Fwd: Re: The Library-Catalog Wars: ‘Chronicle’ Readers Weigh In

I like what Susan L. Gibbons wrote. Since my interest is in library history,
I’ve done some very quick, and “thoroughly unthorough” research to gather a couple of thoughts that I think are relevant to our situation today. Sorry for the extended quotes, but I think they are highly pertinent.

Incidentally, I got neither of these through a library.
From: United States. Public Libraries in the United States of America: Their History, Condition and Management : Special Report. Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1876, pt. 1. pg. xi
“The Librarian as Educator

The influence of the librarian as an educator is rarely estimated by outside
observers, and probably seldom fully realized even by himself. Performing
his duties independently of direct control as to their details, usually
selecting the books that are to be purchased by the library and read by its
patrons, often advising individual readers as to a proper course of reading
and placing in their hands the books they are to read, and pursuing his own
methods of administration generally without reference to those in use
elsewhere, the librarian has silently, almost unconsciously, gained
ascendancy over the habits of thought and literary tastes of a multitude of
readers, who find in the public library their only means of intellectual
improvement. That educators should be able to know the direction and gauge
the extent and results of this potential influence and that librarians
should not only understand their primary duties as purveyors of literary
supplies to the people, but also realize their high privileges and
responsibilities as teachers, are matters of great import to the interests

I think this gives a good idea of how librarians have traditionally liked to
view themselves, and much of it is still quite true in many ways. But if we
reflect on how much the information world has changed from 1876 (i.e. when
the basis of the modern library catalog was created): shared cataloging,
shared collection development (which has been far less successful), and of
course now, the library is not at all where the “multitude of readers,
find in the public library their only means of intellectual improvement.”
The librarian as educator, an idea with which I concur, must be completely

The other quote is a longer one from Jesse Shera and deals more with the
sociological side of libraries.

Shera, Jesse Hauk. Foundations of the Public Library; The Origins of the
Public Library Movement in New England, 1629-1855. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago
Press, 1949, p. 247-248.
[By the way, there is very strange publication information for this in
Google Books that does not correspond with the item. But, the automatic
citation for this edition that I got from Worlcat gave me a date of 1994 for
some reason!]

“From this increasing pressure for the collectivization of library
facilities the public library emerged. It was born of the desires, needs and
experiences of the people. Derived from European origins, shaped by two
centuries of trial and error, conditioned by the economic and social life by
which it was surrounded and of which it was a part, the public library was
created because it was essential to the fullest expression of human life.
The objectives of its founders were specific and very real. They wished to
promote equality of educational opportunity, to advance scientific
investigation, to save the youth from the evils of an ill-spent leisure, and
to promote the vocational advance of the workers. In short, they were, as
Ralph Beals has pointed out, interested in normative ends–in the
improvement of men and women and through them of society. The hardships of
the frontier had fostered a democracy that was nourished by subsequent
generations–generations to whom the rigors of pioneer existence were remote
indeed. In the preservation of that democracy the library was to play its
part. Mann, Barnard and their followers held that an intelligent and
educated electorate is essential to a democracy, and in the great system of
public education which they foresaw the public library was to be a true
‘people’s university.”

Judged by every standard and measured by every criterion, the public library
is revealed as a social agency dependent upon the objectives of society. It
followed–it did not create–social change. It was an outward and visible
manifestation of the spirit and ideals of the people. Borne on the rising
tide of modern democracy, it evolved as society itself developed, though at
a somewhat slower pace. As society attained greater complexity, as industry
developed and increased its diversity, as populations crowded into congested
city areas, as labor and economic life, largely because of the impact of the
machine, became more and more specialized, the functions of the library
reflected a corresponding intricacy and growing importance.

So the aims, methods, and ideals of the library were modified as life itself
underwent profound social changes. The library, in common with all social
agencies, moved through alternate periods of fluidity and convention but
always responded, in greater or less degree, to its environment.”

This seems to be an almost Darwinian description about how public libraries
were born and developed. Shera’s statement of, “So the aims, methods, and
ideals of the library were modified as life itself underwent profound social
changes.” is especially important for us today and gives me a chance to
(again!) the drum of rethinking the user tasks in FRBR.

Are those tasks, which reflect the purposes of the catalog as defined by
Cutter in 1876, *really* and *truly* what people want and need today? We are
undergoing profound social change, especially in how people communicate in
both social and scholarly ways. People are interacting and relating to
information/knowledge in completely different ways from how they did 50 or
100 years ago. As Shera mentions, libraries have changed but more slowly.
Now that things are changing faster however, and there are other information
agencies out there, we must change faster as well or risk being left as a
lonely back-water.

Still, to expect that anybody is going to sit still for a two-hour seminar
on how to use a traditional library catalog is a little like expecting
people to sit still for a seminar in how to shoe a horse. Some very few may
be interested, but the majority of people have moved beyond.

A few thoughts for a Friday.

Jim Weinheimer