Reframing the narrative: Upcoming CARL Conference paper

Posted on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm in

Do you know any exciting examples of historic academic library educational innovations? I want to know about them, and here’s why: my contributed paper proposal for the forthcoming CARL Conference was accepted. It’s titled Reframing the narrative: Librarians as innovators in the past and present, and it’s all about the educational innovations derived from the work of academic librarians. Of course, writing the application was the easy part — now it’s time to research and write! The conference assembles in April of 2016.

In keeping with the conference theme, What we talk about when we talk about value, my paper is going to argue that contrary to popular perception, academic libraries have a remarkable but often unknown history as centers of innovation on campus. This research will build on the work I did for my Kentucky Library Association Conference presentation, Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing, when I looked at a number of historical comparisons for the contemporary debate around literacy threshold concepts.

From my application:

There is a common narrative when discussing libraries and the value they provide on a college campus. According to this narrative, the traditional library was valued for the collection it stored, and the modern library is valued for the services it provides. Rapidly changing technology is seen as the catalyst for this change, and the library of today and tomorrow is described as a center for learning, one that fosters creativity and curates the expanding universe of information. While this future is exciting and places the library at the leading edge of innovation in higher education, this narrative undercuts the creativity and valuable services provided by librarians of the past.

This contributed paper will examine the creative strategies and innovative instruction methods employed by our librarian forerunners, and present a position that libraries have been at the heart of educational innovation for well over a century. The presenter will demonstrate that early academic libraries were far more innovative than conventional wisdom suggests, and provide historical research that shows many of the trends in vogue today, such as embedded librarianship, flipped instruction, and advocacy around scholarly communications, all have roots in the practices of those early librarians.

If you, dear reader, are aware of any interesting, historic examples of library innovation, please be in touch!

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One Locomotive, Four Cars: ALA’s Railway Odyssey of 1891

Posted on June 16, 2015 at 1:49 pm in

Later this month, nearly 20,000 librarians, library workers, and other information professionals will descend on the city of San Francisco for the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA). They will arrive by airplanes, by bridges, and by freeways. But in 1891, when San Francisco played host to the ALA’s first ever West Coast conference (Bertram 2015), the story of their arrival was extraordinary: the ALA commissioned a private steam train to transport over half of the conference attendees on a five-week, round-trip transcontinental train ride.


The Pennsylvania R.R. provided cars from its Pennsylvania Limited, seen in this postcard courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It was an amazing odyssey that would crescendo in a tumultuous scene on the return ride home: an impromptu but official conference session aboard the moving train. Picture the ALA president Samuel Swett Green struggling to keep both his feet and order as association members argued over whether to override a committee vote and change the planned location of the following year’s conference, all while he was waving around a Native American warclub in lieu of a gavel.

“Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west”

Where to host the conference was a recurring controversy. The original suggestion to situate the 1891 conference in San Francisco was itself contentious: at the 1890 Fabyan House conference, Herbert Putnam, then the City Librarian of Minneapolis, submitted a letter charging the ALA with “making excursions” and not accomplishing enough business at its annual meetings (ALA 1890, 124). It fell to John Vance Cheney, a poet recently appointed the Librarian of San Francisco, to convince the conventioneers to travel west the following year.

Cheney opened his address to the 1890 conference with this appeal: “If I wished to show you that this invitation is from a land of beauty, I should point you to that queen city sitting by the gate of the sea; I should point you farther down the coast to that stray bit of paradise, Monterey; or I should point you still farther down to Santa Barbara, where lingers yet the old Spanish language, and where it is always afternoon. And as a contrast to this, I should lead you suddenly to the Yosemite, whose invitation to you is in a voice far kinder than the thunder that rattles from crag to crag of the Sierra Nevada; and lastly, I should bring you to that peak, 15,000 feet high, Sovereign Shasta, bowing to welcome you as you approach.”

“Now if you were a selfish body, California could address you on the selfish side. But I utterly waive that. I wish to put that out of your minds as much as possible. Think first of your duty” (ALA 1890, 125).

Mr. Cheney proceeded to make the case that it was ALA’s duty and responsibility to travel to California; the state needed funding for library buildings and the arrival of the conference would sway the minds of politicians and the newspapers and inspire a library boom. “We have money; we have some books, but we need library buildings. Why, you who sit here in the centres of culture, you who sit here in your old world complacency, know not the need of us who wrestle in the sagebrush and track the yellow sands of the prairie” (ALA 1890, 125).

I’ll allow Mr. Cheney his poetic license, but there is no sagebrush or prairie in San Francisco. However, he did have to fight constant battles to obtain dedicated space for San Francisco’s public library. By 1891, he had managed to move the main branch from an abandoned, fire-prone theater to a wing of City Hall, but space was still cramped and inadequate. When the conference commenced, there were public sessions on the cultural importance of public libraries and another focused on library architecture, both of which held the potential to inspire the funding of library construction (towards that goal, it failed: San Francisco would not have a freestanding Main Library until Andrew Carnegie helped fund its construction in the 1910s).

The librarians of Denver and Chicago both spoke in favor of a San Francisco conference, and Boston’s Charles A. Cutter, the beloved cataloging pioneer still remembered today for his “cutter numbers” spoke up to defend excursions and unofficial business at conferences: “I also come to join in the little talks on the train, in the lobby, and on the excursions, for these talks give us fully as much benefit as anything that goes on at the regular meetings. [...] So I second this motion, because I wish to see a mountain with a snow line, as well as one with a tree line. Also, I should like to see Mr. Cheney wrestle in a sage brush” (ALA 1890, 125).

The resulting vote turned out to be unanimous. As 1890’s ALA President Frederick Crunden said, “Oratory, poetry, and cold facts all call us west” (ALA 1890, 126). The Association was going to California.


Matthews, Northrup and Co., Railroad Map of the United States, 1890, courtesy Library of Congress

“They don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise”

At 7:30 am, October 1, 1891, four travelers, partly refreshed by sleep under the auspices of Jersey mosquitos, stepped over from Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City to the Pennsylvania R.R. station and formed the nucleus of a company of faithful members of the ALA bound for the setting sun conference. In the course of a few minutes a local train brought into view the smiling face of our Secretary, who, being used to the insects of the locality, had without doubt enjoyed a good night’s sleep; and soon the New York and Brooklyn ferries brought in the rest of our party, and at a minute or two before 8 the special train was off — one locomotive, four cars, about twenty officials, and nine tourists. (Johnston 1891, 129-30)

That smiling face belonged to Frank P. Hill, the Librarian of Newark, New Jersey and the new ALA Secretary, succeeding Melvil Dewey. It had fallen to him to somehow move the East Coast-based library establishment west. He settled on a uniquely luxurious travel experience: he reserved an entire train that would tour the librarians across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and back again, with westward stops in Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and an eastward sojourn through the southwest, starting with Santa Cruz, Southern California, a day trip into Mexico and a ride across the territories of Arizona and New Mexico. It cost $250.00 to travel from the East Coast, and slightly less if you were boarding in Pittsburgh or further points west. The fare covered a double-berth in a sleeping car, all meals, side trips, and excursion hotels. Cost-conscious travelers could share a double-berth, or fifty extra dollars would get you an entire sleeping compartment to yourself (ALA 1891, 4). By the time the train pulled out of Chicago, 41 librarians were aboard, or roughly half of the conference attendees, all engaging in professional chatter for the span of the trip. D.V.R. Johnston, Sub-librarian of New York, chronicled the westward journey for ALA, and wrote that “it was understood that each individual possessed at least one new idea on library matters, we all set to work to interchange — a work, by the way, which completely lasted out the trip” (Johnson 1892, 130).

