The “Real Librarians” of Congress

Posted on 12 June 2015 at 1:26 pm in Musings.

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.

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  1. Comment by jessamyn on July 1, 2015 at 10:07 am.

    I love this so much!

  2. Comment by Daniel Ransom on August 27, 2015 at 2:52 pm.

    Thank you!

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