Telling Our Story

When I look at other academic professions, it seems that most practitioners have a good sense of their own history. For instance, even undergraduate physics majors seem able to speak knowledgeably about Bohr, Curie, Einstein, Fermi and dozens of others who have made notable contributions to the field.

I don’t see that in librarianship, especially academic librarianship. The development of modern physics aligns roughly with the development of modern librarianship, but how many of us know as much about our intellectual predecessors as physicists do about theirs? How would you do on a quiz about Cutter, Dewey, Lubetzky, Otlet, Panizzi, Ranganathan, and Verona? How about one on the fifteen “leaders in academic librarianship” I touched on in “Reflections on Leadership“?

The Great Man Trap

One reason we might not do well on this quiz is that many of us aren’t comfortable with the idea of the leader/great man of history. Barbara Fister, in particular, does a wonderful job of explaining this view. Here’s one example (from her comment on “Reflections on Leadership”):

“(T)here are all kinds of people who make things work well in libraries and never get the credit for it because they’re not in a position of power or inclined to promote themselves or, in fact, may be more interested in the work they do than in building their careers. Too often people in libraries have to do that work in subversive ways because they are presumed to be drones who report to more important people who supposedly are paid to make the decisions but are mostly just paid more.”

I agree with this point completely, but for me there are mitigating factors. As I responded:

“It’s important to be aware of the “Great Man” trap, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who has a difficult time making sense of data and theories without an accompanying story. And, for me, the most interesting stories are about people.

For instance, in my opinion, what makes Stephanie Nolen’s 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa so effective is that she seems to get all three elements right: the data seems comprehensive and accurate, the theories seem to explain the data, and the stories complement both…. (E)ven stories about traditional leaders—e.g. Nelson Mandela or Robert B. Downs—are hard to tell accurately without also talking about the people whose work they are often given credit (or blame) for—their colleagues who may not be in a position of power or who are not inclined to promote themselves or build their own careers. These peoples’ contributions are undoubtedly important, but I’m more likely to learn about them if someone points me to Mandela or Downs than if I have to somehow learn about them without first researching the people who are traditionally thought of as leaders.”

Do I Get Partial Credit for Knowing the History of Physics?

As Wayne Bivens-Tatum pointed out to me, another reason academic librarians may not know about the history of their own profession is that many of us identify more closely with our specializations: the subjects we collect, the departments for which we have liaison responsibilities, the areas we studied as undergraduates or in earning non-MLS graduate degrees. Like Barbara Fister’s objection, I think this makes sense as an explanation, but not as a defense of the status quo. Of course we should learn as much as we can about our subject responsibilities, but we should learn as much as we can about academic librarianship as well. At the very least, shouldn’t we learn how others did what we do? It’s amazing what we can forget by not paying attention. There’s no glory in reinventing the wheel or recoining a term.

There Must Be a Tail Here Somewhere

I think the third reason we don’t see our history discussed all that much is self-perpetuating. There simply hasn’t been much of a discussion to join, especially recently. If you’ve followed the mainstream media’s extensive coverage of The Long Tail, you’ve been exposed to the idea that sometimes all it takes is a small group to sustain a movement. Unfortunately, for the time being, that group doesn’t seem to exist. As I mentioned in “Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths,” even at the Library History Round Table the history of academic librarianship doesn’t seem to come up all that much.

Back in 1976, College & Research Libraries celebrated the ALA centennial by devoting the entire year to academic library history (published in book form the next year as Libraries for Teaching, Libraries for Research). In 1981, Arthur T. Hamlin published The University Library in the United States and Orvin Lee Shiflett published Origins of American Academic Librarianship, and 1983 brought the Wayne Wiegand-edited Leaders in American Academic Librarianship. Other books have covered elements of our history, such as academic library buildings, pre-Victorian libraries and librarianship, the Carnegie Corporation’s influence in shaping librarianship, and the contributions of the Graduate Library School at Chicago, but in the past twenty-five years, the most notable general study on American academic librarianship seems to be Sharon Gray Weiner’s good but short 2005 article, “The History of Academic Libraries in the United States: a Review of the Literature.”