Mr. Hill didn’t book just any train: he commandeered the pinnacle of railroad luxury, the Pullman Palace Cars of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A published tour itinerary went into detail about the train’s magnificence, declaring it “by universal verdict [...] the handsomest and best appointed passenger train in existence” (ALA 1891, 7). The vestibuled train featured two drawing-room sleeping cars, a dining car, and a “composite smoking car.” The librarians would be accompanied by a “Tourist Agent” and an “Experienced Lady as Chaperon,” furnished by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The composite smoking car was the social nexus of the train ride: “A compartment introduced between the baggage-room and the main saloon is fitted up as a barber-shop and bath-room. A regular barber’s chair and all the paraphernalia of the tonsorial artist are at hand. The rear section of the car is a smoking-room, furnished with comfortable rattan arm-chairs, a lounge, and two writing-desks, each surmounted by a small case of selected books” (ALA 1891, 7).

The sleeping quarters could accommodate both men and women: “The Pullman Vestibule Sleeping Cars composing this train are the best examples of nineteenth century car building. Each contains twelve sections of two double berths, and two drawing-rooms, containing two double berths and a sofa. Inclosed toilet-rooms for ladies and gentlemen occupy separate ends of the car” (ALA 1891, 7-8).

In describing the dining car, the itinerary rhapsodizes that “glistening silver and glassware vie in brilliancy with the spotless linen, and above the tables, in the spaces between the windows, potted plants are placed on shelves set in the hardwood” (ALA 1891, 8).


A Pullman Palace Car, circa 1890s, courtesy the Newberry Library

The train departed from Jersey City on Thursday, October 1st, stopping in Philadelphia to pick up additional librarians (the Boston contingent had arrived on the Boston and Philadelphia Night Express that morning). They would continue collecting librarians in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Fort Wayne. On Friday, October 2nd, they took a long stop in Chicago, so that the passengers could to tour the Chicago libraries, plus an unscheduled stop in Ottumwa, Iowa to spend a few minutes at a county fair running at “full blast” (Johnston 1892, 130). Since Denver, Colorado, was farther west than most attendees had likely ever been, it merited a two-day stay, as it was “one of the most pushing and cultured cities of the plains” (ALA 1891, 9).

The touring party also took its time in the Rockies, stopping to ascend Pikes Peak via a (still operating) cog railway out of Manitou Springs. Ill-equipped for the high-altitude temperatures, the tourists who went to the mountaintop all wore billowing red blankets stamped with the initials of the Pullman Palace Cars. Johnston wrote that “without doubt some thirty able-bodied citizens so wrapped in red blankets that the letters P.P.C. were worn on the small of the back, walking in solemn procession around the mountain top, was a sight for gods and men” (1892, 131). Charles Cutter (who had so ardently defended excursions) continued what was apparently a continent-spanning trend of nearly missing trains with his nearest miss yet. As the cog train began its descent from Pikes Peak, “somebody caught sight of Mr. Cutler [sic] plunging wildly through the snow on the peak and frantically waving his arms. The train was finally stopped in its downhill course, and the panting librarian climbed aboard, saved from a wintry night near the stars” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891).


Manitou Springs – Pikes Peak Cog Railway, circa 1900, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, the westward passage over the mountains claimed one victim, none other than tour organizer Frank P. Hill. “Some of the more profane say that his lungs, long used to New Jersey malaria, could not stand the pure air of 10,000 feet elevation; but the more thoughtful said that that pressure of work in getting up the trip had exhausted his strength” (Johnston 1892, 132). After meticulously planning the itinerary, the ALA Secretary had to disembark to recover, waiting for the eastward train to pick him back up when the conference had ended. Despite this disappointment, his career prospered, and Mr. Hill later served as ALA President and eventually left Newark to become the head of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once the train made it past the transcontinental divide, it crossed the Territory of Utah and into the state of Nevada, where the librarians were surprised to find a small public library in the remote and dusty whistlestop town of Carlin. Johnston wrote that it was “like a voice crying in the wilderness, and with one accord we rushed in upon the librarian, and wished him all manner of good luck” (1892, 132).

He also noted that the distinguished travelers impressed many of the residents of sparsely populated Nevada. “For at one of the stations,” Johnston wrote “we overheard a citizen inviting a friend to come and inspect our party, on the ground that ‘it was the smartest lot of people which had ever been seen in the State.’ ‘Are they all from Boston?’ asked the other. “Nop, they are not, for they don’t all wear glasses; but they look almighty wise just the same’” (1892, 132).

One other librarian was waylaid mid-tour, but of his own volition: Samuel Scudder disembarked in Truckee to catch grasshoppers before catching up a day or two later (San Francisco Chronicle 1891). While he did dabble in librarianship at both Harvard and the Boston Society of Natural History, he is better known today for his prolific career as an entomologist and paleontologist, so this should come as no surprise.

When the train arrived in California, it was met by a greeting party in Truckee made up of distinguished California librarians, who delivered fresh salmon, quail, figs, peaches, and grapes to the travelers, who offered in return black coffee and cigars. The easterners and westerners breakfasted together on the ride down from the mountains into Sacramento. They stopped in Rocklin to saw off a heavily-laden branch from an orange tree, which they suspended from the ceiling of one of the rail cars as decoration (Sacramento Daily Record 1891).

The westward passage of the train ended in Oakland. The bay was not yet bridged, so the librarians disembarked to conclude their journey: “A short wait for the ferry, a short ride in the cool fog drawing in from the sea, a twinkling of electric lights and a jingling of bells, the wheels ceased churning the water, and our journey was done” (Johnston 1892, 133).

