The ALA Annual Conference of 2013 is bearing down on us. Tens of thousands of librarians – myself included – will descend on Chicago this Friday. The modern iteration of ALA Annual, for better and for worse, is the very model of a modern major conference, with an exhibitor floor, professional presentations, vendor parties, dubious swag, and, hopefully, learning and growth experiences for the assembled librarians.
I was inspired by a passing comment on Facebook last week to look up the 1913 Papers and Proceedings of the American Library Association Annual Conference, exactly one century ago. The older Proceedings are in the public domain and most are scanned in Google Books (though some wonky metadata can sometimes make specific ones hard to find).
In 1913, the librarians gathered in Kaaterskill, in upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley – a far cry from the recent history of Chicago, Anaheim, and New Orleans, and next year’s Las Vegas. The 1913 conference featured 892 participants, with the host state leading the way with 316 attendees, while my home state of California only sent four on the cross-country trek. One can only imagine the scene in the Catskill resort town. Did any flock of librarians choose to take a moonlit walk to the Kaaterskill Falls with a bottle of wine or two under their arms? The Proceedings close by chronicling a post-conference librarian trip by train, steamer, and automobile through the Adirondacks, including a group swim in a mountain lake.
“As Others See Us”
One of the most intriguing portions of the Proceedings is under the heading “As Others See Us.” The ALA President of the time, Henry Legler (chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library), sent a letter to the “eminent men and women in the United States and Great Britain” requesting “brief expressions touching our own work.” Accompanying the letter was a question relevant to the individual recipient, which included Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, W.E.B. Du Bois, John F. Fitzgerald (JFK’s prominent maternal grandfather), and various other leaders in society, business, and the arts. Noteworthy answers were read aloud at the conference.
Most of the questions asked are as illuminating, if not more so, than the answers. The questions that librarians saw fit to ask society’s leaders tells us a lot of what they thought of their own profession at the time. Here are ten of the 22 original 1913 questions (language unaltered):
- Should our public expect the library to supply all the “best sellers” hot from the press?
- Is the negro being helped by our public libraries?
- Is cooperation between the public school and the public library developing in the right direction?
- Should the public library exercise censorship over the books it circulates?
- What rank should the library have in the scale of the community’s social assets?
- What is your conception of the ideal librarian?
- Is it wicked for our libraries to amuse people?
- Are our libraries helping to make better citizens of those from over-seas?
- Is the modern city library engaging in activities outside its proper sphere, e.g. lectures, story-telling, art exhibits, victrola concerts, loan of pianola rolls, etc.?
- Need librarians apologize for circulating a large percentage of contemporary fiction?
“The Color Line in Literature is Silly”
W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, answered the second question above pointedly. It is not a surprise that libraries operated under systematized racist policies in 1913 and were not welcoming to blacks and other cultural minorities. Du Bois stated clearly that while libraries could be a great benefit, those in the north often intentionally made blacks feel unwelcome and those in the south systematically barred blacks from entering (“rigorously excluded”). His closing comment was that “it would seem a statement from the American Library Association to the effect that the color line in literature is silly, is much needed at present.”
It seems as if Du Bois’ words largely went unheaded; in a report on services to black patrons that occurred on the second day of the conference, Rochester public library director William F. Yust condemned the dismal state of library services to blacks in the south, but insisted that blacks were universally welcome in northern public libraries, in direct conflict with Du Bois’ observation. Yust also advocated for segregated blacks-only libraries in the south (with white leadership). The ALA was not, unfortunately, ahead of its time.
The conference record is a little better when discussing immigrant services. Prominent author and immigrant-rights activist Mary Antin delivered a rousing speech (it still reads well today) on the value and importance of immigrants to the American economy, and the importance of library services to those communities. The Proceedings notes that her oratory was hailed with a standing ovation. After Antin spoke, librarian Adelaide Maltby, who was the director of the Tompkins Square Branch on New York’s Lower East Side, added nuts, bolts and statistics to strengthen Mary Antin’s argument, and specifically argued in favor of collecting library materials in the native languages of their immigrant patrons. For 1913, this strikes me as forward thinking. However, a third presentation on the subject of immigrant services was startling for its xenophobia and bias against immigrants. One can only hope that the speaker, St. Joseph public librarian Charles Rush, was not greeted with the same acclaim and ovation as Mary Antin.
“Yet to answer a single question”
After I posted the original “As They See Us” questions to Facebook, my friend Patrick Sweeney, a public librarian, wrote that he was discouraged – “it almost seems like we have yet to answer a single question after 100 years.” While I understand his point, I would argue the opposite. I see tremendous positives in some of the questions the 1913 ALA saw fit to ask. It’s true that we still grapple now with questions of censorship (although, fortunately, the ALA’s stance on the subject is quite clear), what types of materials and services we should supply to our patrons, and what our core mission is (as hinted at in the 1913 questions about the “ideal librarian” and “proper sphere”).
However, the fact that these questions were asked suggests that the librarians of 1913 were already looking to expand our services beyond book circulation. Some of the creative programs going on in modern libraries – Patrick’s guitar lending program, Chicago Public Library’s exciting new Maker Space – are echoes of these questions. Would the ALA have asked about hosting lectures and victrola concerts, lending player piano rolls, and exhibiting art, if some libraries weren’t already doing just that? Would the ALA asked about the partnerships between public schools and public libraries if such partnerships weren’t already forming? Would they have wondered at the propriety of lending immoral “modern fiction” if many libraries didn’t already do just that?
The 1913 Proceedings make it clear that libraries have been pushing against the limits of our “proper sphere” for over a century now. Innovative library programs are building on a century-old legacy. Our professional forebears were already looking to provide new services to their communities. When a critic derides libraries as obsolete in the Age of Google, it’s worth remembering that libraries are not only more than just books today, but that they’ve been more than just books for at least a hundred years. We are building on the innovations of the past, not tearing history down – it’s an evolution, not a revolution – and we would do well to remember that as we engage in the latest debates.
Unfortunately, there will be no train or steamer to take us to the Adirondacks when ALA 2013 wraps up, and I doubt Kaaterskill could handle 20,000 of us for a conference. But a look back at our past (warts and all) helps us as we move forward into the future.