Making History

As academic librarians, we tend to get a very short introduction to our history in school, pick up a bit from journals or blogs, and perhaps learn a little something from colleagues. But we tend to miss a great deal more than we’re exposed to: since entering library school eighteen months ago, I’ve probably read or heard at least three dozen academic librarians discuss Facebook at length, but my first and only exposure to Robert Downs was when I read Leaders in American Academic Librarianship a couple of months back. That seems out of whack to me. And it feels like, without that knowledge—without a sense of our history—we’re in danger of paying too little attention to the people, organizations, and movements that are doing historically significant work and too much attention to ideas that have the historical earmarks of faddishness.

In “Reflections on Leadership” I asked who should be getting our attention now: Who has emerged, or seems to be emerging, as our more notable leaders and role models? Barbara Fister and Scott Walter were kind and brave enough to volunteer a few names each. I got in touch with some of the librarians on these lists and asked them to write about one of their academic librarian role models and how that person influenced one of their most important projects. Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo agreed to participate, and responded with stories that are at once moving and inspiring. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Ray English

Ray English, Ph.D., is the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College. He wrote:

My primary mentor in academic librarianship was the late William A. Moffett, who was Director of Libraries at Oberlin from 1979 to 1990. I worked closely with Bill for 11 years. He made extraordinary improvements in the Oberlin College Library and he also created national headlines by championing the cause of collection security following the capture in Oberlin of an infamous book thief. He left Oberlin to become librarian at the Huntington and achieved international fame by opening up access the Dead Sea Scrolls. He’s the only librarian I know whose picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times. He was elected president of ACRL and was also received the ACRL Academic Research Librarian of the Year award.

Bill and I were very different personalities. He loved the media limelight and did not shy away from confrontation. I’ve never really sought—or even liked—public attention. I have over the years learned how to be a public figure, but only because I had to. I’ve always been more comfortable with facilitation and the behind the scenes processes of getting things done. I love to think of ways to move complex issues forward, taking into account to the extent possible the various factors involved.

Despite our different approaches, Bill showed me in numerous ways what a library director can accomplish when he or she thinks big and is willing to take on important issues. If it had not been for Bill, I doubt that I would ever have worked to establish the ACRL scholarly communications program or become active in SPARC. I was actually attracted to scholarly communications issues because they are big and complex. I felt I had a sense of what might be needed to bring about transformative systemic change. I never thought that I could accomplish that much on my own, but I was quite confident that I could be a leader in engaging the academic library community on these issues. That was in part because of what I saw Bill accomplish.

One of the things that I admired deeply about Bill was his unswerving dedication. He was totally committed to his work and it was evident to everyone that he loved what he was doing. I have been very fortunate in the same way. I work hard—often for more hours than anyone rightfully should—but I also know that I am fighting for causes that are fundamentally good. That makes the work a lot of fun a lot of the time—and even when it is not that much fun, it is rewarding.

If I had any advice for those who want to be leaders in the profession today, it would be to find and engage important issues that they care about in their guts, issues that become their fundamental passions. Those who do that will find the journey to be very worthwhile, no matter what successes they achieve.

Christine Pawley

Christine Pawley, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies and director of its Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America. She wrote:

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the librarian (now educator) who has had most influence on my own work is Wayne Wiegand. Wayne taught the first class I took in library school (about twenty years ago): collection development. This was unlike any other collection development course you have ever heard of. He linked collection development to the sociology of knowledge of Berger and Luckmann, the reader response theories of Iser and Jauss, and the speech code theory of Basil Bernstein. Wayne had not yet discovered Gramsci, Foucault, and Habermas, otherwise we would doubtless have had the neo-Marxian, post-modern, and critical theory angle on collection development, too. I loved it all. I was just taking this one class to see if librarianship was for me. I eagerly signed up for more classes the following semester, assuming that all SLIS classes would be taught in the same vein. Well, no, I soon discovered. Other classes were instructive, but social theory—no, not so much.

When I signed on for the long haul and became a doctoral student, it was the Wayne vision for LIS that I had in mind, though I wasn’t too sure how this would work out in practice. Luckily for me, Wayne and Jim Danky were collaborating to found the Center for the History of Print Culture. Print Culture, Wayne believed, was the siege engine that would break down the defensive walls surrounding and isolating LIS, and that would allow the liberating ideas of other disciplines—history, literary criticism, cultural studies and sociology—to release the inmates from their self-incarceration. Luckily for me, too, Wayne located just the primary source for my PhD study—a set of circulation and accessions records from some tiny town in Iowa. “Put these together with census data,” he said, “and you’ve got yourself a dissertation.”