“Useful and Important”

Mr. Putnam, so offended by excursions, was likely tsk tsking at the conference agenda: no meetings were scheduled to start before noon so that there would plenty of time for sightseeing. There was a banquet with the wealthy and eccentric rare-book collector Adolph Sutro at his Sutro Heights Mansion; there was a (chilly) cruise around the Bay (“they would have had a more enjoyable excursion if a fog had not enwrapped the hills and a cold wind swept the bay and the steamer’s deck” (San Francisco Chronicle 1891); there were tours of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown; a visit to the Stanford family’s horsefarm and the new college they had founded; there were side trips to Oakland, San Jose, and Monterey; there were readings by Poet-Librarians John Vance Cheney of San Francisco and Ina Coolbrith of Oakland. The Papers and Proceedings do list a number of speeches, presentations, and meetings, so it does appear they found at least a little bit of time to conduct the business of the American Library Association. In his historical account, President Green (1913, 230) wrote that “the convention proved to be useful and important, probably exerting no little influence in bringing about the remarkable degree of prosperity in library affairs which disclosed itself to visitors in California at the second conference of the Association held in that state, at Pasadena, in 1911.”

In a repeat of the debate at the 1890 conference, there was a quarrel during the conference’s eighth session over where the Association should meet next. The committee tasked with determining the next host location was divided on the subject. ALA President Green suggested Nantucket, paired with a chartered steamship cruise of the Atlantic Coast (ALA 1892a, 117). But ultimately the debate came down to an impasse between two diametrically opposing ideas: either meeting in Washington, D.C, which was conveniently located for maximum attendance, or at a remote resort, far away from the distractions and excursions of big cities. The choice of Washington won the day, but the anti-city faction was not done raising objections.

Later in the same eighth session, Oberlin College’s Azariah Root moved that the conference not be officially adjourned until the excursion train had arrived in Chicago. The train’s Composite Smoking Car would serve as a traveling conference so that the ALA could issue official edicts thanking every locality that hosted them along the way.

“A Funeral or an Opera Troupe”

The Pullman Palace pulled out from the Bay Area on Monday, October 19th, but it did not repeat its westward itinerary. Instead, the returning librarians traveled south. On the first day they lunched in a Santa Cruz redwood grove. Indiana’s Mary Eileen Ahern (1892, 149) journaled the eastward trip on behalf of ALA, and wrote of this excursion that “a beautiful stream flows through this forest,” but protects the modesty of her traveling companions, saying “I will not chronicle the pleasures and mishaps of the young ladies who enjoyed its pellucid waters.”

After refreshing themselves under the Big Trees, the librarians toured Southern California, starting with Santa Barbara followed by stops in Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Pasadena, and La Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles, which, according to their tour itinerary, was an “ideal spot for health, scenery, climate, and pleasure” and “undoubtedly destined to become the social metropolis of the Coast” (ALA 1891, 27). The City Librarian of Los Angeles left a memorable impression on President Green. During a carriage procession through the city, Green (1913, 242) noted that their “span of horses was skillfully guided by the vigorous and sure hand of the accomplished and energetic librarian, Miss Tessa Kelso.”

Finally, the California tour ended with a stay at San Diego’s opulent Hotel Del Coronado, then just three years old. According to Ahern (1892, 150-51), the Southern California adventures included shark sightings, impromptu dances, a border crossing into Tijuana, and one incident in Redlands where an unnamed young women of the touring party attempted to steal a burro.

The Hotel Del Coronado, circa 1900, by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), photographer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While all of this touring and sightseeing seems superfluous, it’s worth noting that in many of the stops the train made, the local paper covered the arrival of the librarians as a newsworthy event and mayors and local library officials came out to shake their hands. The tour served to increase the profile of libraries and librarians in these emerging communities when the public library movement was still in a fledgling state. Papers in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, and Topeka all covered the arrival of the touring party as if it were a major event.

The train rumbled through the territories of Arizona and New Mexico before turning northeast through Kansas on its way to Chicago. As the trains crossed the southwest, the travelers played “relic-hunter, curio-seeker, and sight-seer” amongst the Native American communities along the rail line (Ahern 1892, 151). Mary Eileen Ahern writes wistfully of evenings spent gathering on the train’s “back porch” — “night after night, as the evening shadows fell, ‘by ones and twos the company came.’” She added that “during the day, this same back porch served as a debating ground, resting place, meeting place, studio, and it was said poetry was inspired on that platform on several occasions.”

It was on the final leg of the return ride, after departing New Mexico heading towards Kansas, that Dr. E.J. Nolan, Librarian of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, moved to reconsider the resolution passed at San Francisco to situate the 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. (ALA 1892, 124-26). While there was an objection that a small group should not be able to override the larger public vote in San Francisco, debate carried on anyways. According to Ahern (1892, 152), it was a lively discussion, with President Green “trying to keep his feet in the swaying car and order at the same time, energetically waving an Indian war club by way of a gavel, surrounded by members, each anxious for his own peculiar views to be adopted.”

Among those opposed to Washington hosting the conference were Dr. William Poole, who objected because it was “too hot” and “because in the South there were few libraries” (ALA 1892, 125). Frank P. Hill, who had been retrieved by the return train after recovering his health, also objected, and felt that the Association could override the vote in San Francisco whenever it wanted. Colonel W.H. Lowdermilk, a DC-based bookseller, and Miss E.W. Sherman of the Library Bureau, defended the “devoted librarians” in the south who were striving to improve circumstances there, and felt situating the conference in a place they could attend was for the best, and would help promote the cause of public libraries in the South. A compromise of sorts was reached: a motion was carried that the “first sessions of the conference would be held at some quiet resort, preferably Annapolis” before moving into Washington (ALA 1892, 125).

That evening the train stopped in Kansas City, where the tourists disembarked to sleep at the Midland Hotel. Nearly five weeks into their travels, the party must have had a strange look to them: Ahern (1892, 152) wrote that “as the long line of carriages wended its way to the Midland, speculations were heard on the streets as to whether it was a funeral or an opera troupe.”

The 1891 Conference was officially adjourned after a meeting in Chicago, though many librarians stayed on until the train arrived on the East Coast. Ultimately, the tour covered a total distance of 8,116 miles through 12 states and three territories (ALA 1891, 31).

And as for the 1892 conference? It was ultimately moved to a resort hotel in Lakewood in northern New Jersey. Of the 260 attendees of the 1892 conference, only three came from Southern states (ALA 1892b, 104). But there were day trips to Baltimore, Washington, and post-conference excursions into Virginia.

As for California, the American Library Association would not return until the Pasadena Conference of 1911. That time, Frank P. Hill did make it all the way west. The industrious Herbert Putnam, by then the Librarian of Congress, did not (ALA 1911, 282).


