The Historical Needs of Libraries

In his second chapter in Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin asserts that there are three conditions which must be met for a library to exist. (1) A centralized population, (2) economic development, and (3) political stability. While it may be possible to have mobile libraries today in the form of digital library resources on roaming networks, the library as an institution must be stationary, as its physical collections are extensive and cumbersome. Economic development is a needed criteria, because individuals need leisure time to read. Also, a workforce with diverse skill-sets and specializations requires access to technical information, which the library is apt to provide. Finally, political stability is a prerequisite as well. While there have been libraries that have historically survived through times of unrest, even war, libraries need political stability to avoid destruction of buildings or property damage. They also need a populace that is relatively content; one that sees the library as an asset for self-improvement instead of something to be exploited.

Library missions emerged with the invention of the printing press in 1454. This led to a diffusion of books and greater literacy rates. Progress, however, was slow to emerge, as Rubin notes that the colonial experiment retarded the development of libraries in the U.S. This stands to reason, as early social conditions were not yet adequate for intellectual activity. In Europe, large University libraries had already been established at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford (Rubin, 44). But having no cultural institutions in place, American settlers were busy with the physical toils of an agrarian society. They did not have the luxury to engage in intellectual pursuits.

Modern library missions started with the Industrial Revolution. There were a few library “experiments” in colonial times, such as the social library and circulating library. These were primarily the province of colonial elites, like Benjamin Franklin. These libraries appear to have largely died with their benefactors, and were replaced by the tax-supported model of public libraries. But with the Industrial Revolution came a capitalistic economy, and a number of different types of libraries appeared such as specialized libraries. There seems to have been a “boom” in library building between 1850-1875. Indeed, academic, public school, and public libraries came on the scene rather quickly during this time. This would be, I would say, the first boom period in library history. The second boom period would come through the enormous philanthropic activity of Andrew Carnegie. “From 1886 to 1919 Carnegie donated $56 million to construct more than 2,000 library buildings, many of them public libraries, in more than 1,400 communities, large and small” (Rubin, 64).

The most intriguing argument to me in Rubin’s chapter on the history of libraries is the one from Michael Harris (1973), suggesting that libraries were created with the goal of ensuring class stratification. It seems that Rubin disagrees with Harris. While this may have been the case with the Boston Brahmins at the Boston Public Library, Rubin goes on to enumerate the many tremendously positive benefits offered by public libraries to minorities in the beginning of the twentieth century. A genuine effort to assimilate these populations offered “library collections and services [which] included books and newspapers written in native languages; programs on U.S. citizenship; classes in English; story hours in native languages; programs on American history and culture; supplementary materials to support school curricula; and help for immigrants in reading letters, sending messages to social service agencies, writing checks, and completing citizenship forms (Rubin, 66).

However, it seems that only newer and “whiter” immigrants were considered in these beneficent services. The African-American population, as echoed by David M. Battles in The History of Public Library Access for African Americans in the South, was perpetually restricted to library service. Battles forces us to reconsider the historical fairness of the library profession. In the 1920s, African-Americans had restricted library access. Libraries had “reading rooms” for colored people, which consisted of – no doubt – books that were considered “on par” with a “negro’s” intelligence. Can you imagine being restricted to books that are basically selected to keep you in a state of intellectual poverty?

Of course, the African-American community was not newly immigrated. They had lived in America for almost four-hundred years by this point. Segregation had deep historical roots, and it was a shame to learn that associations like the ALA did not have a more proactive platform for integrated libraries during the time of Thomas Fountain Blue and Florence Curtis Rising. Today, we see that associations like the ALA have come a long way in assisting minorities. There are now multicultural initiatives, equal-opportunity jobs, and scholarships for ethnic groups. However, there still seems to be a socioeconomic divide that Rubin touched on briefly at the end of his chapter. A divide (a digital divide?) which has made group equality difficult to clarify.


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