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Reframing the narrative: Upcoming CARL Conference paper

Posted on 27 August 2015 at 1:37 pm in Musings.

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!

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

Posted on 16 June 2015 at 1:49 pm in Events.

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).


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.

Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing: Bibliography

Posted on 16 September 2014 at 5:02 pm in Musings.

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

Speculative Cataloging

Posted on 7 January 2014 at 12:44 pm in Musings.

It all started as a side joke by my boss during a meeting, and then turned into this tweet:

Which, in turn, sparked my natural librarian’s curiosity. There is no Journal of Speculative Cataloging, of course, but a journal of speculative … something? An intriguing name. A simple search of my library’s journal finder turned up the very real Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a venerable periodical first published in 1867.

Thanks to the open access to early journal content provided by JSTOR, I made a quick search of the early issues to see if questions about libraries were posed, and lo and behold, not only was there a library science focused article (probably from before the term “library science” was bandied about), it was very much a piece of speculative cataloging. Published in 1870, and nestled between articles titled “Göthe’s Social Romances,” “The Settlement for All Philosophical Disputes,” (that one sounds ambitious), and “The Immortality of the Soul,” (equally so), it is a humble submission titled “Book Classification,” uncredited to an author (the only identifying clues are that he refers to himself in the masculine, and mentions that his system of cataloging is being implemented at the Public School Library of St. Louis, a subscription library that was the forerunner to St. Louis’s public library).

It should be noted that this 1870 article predates both the Library of Congress (1897) and Dewey Decimal (1876) systems of cataloging and classification. As the public library movement swept the nation, developing systems of organization were likely the most vexing and complex issues facing this early generation of public librarians — as big a controversy as anything facing us today.

And what does our anonymous author propose? Why, naturally, something clear and easy to understand. Under the heading “The Scheme,” he explains:

It uses Bacon’s fundamental distinction (developed in De Augmentis Scientiarum, Book II. chap. I.) of the different faculties of the soul into Memory, Imagination, and Reason, from which proceed the three grand departments of human learning, to wit: History, Poetry, and Philosophy. Without particularly intending to classify books as such, Lord Bacon attempted rather to map out “human learning,” as he called it, and show its unity and the principle of development in the same. But his deep glance seized the formative idea which distinguishes different species of books (Book Classification, p. 115).

Most librarians have faced awkward small talk with folks from outside the profession: the half-hearted Dewey joke, the semi-earnest request for us to explain why libraries aren’t rendered obsolete by internet search, and so on. Imagine if this classification scheme had won out over Dewey’s…could you handle having to explain Francis Bacon, faculties of the soul, and the three grand departments of human learning to someone at a party? “Dewey Decimal” might have a funny ring to it, but I think we have it lucky.

From there our author argues against himself, detailing why Bacon’s work is an impractical system of classification (not surprisingly, since Sir Francis Bacon wasn’t writing about libraries at all). He reorders Bacon’s grand departments into a trio of classes: Science, Art (or Aesthetics), and History — although the 1870 definition of science is quite different from ours: “philosophy is the highest type of Science, and hence begins the catalogue” (p. 120); surely this pleased the publishers of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Since he wants each class to segue into the next (he uses the term “unfolds”), the author places the “useful arts” at the end of the Sciences, so it transitions the browser from Science into Art, Fine Arts, and ultimately Poetry. Geography begins the History classification, which is ultimately not too far of from modern the Library of Congress system: Class C includes Geography, and therefore those works precede World History, Class D.

Just how influential this system was, and how long it persisted in St. Louis, I do not know. But while we modern librarians come to grips with change and grapple with technology, it’s worth remembering that change is nothing new to our profession. In the 1870s, they didn’t even have an agreed upon method for putting the books on the shelves (nor an expectation that every community even have a public library). We have answered hugely fundamental questions and challenges throughout our professional history: the one and only constant in our line of work is the constant change.

This anonymous article from the past is a reminder of those questions we’ve had to speculate upon…and the cataloging and classification system we might have ended up with, in an alternate universe.


Librarian Nicolette Warisse Sosulski has identified the author as St. Louis-based educator, philosopher, and all-around rockstar William Torrey Harris, founder of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (which would explain why he didn’t credit himself as the author; as publisher, it must have been assumed.)

With his name, researching the influence of Harris’s system became a little easier: according to a 1945 article in the journal Library Quarterly, Dewey was directly influenced by Harris. Dewey once wrote that when developing his own classification system, “the inverted Baconian arrangement of the St. Louis Library has been followed.” Dewey even sent a letter to Harris asking for more details, referencing the article he had read in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Nicolette passed along further links of interest: the Classified Catalog of the St. Louis Mercantile Library (Harris’s Inverted Baconian Classification in action) and a reposting of a 1959 article from Libri by Eugene Graziano that makes all the direct comparisons between Harris and Dewey, showing how the former clearly influenced the latter (and explains some of Dewey’s oddities).

The “Inverted Baconian Model” was not a failed experiment: it was the direct ancestor of our contemporary classification and cataloging.

#ALA1913: Librarians in the Catskills

Posted on 24 June 2013 at 10:51 am in Events.

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.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls for Frank Moore and Dan Hodermarsky by Stephen Hannock, photographed by flickr user p_a_h.

“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.