2 Comments on One Locomotive, Four Cars: ALA’s Railway Odyssey of 1891

The “Real Librarians” of Congress

Posted on June 12, 2015 at 1:26 pm in

The Librarian of Congress recently resigned. The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrait of James Billington’s time in office. Dr. Billington, a historian and Russia scholar by background, was nominated to the office by Ronald Reagan in 1987.

Dr. Billington was also the latest in a long line of white men to hold the office (the thirteenth, to be exact). I’d like to see the next nominee chosen from a diverse pool of experienced, professional candidates that can bring something different to the role – not an inexperienced political appointment. As the Times piece highlights, the Library of Congress is in need of tech-savvy and knowledgable leadership. This is important.

I’ve also seen it going around the social internet that there’s only ever been one “real librarian” as Librarian of Congress (L. Quincy Mumford, 1954-74). I had always heard that the Librarian of Congress was usually a historian, so I assumed that factoid was true. But since I’m a librarian, I decided to research it. Turns out, it’s not.

The historical tipping point from which the Library of Congress expanded from being a small Congressional reference collection into a national library was 1864 (under the leadership of Ainsworth Rand Spofford), which coincided with the national public library movement, slightly predates the establishment of the ALA, and the point at which “librarianship” became a distinct and specific career path. That was 151 years ago. Counting from then until now, the sitting Librarian of Congress has had professional library experience prior to their appointment for 101 of those years.

Why is this important?

If we let the narrative be that the Librarian of Congress isn’t usually a “real librarian,” we’ll get another non-librarian – even if we’re protesting that fact. We should highlight the fact that the non-librarians who have served were the exceptions, not the norm.

The reason Mumford is being credited as the only “real librarian” to serve as Librarian of Congress is the assumption that in order to be a librarian, someone has to have an MLIS. What makes a person a librarian? It can’t just be having the degree:

  • There are plenty of people with an MLIS who don’t consider themselves librarians.
  • There are a lot of working librarians who don’t have an MLIS degree.
  • There are other library professionals who are knowledgeable and vital who have neither the degree nor the word “librarian” in their official title.

And it can’t just be having it in their title.

  • There are plenty of unemployed or underemployed librarians. They are still librarians.
  • There’s a pretty wide range of titles out there (with and without the word librarian in them).

So what does it come down to? I’d say knowledge and skills in library services (and what a wide range those services can be! And there are plenty of specialities) and a dose of self-identification.

Obtaining an MLIS is one way librarians gain knowledge and skills and develop a sense of identity. It is one marker of experience and ability. But it is not the only one, and not the only way.

Let’s get back to the question of Librarians of Congress, and whether they were “real librarians.”

Quick history lesson: while libraries are an ancient concept that date back to the origins of writing (there is evidence of Sumerian libraries), “librarianship” as a modern American profession didn’t develop until the mid-to-late 19th century. As the public library movement caught hold, the earliest full-time librarians mostly came from a wide range of backgrounds (there was no degree in “library sciences”). “Library schools” started with Dewey’s school at Columbia College, but an advanced degree – the MLS and its variations – did not appear until well into the 20th century.

So we can’t judge whether or not the early Librarians of Congress were “librarians” by whether or not they had an MLIS. They only way we can judge whether they were “real librarians” is by checking whether or not they had library or related experience prior to their nomination.

Here’s the full list:

  • John Jay Beckley, 1802-1807
  • Patrick Magruder, 1807-1815
  • George Watterson, 1815-1829
  • John Silva Meehan, 1829-1861
  • John G. Stephenson, 1861-1864
  • Ainsworth Rand Spofford, 1864-1897
  • John Russell Young, 1897-1899
  • Herbert Putnam, 1899-1939
  • Archibald Macleish, 1939-1944
  • Luther Evans, 1945-1953
  • L. Quincy Mumford, 1954-1974
  • Daniel J. Boorstin, 1975-1987
  • James Billington, 1987-2015

When the Library of Congress was first established, it was a small reference collection for the use of the members of Congress. Librarian of Congress was not a separate position, but just part of the responsibilities of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. That covers Beckley and Magruder. We’ll leave them completely out of this reckoning.

The first actual full time “Librarian of Congress” was George Watterson. The position was separated from the Clerkship since Congress had recently purchased Jefferson’s personal library to replace what was destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Dealing with that influx of books required a full-timer. Watterson was a lawyer by education, a writer by craft, and a newspaper editor by trade. He did not work in a library or similar institution prior to his appointment. All the major decisions regarding the library were made by a congressional committee, not by Watterson. Watterson was not a “real librarian,” but “librarianship” was not an independent profession in his era.

Watterson was followed by John Silva Meehan. He was a printer. While Librarian of Congress, he was not allowed to choose books – those decisions were made by the Congressional committee chair – and the LOC was small, still intended only for congressional use. So Meehan wasn’t a librarian, either, but the Library of Congress wasn’t really a library (yet), and like Watterson, librarianship was not considered an independent profession when he was appointed.

Stephenson was a physician who continued his medical practice even after his appointment. So…not a librarian. At all. And not a good appointment (that one was on Lincoln).

But Stephenson’s successor was Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who had previously served as Assistant Librarian of Congress. Voila! Previous professional experience. This also coincided with the national public library movement, which saw “librarianship” as a standalone profession become a reality. Under Spofford’s leadership, the Library of Congress grew into a genuine national library. Even after he was replaced as Librarian of Congress, Spofford continued to work as Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress. He was clearly a longtime, dedicated library professional.

We can chalk Spofford up as the first “real librarian” to serve as Librarian of Congress, and his term also marks the beginning of the Library’s modern era.

John Russell Young was a political appointment with a background in journalism, business, and politics. He only lasted two years before his death. Not a “real librarian.”

Herbert Putnam was Librarian of Congress from 1899-1939. He’s the innovator of the Library of Congress Classification System, which arguably makes him on par with Dewey for widespread influence on library science. Before his post with the Library of Congress, he was head of the Minneapolis Athenaeum, head of the Minneapolis Public Library, and Superintendent of the Boston Public Library – at the time, the largest public library in the country. He was also a very active early member of the ALA.

Putnam was clearly a “real librarian.” One of the most influential in American library history.

Archibald Macleish was a writer and poet. Not only was he not a “real librarian,” that was exactly why he was nominated. According to the LOC’s biography of Macleish, “Roosevelt proclaimed that the job of Librarian of Congress required not a professional librarian but ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’” The ALA protested his nomination, but it passed Congress by a wide margin. This was the first clear, intentional shift away from appointing librarians to be Librarian of Congress.

Luthor Evans is a different case than Macleish. He was a political scientist by education, but he was director of the LOC’s Legislative Reference Service for six years before his appointment, and served as Acting Librarian of Congress when Macleish was absent. So he had six years of leadership experience in a library before he was appointed. LOC’s Evans biography also states that he “plunged into technical library issues.” I’d say that would make Evans a “real librarian” and not just a political appointment.

