Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Library of Tomorrow...Yesterday!

I ran across this rather lengthy quote while adding to my chapter on libraries from 1914-1916, and was so pleased by it I couldn’t wait to share it with you! It’s from the 1914 annual report, written by Iowa City Public Library’s librarian, Helen McRaith. Unfortunately my Internet was down yesterday (and most of today), so I had to contain my excitement until now:

“The modern idea of the function of a library is this—to study the literary needs of its own community and then to endeavor to meet these needs to the fullest extent, even if tradition must be violated in so doing.
The old-fashioned library was a cloistral place appealing only to the scholar, who moved silently among dust-covered tomes. The modern library possesses a different atmosphere and one more akin to that of a business office; most of the readers have the appearance of seeking information which will be of assistance in their daily problems rather than abstract knowledge.
There is a similar change in the appearance and attitude of the librarians. Formerly they seemed to look on the library as an end in itself and as a collection of interesting curiosities, they were willing to let it remain a stagnant literary pool. Now they must be alert specialists, keen to keep a stream of vital, useful knowledge flowing from the library to all parts of the community.” (Iowa City Public Library 1914 annual report, pg 1).

This reminds me so much of some of the current discussion circulating around the changing field of librarianship, even though it was written almost 100 years ago. Her writing has the same tone of excitement that I feel in my own blog and in reading the posts of other LIS bloggers, about the library as a place of expanding opportunities and of librarians as being people who are redefining the field rather than just participating in it.
There are a couple places in particular where her writing sounds like it could have been lifted out of a modern blog (and then had the language antiquated a bit, of course): there is so much concern right now about justifying the value of libraries, and a lot of that justification comes through pointing out that the library is used for practical purposes, as McRaith says, “…seeking information which will be of assistance in their daily problems rather than abstract knowledge.”
I especially love her last sentence: what a great comparison to the expansion of library science to include (or create) so many information studies-related specialties! Today, the public library is seen as a place where all community members can come in and access information, but there is also a view that access should be protected and increased. The Library Bill of Rights was not adopted until the 1930s, and prior to that there was more of a focus on encouraging ‘good books’ than allowing access to any materials the patron wanted. While her statement could just as easily be talking about guiding the stream of reading through promoting ‘good reading,’ it also sounds a lot like our current discussions of keeping on top of trends, promoting access, and even our discussions of the Internet and libraries (as an Open Access fanatic, it also reminds me of some of the justification we use for OA publication!)
Interesting how history repeats itself! 


  1. Julia, I love this quote! Thank you so much for sharing it with us : ) I'm going to endeavor to use some of her verbiage in the next memo to my boss, maybe something about moving silently among dust-covered tomes... haha!

  2. Yay! I'm glad you liked it :) I'm thinking of calligraphing it into a book, but the calligraphy I'm doing is from such a different time period that I might not.
    You should definitely work her language in to your memo--she's such a evocative writer! Her minutes made book drives sound like the grandest undertakings of the century. Good stuff.