High Culture, Low Culture

In High Culture, Low Culture: The Singular Duality of the Library of Congress, Elizabeth Jane Aikin discusses the Library of Congress (LOC) and its changing collection development policy. At first glance, it appeared that Aikin would be addressing copyright issues, but her main theme in this article is cultural preservation. In particular, Aikin focuses on the Library’s historical selection processes in respect to cultural materials, and the methods by which some cultural artifacts were preserved while others were omitted. This could not have been an easy task. Bear in mind, there was not infinite room at the LOC or the possibility to extend collections into digital space. But the cultural thoughts and activities of any group of people are imbued with significant meaning. To deny the accession of artifacts belonging to a folk culture is to devalue the identity of a large segment of Americans, thus diminishing their representation in democratic society. That is what we are looking at here; the differences between “high” and “low” culture as defined early on by the LOC, and how those in charge historically determined these valuations.

Because the LOC was, in its formative years, the locus of intellectual activity in the United States, the Librarians’ who were in charge of collection policy focused primarily on scholarly interests. Herbert Putnam, the eighth Librarian of Congress, oversaw the collection of materials between 1899 and 1939. In his era, the LOC was to be the trusted authority on intellectually-valid resources. The collection was developed to favor the reading preferences of politicians, philanthropists, and scholars (the wealthy and privileged elite of society). Therefore, the LOC placed a premium on expensive taste. As the “high brows” of society were being considered, the layman or folk hobbyist of the day was largely ignored. So the bulk of American heritage – the popular culture and contemporary rhythms of the day – were rejected.

It is not surprising, then, that European-trained elite were hired for prestigious positions within the Library. It is amazing to think that these elites, and critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries in general, doubted that a unique American culture could form. They believed that the highest achievements in art and literature had already been realized in Europe, and that any artistic works comparable in America would be pure mimicry. This is why the LOC changed its stance only when confronted by particular authorities outside of the Library, who were working on their own collections which eventually proved that there could be a uniquely American cultural heritage.

Indeed, through large private endowments and federal funding, the LOC became a monolith to high culture. But public experts in other fields began to draw the attention of Putnam and his staff. Large projects in ethnology and musicology were catching their attention. For instance, Robert Winslow Gordon‘s collection of American folk songs was a game-changer; a catalyst for collection development policy changes in the LOC. His collection was so extensive, and his rationale for preserving the national memory hidden in oral tradition struck a chord (no pun intended). Although there were political tiffs here and there over control of the collection, the project’s scope changed LOC institutional thinking.


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