Mumford had an MLS [correction, 2/24: a BS in Library Science], worked for a long time at NYPL and Cleveland Public, and served as President of the ALA before his appointment as Librarian of Congress. Definitely a “real librarian.”

Boorstin is a tricky case. A Rhodes Scholar with a law degree, he had a long and successful academic career as a professor of history. Impressive, but not librarianship. But he also was the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, a significant cultural institution not unlike the Library of Congress in scope. You could argue he had comparable, relevant experience. However, ALA protested Boostin’s appointment, so I’ll put him down as not a “real librarian.”

Boorstin was followed by Billington. Not a “real librarian.”

So if we start counting with Spofford’s term – when the Library of Congress actually became a national library – we have four “real librarians,” and four who were not, and 101 out of 151 years with librarian leadership.

I think it’s a mistake to conflate having an MLIS and being a librarian. If the best candidate has had noteworthy practical and administrative work in a library, museum, or archive, that’s more important than the right master’s degree.

In addition to impressive professional credentials, it would be thrilling to see a candidate who brings a different life experience to the role than their thirteen white male predecessors.

We shall see.

Note: an early draft of this post was originally published on tumblr.

2 Comments on The "Real Librarians" of Congress

Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 2

Posted on December 15, 2014 at 5:31 pm in

In the first half of “Investigating the Frame,” I addressed the threshold concept theory at the heart of the new Framework for Information Literacy Instruction, currently in its third draft. I closed with the comment that we should shift the focus of our discussions to the details of the six frames, and how they serve us as instructors, rather than continuing the debate over the legitimacy of threshold concept theory.

I also argued that the move from the standards to the frames is not as dramatic a shift as it might appear at first. By tracking our instruction sessions and reference interactions, my colleague Nicole Branch and I have noticed that certain frames align consistently with existing standards. This is not a bad thing — it eases the transition from one guiding document to the next.

Rubric Soul

One concern I had as an outside observer of the new Framework was about methods of assessment (I even asked the committee about that during the open forum at ALA). I’m not alone in this; I’ve seen the same question asked by many others. However, I’m feeling more confident about assessment under this new model thanks to a recent exercise we undertook at my place of work.

My library uses a rubric to evaluate information use in senior capstone papers in order to assess our information literacy instruction. Our rubric is an amalgamation and adaptation of several of the rubrics available through RAILS, and was built in relation to the ACRL Standards. Each area of evaluation relates to one of the ACRL Standards. For example, ACRL Standard One (the information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed) is represented by two criteria: defining the topic, and defining the research question or thesis statement. Each paper is scored on a zero to three scale for each area of evaluation, and we have twelve criteria total.

As we were updating our rubric for the fall semester, we also looked at the six threshold concepts in the new framework. Could each of our areas of evaluation be directly connected to one of the six threshold concepts? Would each threshold concept be represented? As we try to determine if these six frames genuinely represent the discipline of information literacy, retroactively assigning them to our working assessment seemed like a good way to investigate their accuracy and breadth of coverage.

It turned out each of our areas of evaluation did fit into one of the six frames, and five of the six frames were represented.

There was not necessarily a direct one-to-one relationship between the frames and the standards; we had four areas of evaluation connected to ACRL Standard Three, and while we assigned three of them to “Authority is Constructed and Contextual,” one of them was a better fit for “Research as Inquiry.” Our areas of evaluation connected to ACRL Standard Five were similarly divided, in this case between “Scholarship is a Conversation” and “Information Has Value.”

The only frame we could not assign to one of our areas of evaluation was “searching is strategic” (to use the third draft’s verbiage). That wasn’t a surprise. We only evaluate the capstone papers themselves, and we do not witness the student’s information search and retrieval process. We had omitted ACRL Standard Two from this particular assessment tool when we first devised it. Standard Two (the information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently) and the Searching frame are clearly connected.

Do they know Magellan died?

Forgive me for making a pop culture analogy: on a recent episode of the TV show Top Chef, the eight competitors were divided into two teams and each team was tasked with opening a restaurant in 48 hours. One of the two teams couldn’t settle on a unifying theme for their menu, so they decided to go with an “explorer” theme and a globe-trotting menu. In a fit of optimism, they named their pop-up restaurant “Magellan.” Do they know that Magellan died? So did their direction-less restaurant, and their team lost the challenge.

I bring this up because one of the most burning topics between draft two and draft three was the verbiage change from “searching as exploration” to “searching is strategic.” Both Jacob Berg and Donna Witek disliked this change; Jake wanted to shift it back, and Donna suggested “searching is investigative.” I think highly of both Jake and Donna, but in this instance I disagree.

I think “searching is strategic” is the best language for this frame. In fact, I think it’s a significant improvement over the alternatives. Exploration is a romantic ideal, and we all want our students to eagerly cast off from the pier on a voyage to discover new ideas and information. However, it’s far more effective to set sail with a plan. Strategy is a scaleable term; it does not imply expertise. Even the simplest Google search can be far more effective with some simple strategies in place (for example, substitute academic synonyms for your typical keywords, and you’ll get a completely different set of results). That’s a strategy we teach our first-year students (in fact, search strategy is the first lesson in our curriculum map).

Upper division students might employ more nuanced strategies, such as controlled vocabulary searches in research databases. Another example might be the PICOT methodology I teach to the students in our graduate School of Nursing. The right search strategy depends on the information need, and this is important for students to understand. I don’t think “searching as exploration” accomplishes that.

Processing • Binding

The hardest threshold concept to fit to our rubric’s areas of evaluation (aside from the aforementioned “searching is strategic”) was “information creation as a process.” I think this frame has suffered an identity crisis through the revision process. It was originally titled “format as a process,” and defined as follows:

Format is the way tangible knowledge is disseminated. The essential characteristic of format is the underlying process of information creation, production, and dissemination, rather than how the content is delivered or experienced.

In draft three, both the title and definition had changed:

Information Creation as a Process refers to the understanding that the purpose, message, and delivery of information are intentional acts of creation. Recognizing the nature of information creation, experts look to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product to critically evaluate the usefulness of the information.

This frame — especially in its earlier form — seems focused on the user understanding the intent of the information creator in order to understand how to best use that source. With online research, you can’t easily judge a source’s format by how it is processed and bound. This can be as simple as an undergraduate understanding the appropriate research use of an online reference entry, or can relate to more complex questions such as the reliability of social media reporting in the wake of breaking news.

But the change in title implies the committee would like this frame to be about more than just format. It should be about the complete circle of the information creation process, from beginning to end. If that’s the case, the knowledge practices and dispositions need to reflect the creative act as well as analysis of the final product. In that case, it may need to inherit some of the knowledge practices and dispositions currently assigned to other threshold concepts.

