adults are, in most cases, legally independent of the censor and 2. considered capable of making their own decisions.
Emily Knox spoke next, and some of the same issues were raised. She explored the media frenzy (and the challenge itself) in West Bend, WI in 2009. In this case, LGTB materials were considered harmful to have in the YA section, and censors wanted to see them either physically moved to be shelved with adult materials, or reclassified and/or labeled so potential readers would be 'warned' about their damaging contents. None of this happened, but the same arguments surrounding the protection of children (who might 'stumble upon' a book, open it, and become damaged). Emily has provided me with a new lens through which to view censorship, when she argued that censors who offer such arguments are engaging in reading as religious--in Protestant traditions, our access to the printed text is a path to salvation or a path to damnation, as is our interpretation of it. Thus reading=belief, and the importance of books as a religious tool becomes a source of fear when those books are not filled with the information we wish others to know. This is a really interesting way to contextualize censorship, and something I'm excited to learn more about.

The keynotes were also incredible, with Janice Radway giving a compelling talk on the movement of girl zines from being a small-time production model that was traded between friends/pen pals, to something that's becoming a part of library collections. This was on the same day as Alicia's talk mentioned above, and so I got to learn a lot about the study of zine culture! Radway talked about studying things 'from below' as something that grew out of activist movements of the late 60s that sought to highlight the stories of those normally left out of scholarly discourse. What was interesting was how zine publishing both fit into and challenges this method of examination--while zines are published by a group (teenage girls) who are given less agency than some others, they are also a form of empowerment and a way to create a different self identity within the context of the zine. I loved all this talk about zines as someone who's been a part of that culture, and can now use that experience as a lens through which to view our scholarly discourse.
Wayne Wiegand gave a great lecture on Saturday as well. I should preface this by saying that Wiegand's book on WWI libraries comprises almost my entire literature review for my thesis, so I was very excited to get to see him speak in person (the night before, he also gave me his box of notes he had compiled on WWI libraries, so I was feeling particularly excited about things that day!) He has been working on a project to compile information about 'Main St. Public Libraries,' i.e. those in smaller towns, which (he often reminds us) outnumber McDonald's restaurants in this country. The whole lecture was great, and a couple points in particular made my ears prick (in a good way). The first was a reminder that libraries have steadily been getting busier as time has gone on: all of these libraries have more patrons and higher circulation than ever before. One could argue that this might in part be due to population growth, but I would argue that can't account for all of it. Even as far back as my research (1912-1920), libraries are reporting increased circulation and more patrons in 1912, and are reporting record circulation numbers by 1919. He also reminds us of the importance of fiction as a tool not only for entertaining, but also educating and empowering. There has been a long tradition of devaluing fiction (unless it falls under the umbrella of 'The Classics'), where much of the library literature from the time I am studying is trying to promote 'good reading' and de-emphasize fiction for pleasure. Fiction always circulates heavily (although Elizabeth Aiken's research found this to be less true in the Library of Congres during the Great Depression), so it seems interesting that it was so often brushed aside as being lower quality. The big take away though was the role the library plays in these communities. Our discussions of the library often give it many roles (as a community center/meeting space, place of learning, provider of information, etc), but there was one role Wiegand mentioned that I never considered. The libraries in the small towns he looked at all tended toward reinforcing community norms, not in the sense of yanking everything off the shelves that smacked of difference, but more in the sense of subtly adapting to what the demands of the community were. The library thus became seen as a 'safe' place that upheld virtues of togetherness and learning that communities value, and a space for meeting with others (as well as a safe space for breaking the ice for strangers and those new to town). Looking at libraries through this framework helps me contextualize why libraries in WWI Iowa would have not seen censorship as being wrong, per se, not only because it was a part of the mindset, prevalent at the time, that all things German were 'bad,'but also because it was a part of operating in that community. I would be interested to see how the library operated as a safe space for immigrants in Iowa--I know there was a push for Americanization during the time to try and assimilate immigrants, but what role the library played beyond that is as of yet unclear. The last point is our notion of 'public:' Wiegand mentions that never more than 66% of community members hold a library card, so the library is never truly 'public.' What I am curious about it who makes up this group, and why they feel either uninterested in or intimidated by the prospect of a library visit.

Also, I want to thank the folks who came and saw my presentation (and those who've read the transcript since!) and have given me comments. I definitely know now that I need to articulate population statistics more clearly (which I have Census data in the thesis document, but not, alas, in the presentation), and also that it would be *really cool* if I could find something on the patron perspective. I haven't found any records left by German-Iowans yet (or at least, none talking about the libraries), but if anyone knows of anything, please send it my way! I have a Prezi that I made for the talk, and I would be happy to share the transcript with anyone via e-mail who is interested in reading it and giving me their thoughts.


  1. Your notes about Wayne Wiegand and Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa are interesting. Have you seen this short blurb by Wayne Wiegand on library history?

  2. I hadn't seen that--thanks for sending it along! It's interesting how the piece reinforces the notion of reading the 'best books' and devaluing fiction reading. This might be a good tidbit for creating context for my own research. Thanks again!