Friday, November 27, 2015

Booknote: Part of Our Lives

Wayne A. Wiegand, Part of Our Lives: a People's History of the American Public Library. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780190248000. 

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: library science, history, Americana
Format: e-book galley
Source: NetGalley

I will be honest and say that I had much higher expectations for this book. If you are a halfway well-informed librarian with some knowledge of library history, you probably know a lot of what this book presents already. The book can be very repetitive at times. At times, it does show some clear biases, and at other times I can't help but wonder what sources the author missed or chose not to include. I found myself making a lot of notes as I read, commenting and responding to much of what the author wrote, so for this booknote, I will focus on those notes instead of writing a more formal review.

For those of you who need a bottom line: The book was mostly OK. I would consider it an optional purchase for libraries. I do not see this book as one for general readers. It's the kind of book that library schools would buy for their libraries; some public libraries may wan it, but as I said, I see this as optional. I can tell you that I do not plan to purchase for my library unless some patron requests it.

2 out of 5 stars.

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Reading notes:

What the author claims the book does:

"This book is an attempt to bolster this soft data by tracing the American public library's history--not so much by analyzing the words of its founders and managers, but mostly by listening to the voices of its users" (11). 

On reading the next passage, I can't help but wonder what the author did not uncover, or did he really miss the many trolls and whiny right wingers that do protest libraries and its contents? I mean, just the various book challenges alone provide some proof. However, later on, the author does reveal some apparent bias against ALA (American Library Association to my non-librarian readers), which while I am no fan of ALA, it does have an Office for Intellectual Freedom that keeps track of that kind of thing (and they are not the only ones to do so):

"But another fact struck me as I mined these databases--there is a relative lack of complaints about and protests against these libraries. By its eloquent silence, that absence strongly supports the conviction Americans have always loved their public libraries" (12).

Why Americans love their public libraries (when they are not bitching about books they dislike or engaging in Internet porn hysterics):

"History shows that the reasons Americans have loved their public libraries fit into three broad categories-- for the useful information they made accessible; for the public spaces they provided; and for the power of reading stories they circulated that helped users make sense of phenomena in the world around them" (12).

I find that also interesting in the sense that today library space (especially ways to reshape that space) seems to be a hot topic in the profession, and yet, even back when libraries were starting out, there were various discussions and arguments on space and its use.

We like to think this is no longer the case, but there are still libraries that are very much reflective of their racist and prejudiced communities. I can recall a certain public library in a town I used to live in that had a very prominent and permanent shrine of Right Wing authors like Limbaugh, Coulter, and Hannity and with no opposing view anywhere in sight. Let's just say that one local public library was not exactly doing very well in "educating their patrons through collections and services" unless it was indoctrinate and promote a certain political viewpoint.

"Public libraries can certainly take credit for educating their patrons through collections and services, but because these collections and services largely reflected values of locally powerful groups, on many occasions, public libraries functioned as obstacles to cultural democracy by perpetuating the racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia their collections supported. At the same time, however, users heavily influenced the choices librarians made" (14). 

To show some things never really change, nor are they new, even in the early days we had the debate of give them what they want versus what is good for them:

"Where social libraries avoided stories depicting romance, murders, hangings, and scandals of popular interest that papers like the Boston Gazette regularly reported, circulating libraries embraced them" (18). 

And speaking of those social libraries in the late 1700s:

"Social libraries needed several conditions to prosper. They had to be in areas transitioning from frontier to populated settlements, gain a footing in the community during good times with adequate per capita income, build upon existing legislation, and offer lecture series and support lyceums" (22). 

Not unlike today where a library does better in an area that has better funding, funding often due to a good area with people making a good income.

On the power of reading, and reading fiction. Though this refers to the 1800s, it can certainly apply today:

"Readers used novels for multiple purposes: as filters for their experiences, to jointly experience similar emotions, to make sense of their daily lives, to develop and strengthen social networks, to form and maintain a sense of identity, to provide a subject of conversation that connected people face-to-face and in written correspondence, and to effect a sociability that the act of reading nurtured" (23). 

Yet all of the above sounds so genteel. I cannot help but wonder how much television, and specially today the Internet and social media have ruined so much of that.

A nice label given to critics to circulating libraries because they circulated fiction and novels:

"slop shops in literature" (24). 

If I ever make a new blog, or I get around to writing that pseudomemoir/novel of my experiences in librarianship, the title will be The Literary Slop Shop.

Could this be a formal start of study and reading rooms in libraries? What I find interesting about the early parts of the book is how many of today's library issues so many "rock star librarians" and "thought leaders" in our profession think are new or revolutionary, and they are nothing of the sort. Social spaces in libraries? Got that. Balancing quiet spaces? Debates over content? Got those as well.

"In 1810 the Boston Athenaeum not only allowed evening 'conversation' in the Reading Room, trustees even ordered that 'rooms be made convenient for that purpose'" (25).

This may be the real reason authority figures disliked and were even outright hostile to fiction and novels:

"By empowering white women, people of color, and the lower classes to rethink societal roles others assigned them, the implicit democratic messages carried by the early nineteenth century novel threatened traditional authorities, including white male church and state leaders" (26).

However, that does not mean libraries were always bastions of equality and democracy, if they ever were given how they often reflect local values, which as we know, are not always positive nor democratic. Point is that while libraries are a positive overall, they certainly are not always paragons of virtue contrary to what happy journalists and celebrity "rock star" librarians and library members may convey.

"Although these libraries nurtured the democratizing tendencies that reading cultivated, none were democratic; most were controlled by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and generally middle-class, adult males who preferred the society of their own kind" (28).

However, others did form their own libraries and literary societies:

"In the North, however, free blacks organized literary societies that sponsored reading rooms and debates and used them to challenge slavery and racism" (31). 

Now, on this, maybe we need to encourage this more in our campus convocations (thinking a bit locally here). I mean, besides the often contrived attempts to somehow relate a class to convocation speakers or performers, which in some cases it's outright forced:

"'To derive the greatest advantage' from a lecture, any listener 'must also read'" (32).

On parents in libraries:

"Just as parents do today, many late nineteenth century parents carefully monitored their children's reading; like today, many children protested. . .in their own ways" (51). 

I was amused by that passage. Really? Parents today are often notorious for one of two things; not monitoring at all, or monitoring to an extreme what their kids, and other kids not theirs, read like biddies.

After a while, the book does get repetitive. I mean, how many ways are there to say fiction was seen as inferior?

I think the next passage says a lot about today, and it's not all good:

"While the new information priesthood tended to look past library service priorities that patrons still used in convincing numbers, many librarian working the desks recognized that users benefitted in their own ways from the reading and the spaces the institutions provided" (237). 

More on what the book does according to the author:

"Part of Our Lives shows that over time American public libraries multiplied, survived and regularly prospered, in large part because they perpetuated practices or eventually embraced changes upon which their users insisted" (270). 

The next passage is where the author seems to flake a bit, seeing the Library Bill of Rights as sort of optional for the sake of compromise and survival. Yet, in real life, it is a Catch-22, but often it is also an indication in the profession of lacking a spine. Again, we also see the bias against ALA. As I have mentioned, I am not a fan of ALA, but I am certainly not a fan of intellectual censorship for the sake of appeasing locals.

"Do public librarians toe the party line and risk alienating large parts of the their community by insisting on LBR compliance, or do they mediate public culture disputes for the community's greater benefit?" (271). 

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This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

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