Donna Witek, in her excellent line-by-line analysis of the third draft, noticed that some of the frames (most notably “research as inquiry”) were much longer than the others. “Research as inquiry” includes knowledge practices and dispositions such as “organize information in meaningful ways” and “manage information effectively.” Those could be a better fit with the information creation frame. If not, the committee might be better off returning to the original “format as a process.”

Defining Value

The best change from draft two to draft three was the “information has value” frame. Gone is this original definition:

Information has Value acknowledges that the creation of information and products derived from information requires a commitment of time, original thought, and resources that need to be respected by those seeking to use these products, or create their own based on the work of others. In addition, information may be valued more or less highly based on its creator, its audience/consumer, or its message.

It has been replaced by the following:

The Information Has Value frame refers to the understanding that information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world. The flow of information through systems of production and dissemination is impacted by legal, sociopolitical, and economic interests.

I see this change as a very positive move on the part of the committee. The former definition explicitly privileged content creators (and by extension, copyright), reducing information seekers (our library users) to “those seeking to use these products,” and not agents with their own rights and privileges (as governed by fair use, the first sale doctrine, etc.). Content creators should, of course, own the rights to their work, and the ethical use of work belonging to others is important. However, this new definition, while still acknowledging information’s role as a commodity, does a better job of encapsulating the bigger picture.

Blazed Pathways

The open period for comments on the third draft closed on Friday, December 12, so now those of us on the outside must eagerly await the next revision.

In the meantime, my next step will be to study the information literacy threshold concepts from the historical perspective: on January 14th, my Kentucky Library Association talk Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing: Using the Lens of Library History to Focus on the New Information Literacy Framework will be reborn as a webinar, sponsored by the ALISE Historical Interest Group. Participation will be free for ALISE members and the first 20 non-member registrants. We will be exploring the writings of pioneering, 19th century instructional librarians to see if there is evidence of encounters with the same threshold concepts we are discussing today.

I will share registration details as soon as it opens up in early January. Please join me if you can!

Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 1

Posted on December 11, 2014 at 6:34 pm in

I came out as a supporter of the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education’s central and somewhat controversial tenet — threshold concepts — earlier this fall. I promised “more on this soon,” but as is often the case, the fall academic semester was too busy a time for me to write down and publish my thoughts. But Friday, December 12 is the deadline for public comments on the third draft, which has prompted me to reflect more deeply on the Framework.

Post and Beam Barn

Threshold Concept Theory

I acknowledge that many of my peers, whose opinions I respect, are concerned about the foundation of threshold concept theory. Threshold concepts are “those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline” (ACRL, 2014). According to educational theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land, threshold concepts exhibit four characteristics within their disciplines: they are transformative, changing the perspective of the learner; integrative, connecting different aspects of the discipline to each other; irreversible, once learned, never unlearned (much like riding a bike); and troublesome, sometimes difficult to grasp for discipline outsiders or the cause of reflection (Meyer, Land, & Baillie, 2008).

I have seen concerns about university faculty responses to the theory of threshold concepts, and the difficulty librarians may have in explaining it. In response I have a suggestion. When presenting these ideas to faculty, use the threshold concepts that have been identified for their own disciplines as examples and analogies for the information literacy threshold concepts identified by ACRL. These examples will resonate much more strongly with their own experience as teachers and learners. There has been substantial research into threshold concepts for a wide range of academic disciplines, both by Meyer and Land themselves, and by other educational theorists exploring the idea. Merinda Kaye Hensley referred me to a useful bibliography that will guide you to many of them.

For example, when I explained threshold concepts to our chair of Math and Sciences, a biology professor, I used Meyer and Land’s example of a threshold concept for biology: the testable hypothesis. Once a student understands the idea of the testable hypothesis, and how the entire practice of biological sciences are built on this core concept, the discipline itself is clearer and easier to understand. This seemingly simple concept underpins the entire world of science, and if a student grasps the range of implications of the testable hypothesis, it is not something they can simply unlearn. It’s not a miscellaneous fact, easily misplaced by memory; it’s a method of practice. It sticks. It alters how they perceive science and how they learn it.

Connecting the Dots

Part of my growing enthusiasm for the new framework derives from connecting the dots between the identified threshold concepts and the work we already do at my institution. Over the past couple of years my colleague Nicole Branch and I developed a curriculum map for our undergraduate information literacy instruction based on the ACRL Standards. We provide a series of scaffolded one-shot workshops integrated into our university curriculum at different levels in the hopes that students will have the information skills they need at each point in their education.

After each workshop, we track our work using an instructor’s survey. This creates an institutional record of our work. Starting this year, we added the threshold concepts to these surveys; for each workshop we lead, we identify on a scale which threshold concepts were addressed and to what degree. We also rank the addressed ACRL Standards in the same way. We have a similar (but less nuanced) scale for our reference interactions.

We are trying to capture how well our existing instruction and reference services already address the elements in the new framework. So far, we’ve found so much of what we already do is reflected in the threshold concepts. We have also found significant, consistent connectivity between certain Standards and Threshold Concepts. In other words, the new framework is not as abrupt a departure from the previous Standards as it appears on first glance, but rather it’s an evolution.

Shifting the Conversation

However, even if you are a threshold concept skeptic, I suggest the debate about their scientific validity is a distraction from what we should really be focusing on: the content of the frames themselves. How well do they represent the academic discipline of information literacy? If these six frames can successfully inform our practice as educators, whether or not they genuinely represent this wider notion of “threshold concepts” (and whether the theory of threshold concepts itself is valid) is not entirely relevant. We’ve been making do with the existing information literacy standards published in 2000, and I certainly don’t believe that those static, binary descriptors (“the information literate student is…”) are reflective of the students we work with or their learning needs. The Framework is a far more flexible document that comes much closer to capturing the complex and evolving world of information and scholarly communications, whatever you think of threshold concepts as an educational theory.

Again, I believe the questions we should be asking — the ones that will actually affect our practice — are about the content of the specific frames, not the overarching threshold concept theory. So in Part 2 of this post, I will delve into the Framework more deeply, compare some of the changes between the 2nd and 3rd drafts, and share the comments on the third draft I intend to submit.

Correction: The original version of this post inaccurately described Kevin Michael Klipfel’s post on faculty response to threshold concepts. I apologize for the error and recommend reading his perspective on the subject:

Climbing off the fence: Threshold concepts for information literacy

Posted on September 30, 2014 at 9:38 am in

I’ve done a lot of fence sitting in my comments about the new framework for information literacy instruction and its central tenet, the threshold concepts for information literacy. That was in part because I was still digesting the new ideas, and in part because some librarians I really respect had strong (and divergent) opinions, and I wasn’t sure yet where I fell.

