Examining Our Values

June 29, 2014

The Reference and User Services Association’s President’s Program on Saturday afternoon offered a wide-ranging look at how academic and public libraries developed their traditional service values.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, philosophy and religion librarian at Princeton University, called upon the research he conducted for his book Libraries and the Enlightenment to explain the origins of the 20th-century academic service model. Prior to the early 19th century, university library collections were small and often built on the materials amassed by teachers and students. “The primary purpose of higher education in the 18th and earlier centuries,” Bivens-Tatum said, “was to pass on inherited knowledge, so collections were limited to classic texts.”

However, Prussian philosopher and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt changed all that around 1810 with an education system that brought Enlightenment values to academe. Following the lead of philosopher Immanuel Kant—who wrote, “Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of the enlightenment”—Humboldt changed the ethic from teaching inherited knowledge to the examination of knowledge in the light of reason and criticism.

This “German model,” Bivens-Tatum said, spread throughout Europe and eventually made its way to the United States. As university faculty embraced the philosophies of “freedom to learn and freedom to teach,” academic libraries took on a new role: “As long as scholars dare to know, libraries can dare to help them know.” This required an ongoing commitment to the advancement of knowledge through collection development, the establishment of cataloging and classification rules, an active reference function, interlibrary loan systems to access external materials, and large academic buildings to house these operations.

American public libraries absorbed some of the German model in the mid-19th century. The tax-supported Boston Public Library was established in 1854 to “educate the citizens of a democratic republic.” However, public libraries as “universities of the people” did not work out exactly as expected, and, as Wayne-Bivens put it, “by the 1980s it was clear that the people did not want to be elevated,” at least in the way academia was doing it.

Florida State University LIS Professor Wayne Wiegand drew upon the research for his forthcoming book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, to examine what people really value about public libraries. “It’s important to take a look at the American public library in the light of the user perspective,” Wiegand said, “a bottom-up view that reveals the actual voices of public library users.” Wiegand examined many published memoirs, biographies, manuscripts, archival documents, letters to the editor in newspapers, and journal articles to find out how libraries resonated with Americans.

“It turns out that people love their public libraries for three major reasons,” Wiegand said. “These are the useful knowledge made accessible within, the safe and open public spaces, and the stories libraries circulate (fiction, or recipes for the imagination).”

“We are acting as if the library as a community center is something new,” Wiegand said. “But in 1915, the two African-American branches of the Louisville (Ky.) Public Library were doing everything that 21st-century libraries are striving for now, except the technology.”

Wiegand offered numerous examples of famous people who would never have flourished without the stimulus of a public library: Thomas Edison, who in 1867 compiled a bibliography on electricity in the Cincinnati (Ohio) Public Library; Martin Luther King Jr., who at 10 years old came many times into the African-American branch of the Atlanta Public Library and found intellectual nourishment and the mentorship of a friendly librarian; and a young Bill Clinton, who came into the Garland County Library in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and read every book he could find on American Indians and the West.

The value of public libraries was localized by the final speaker, Las Vegas–Clark County (Nev.) Public Library Executive Director Jeanne Goodrich, who reminded everyone that although her library is not yet 50 years old, it is second in the US in circulations per capita. “We serve 1.5 million people in a 5,000-square-mile area,” Goodrich said, “in an area that has been hit hard by the recession. Most of our users work in the service industry for minimum wages and tips.”

“Our motto is ‘Read, Learn, Achieve,’” Goodrich said, “and we actively help our users do what they need to do, especially with the online applications that are required for service jobs. We just got a note last week from a user at one of our branches who expressed how thankful she was for the library providing a ‘safe, happy environment’ that offered ‘structure, discipline, and knowledge’ for her family in a ‘clean, spotless, well-maintained facility.’” She added, “We see that appreciation replicated every day.”



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