Lions-Gate-Mycenae” by Andreas Trepte. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

But I’ve had some time for reflection, I’ve had time to incorporate aspects of the new framework into my practice, and I was able to immerse myself in the ideas behind the new framework while preparing my talk at the Kentucky Library Association.

I do have some concerns about language used in the new framework. I think some of the definitions of the threshold concepts are troublesome and need continued work (I’m looking at you, information has value), while others aren’t quite intuitive as written. I’m still not sure why “metaliteracy” needs to be included at all. I’m also curious how we can create continuity with the ACRL Standards from 2000, and how we’ll get faculty to buy into new ideas that are more challenging to explain.

But. I’m climbing off the fence.

I like the new framework. I especially like the threshold concepts as a pivot point for library instruction. Telling students where to click in the database is not teaching them how to effectively use information, and the new framework pushes us to be better, more engaged instructors. The research that backs it up resonates with me and my personal, professional experience. I think it moves us forward. I’m on board. More on this soon.

Further reading:

Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing: Bibliography

Posted on September 16, 2014 at 5:02 pm in

References for my presentation Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing are below, organized topically.

Early Librarians on College Instruction

Adams, H. A. (1887, November). Seminary libraries and university extension. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 5. 443-459.

Baker, G. H. (1897, October). Conference of librarians, Philadelphia: The college section of the ALA. Library Journal 22. 168.

Davis, T. K. (1885, May). The college library. Library Journal 10. 100-103.

Little, G. T. (1892, August). Teaching bibliography to college students. Library Journal 17. 87-88.

Lowrey, C. E. (1894, August). The university library, its larger recognition in higher education. Library Journal 19. 264-267.

Morgan, J. H. (1893). College libraries: How best made available for college uses? Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Convention of the College Association of the Middle States and Maryland. New York, NY: Columbia College Educational Review.

Robinson, O. H. (1876). College library administration. In Bureau of Education’s (Ed.) Public Libraries in the United States of America.Washington, D.C.: USGPO.

Robinson, O. H. (1880). College libraries as aids to instruction: Rochester University Library – administration and use. Circulars of Information of the Bureau of Education; No. 1-1880. Washington, D.C.: USGPO.

Robinson, O. H. (1881, April). The relation of libraries to college work. Library Journal 6. 97-104.

Winsor, J. (1880). College libraries as aids to instruction: The college library. Circulars of Information of the Bureau of Education; No. 1-1880. Washington, D.C.: USGPO.

Winsor, J. (1894, November). The development of the library. Library Journal 19. 370-375.

Woodruff, E. H. (1886, September). University libraries and seminary methods of instruction. Library Journal 11. 219-224

History of Library Instruction

ACRL. (2000). Information literacy standards for higher education. Retrieved from

Hopkins, F. L. (1982). A century of bibliographic instruction: The historical claim to professional and academic legitimacy. College & Research Libraries 43(3). 192-198. Retrieved from

Tucker, J. M. (1980). Articles on library instruction in colleges and universities, 1876-1932. University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science Occasional Papers 143.

Threshold Concepts

ACRL. (2014). Framework for information literacy for higher education [2nd draft]. Retrieved from

Brunetti, K., Hofer, A. R., Lu, S., & Townsend, L. (2014). Threshold concepts & information literacy. Retrieved from

Meyer, J., Land, R., & Baillie, C. (2009). Threshold concepts and transformational learning. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Townsend, L., Brunetti, K., & Hofer, A. R. (2011). Threshold concepts and information literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11(3), 853-869.

Wilkerson, L. (2014). The problem with threshold concepts. Retrieved from

Emerging projects: My experience as an ALA Emerging Leader

Posted on July 18, 2014 at 11:55 am in

Several people, perhaps considering their own 2015 applications, asked me about my experience as a 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Emerging Leader and how I felt the program helped me develop my leadership skills.

This prompted a bit of reflection on my part. I’d say that the line between the Emerging Leaders program and leadership training is actually an indirect one – but that’s a good thing.

There are other opportunities ALA provides – such as the ALA Leadership Institute – more directly focused on traditional leadership training, if that’s what you are interested in. The structure of Emerging Leaders is more in line with another subject I was interested in this year: project management.

Project Management

[A project is] a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.

– Project Management Institute

My 2014-2015 professional development goals at my place of work included gaining project management skills. My official vehicle for achieving that goal was attending a wonderful CARL preconference session led by California academic librarians Margot Hanson, Annis Lee Adams, Andrew Tweet, and Kevin Pischke. But the convergence of the preconference session and Emerging Leaders was perfect, as the experiences complimented and built on each other. Emerging Leaders gave me the practical opportunity to work on a project team and implement the concepts I learned at the preconference.

Emerging Leaders is structured as a team-based project that checks off all of the definitions of project management: a temporary group activity, designed to produce a product or service, with a defined beginning and end, and a defined scope and resources. Various divisions and roundtables of ALA propose projects. Four-to-six member teams of Emerging Leaders are assembled around those projects and given a discrete deadline (a poster session at ALA Annual) when they reveal their final products.

I was part of Emerging Leaders “Team C,” along with the wonderful Mari Martínez, Annie Pho, and Kyle Denlinger. We were asked by ALCTS, the ALA division for library collections and technical services, to deliver a white paper on social media practices with recommendations for how they can improve their outreach to early-career professionals. Beyond that straightforward request, we could develop the project as we saw fit.

Team C(at) with our project poster. Here we are later with our hair down.

We dealt with several moving parts: we had to investigate social media best practices for professional organizations, analyze how ALCTS is currently using social media, discover how ALCTS members and potential members would like to interact (or not) with ALCTS online, and put everything we learned into a cohesive “white paper” (we actually developed a website) that ALCTS leaders could refer to. The camaraderie we developed kept us accountable to each other, despite not having a traditional “leader” or supervisor. The four of us lived in different areas of the country, and would not actually be in the same room between Midwinter and Annual, making coordination crucial. It made for a perfect little capsule – it was petri dish project management. We had fun and put out a product we believed in.

Emerging Project Managers

I opened with the suggestion that the line between Emerging Leaders and leadership training was indirect, as there is not a special focus on the skills of individual leadership, or advancing into management roles in our professional careers. But I do think project management skills are very applicable to a different kind of leadership needed in our workplaces.

Our work as librarians invariably involves team-oriented, discrete projects: implementing a new service, redesigning a library website, and so on. We often will work on teams with no designated “leader.” To be able to work as a team, with a cohesive plan, without creating unnecessary workplace friction, is a valuable and necessary trait for librarians, and applying the principles of project management can be the key to success. That is the type of leadership we need as a profession moving forward.

I still wouldn’t suggest renaming the program “the ALA Emerging Project Managers.” Emerging Leaders has a better ring to it. And also a ring of truth.

Further reading:

ALA 2014: Luck be a librarian

Posted on June 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm in

I’m hopping on a plane in a couple hours for Las Vegas for the 2014 edition of the annual conference of the American Library Association. There’s so much going at the conference of thousands, and I’m still figuring out my schedule. But here are the places I’m sure I’ll be.

Friday, June 27

The first day is busy, with the Emerging Leaders cohort of 2014 gathering for a workshop from 8:30 to 3, which leads directly into the Emerging Leaders poster session and reception running from 3-4pm. My group — EL Team C, comprising of Annie Pho, Mari Martínez, and Kyle Denlinger — has been working on a social media plan for ALCTS, the ALA division for collections and technical services. It has been great working with Annie, Mari, and Kyle. We just had a natural chemistry from the start and the process has been very satisfying, even if it did involve herding cats. You can see a preview of our advice for ALCTS — a dozen social media tips we shared on twitter yesterday (under the hashtag #ELCtips) — and if you’re at ALA, please come by the poster session!

Friday night? I can’t dance, but I might try.

Saturday, June 28

Day two features the hearing on the new draft framework for information literacy instruction. Classroom instruction is a big part of what I do, so this attending is a must. I am also going to seek out the Alexandria Still Burns project to see if I can participate. Otherwise, my Saturday afternoon is up in the air. Saturday night? Tumblarian meet-up, then Afterhours with EveryLibrary and the Librarian Wardrobe book release party.

Sunday, June 29

There’s a lot of good stuff going on Sunday. The session I’m most excited about is about threshold concepts, the model of information literacy instruction that heavily influenced the new framework. Two of the presenters — Korey Brunetti and Amy Hofer — had a huge influence on me early in my career when I saw them speak at the CARL Conference in 2010. I’m curious what they’re talking about in 2014.

Monday, June 30

Oh, Monday. Usually the cool down day of the conference, a chance to catch your breath, see a few people you’ve missed, and blow off steam as an attendee at Battledecks (or, as it has transmorphed for 2014, The Library Games). Not this year. Monday morning: I’m a panelist for #TumblarianTalk, moderated by Kate TkaPOW!. Monday afternoon: I’m the moderator, for What I really want to do is direct: First-time library directors discuss their experiences (join us! And be part of the chatter on #iwannadirect). Monday evening, I’ll be heeling it up as one of the agents of the Library Security Agency, or LSA, at The Library Games.


For the last couple conferences, Tumblarians have been sharing headshots so we can all recognize each other. Here’s my face, with my longest-ever beard that I’m taking to the insanely hot Las Vegas, because I am insane. If you see me walking down the hall, please say hi!


Quotes on the internet: Frederick Douglass and Repairing Broken Men

Posted on April 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm in

This afternoon a student approach me at the Research Help desk. She wanted to cite the following quote by Frederick Douglass:

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

Noble sentiment, yes? And the internet is quite certain that he said it. Sites like Brainy Quote, Goodreads and others trumpet this quote. Blog posts refer to it. Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, attributes this quote to Douglass. It’s on bumper stickers. Even Christian evangelicals have quoted it, to further their own purposes.

But none of them mentioned where Frederick Douglass actually said this. One blog post referenced 1855, but included nothing else.

All of Douglass’s books are in the public domain, so I ventured to Project Gutenberg. Each of his published works can be opened as an HTML document and searched.

It turns out Frederick Douglass frequently uses the word “broken” — it appears 35 times in My Bondage and My Freedom alone. One line in particular, about the violence done to him as an enslaved child, was reminiscent of the famous quote:

Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?

Here is the entire passage in which that quote — a verifiably real quote — appears. It’s lengthy, but it’s worth understanding the quote in context:

The mistress of the house was a model of affection and tenderness. Her fervent piety and watchful uprightness made it impossible to see her without thinking and feeling—”that woman is a Christian.” There was no sorrow nor suffering for which she had not a tear, and there was no innocent joy for which she did not a smile. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities, and her home of its early happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage? It may be broken toward the slave, on Sunday, and toward the master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand entire, or it does not stand at all. If my condition waxed bad, that of the family waxed not better. The first step, in the wrong direction, was the violence done to nature and to conscience, in arresting the benevolence that would have enlightened my young mind. In ceasing to instruct me, she must begin to justify herself to herself; and, once consenting to take sides in such a debate, she was riveted to her position. One needs very little knowledge of moral philosophy, to see where my mistress now landed. She finally became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read, than was her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as her husband had commanded her, but seemed resolved to better his instruction. Nothing appeared to make my poor mistress—after her turning toward the downward path—more angry, than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a book or a newspaper. I have had her rush at me, with the utmost fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy.

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, paragraph 120 | Project Gutenberg

This book was published in 1855, the same year mentioned by the blogger.

Nowhere in his published works does the popular internet quote appear. It is certainly possible it was uttered in a speech, the contents of which were published elsewhere — in a news story of the day, or by a biographer whose work I didn’t find. There’s a series of books from Yale University Press that include his private correspondence and the text of some of his speeches, content not published elsewhere. Perhaps the quote is in there — although I doubt a quote buried in an expensive series of academic texts has become an internet meme.

I think it’s more likely that what Frederick Douglass really said has been whitewashed.

Historical Whitewashing

It’s possible the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom has been paraphrased so often over the years that this popular quote about raising children right has replaced the truth about the violent treatment Douglass received as a child, and how the evils of slavery could break not only the spirits of people who were enslaved but also the souls of the white men and women who felt justified in enslaving others.

Racism and white privilege work in insidious ways. The dark, ugly truth of our white supremacist history can be transformed into positive affirmations, affirmations that then appear unquestioned online, on car bumpers, and in the New York Times.

I can’t prove that the popular quote isn’t real, and I can’t prove that it was the passage in My Bondage and My Freedom that inspired it. But that’s what I suspect.

And what did I tell the student? She wasn’t writing a historical analysis of Frederick Douglass, she was writing a psychology paper. The quote — whether real or false — set up her thesis nicely. I didn’t want to disrupt her process on the day her paper was due. So I advised that she refer to the quote as “widely attributed to” Frederick Douglass, and at least cite the Kristof article rather than Brainy Quote.

But then we also had a good conversation about historical truth (while I helped her clean up her references page — we were multitasking!). This type of work with students — digging into how information is presented, how to present information, understanding context, and closing in on the truth (however that may be defined) — this is what I like about being a librarian.

Many thanks to my fellow librarians who helped me in my quest to verify the quote — @cclibchica, @CarliSpina, @mchris4duke, and @sehovde.

A slightly shorter version of this post was originally published on tumblr.