I was amazed at his generosity in passing this “find” on to a student. Yet I recognized that he wasn’t doing this just to help me out. Wayne was always working on a strategy for libraries and history; always thinking up new ways to make the rest of us think in new ways. When—as often happened—he passed on to his students a publishing or speaking opportunity, or involved us in one of his many projects, it was, of course, incredibly helpful of him. But it was also part of his troop deployment, sending us off to do battle with what we learned to think of as the forces of complacency. And even though we knew we figured in some small way in Wayne’s grand schemes, he was never manipulative. He came up with ideas, yet emphasized that these were indeed only suggestions. And it was indeed fine to take the bits that you felt would work, and leave other bits aside.
Through his writing and teaching, Wayne has had an extraordinary influence over hundreds of practitioners and educators. I feel so fortunate to be one of them.

ShinJoung Yeo

ShinJoung Yeo is the Coordinator for Reference and Outreach Services and Bibliographer for Communication at Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University. She wrote:

I always feel some uneasiness about naming particular people who’ve influenced me in my views of librarianship and especially its connections to social justice. Social justice is rarely brought about by one individual’s actions but rather many people committed to the cause. Despite this uneasiness, I can say that librarians like E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan, Anita Schiller, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, and Clara Chu demonstrate what librarianship is all about— liberatory education, equality and justice.

The common thread between these librarians is that they all questioned social norms, were able to see injustice, had courage to challenge that injustice and were/are committed to serving their communities. E.J. Josey, Eric Moon, Juliette Hampton Morgan and many other librarians participated in the civil rights movement, challenged racial segregation within ALA and the library community, and called for justice in their workplaces. They weren’t silent and didn’t accept “the social norm” which caused unequal access to knowledge, tremendous pain and oppression to people of color. In 1968, Anita Schiller, in her study entitled, “Characteristics of Professional Personnel in College and Research Libraries,” first documented the gender inequality prevalent within the library profession. Kathleen de la Peña McCook and Clara Chu have been devoted to teaching the next generation of librarians about the library as a place where democratic ideals can flourish. I became a librarian with little knowledge about the history of librarianship, but these librarians opened my eyes, taught me how radical is librarianship as a profession. Their courage continues to inspire me.

I still consider myself to be a novice librarian but I have been fortunate to be part of several projects that carry on the tradition of library activism. I have had the opportunity, in collaboration with many librarians, to be part of radical reference. Radical Reference is a group of over 300 librarians who have supported the information needs of activists and independent journalists since it was launched in 2004. More recently and closer to home, I helped to found the Stanford Open Source Lab to promote free/open software on campus. The ideals of open source software closely align with the ideals of libraries—access to and sharing of information, collaboration, and communities. This is a just start but I hope to continue to contribute to the field in the years to come.

I am incredibly grateful to Ray English, Christine Pawley, and ShinJoung Yeo for sharing their stories and for furthering my understanding and appreciation of our profession. I’m also grateful to Barbara Fister and Scott Walter for mentioning their admiration for these librarians’ work.

I hope you will use our comments section to mention others whose stories should be told and to tell your own story. I feel certain I’m not the only one who would love to read it.

2 thoughts on “Telling Our Story”

  1. I will always be grateful to Kathleen Molz, one of my professors at Columbia University’s School of Library Science, for her course on serving communities. Columbia didn’t require a written thesis for the MSLS, but I felt that the paper I wrote for that course qualified: a close study of a community and the library that served it. Her intelligence, integrity, and style shone through everything she did, and her invitation to our class to a meal in her home became a model for me in the classes I now teach (though she gave us brunch, while I specialize in hot fudge potlucks!). There was nothing stereotypical about Kathleen, and even today I am asking questions about the community I’m serving which I learned from her.

  2. Many thanks to the commentators – my heroes! – for taking the time to respond here, and to Brett for following up.

    One of the reasons physicists know about great physicists is that they spend years in apprenticeship to one of them, and they are linked in a kind of genealogy. Bohr begat Wheeler who begat Feynman who begat… They know their historical lineage because they really had time to become family and to be intellectually bonded to one another. And they work together on things that cumulate into a vast understanding that, every now and then, shows cracks and has to be reinvented.

    In contrast, we typically spend a year in graduate education, taking a smattering of different courses, and quite often don’t even write a thesis. There are mentorship programs, but there’s no deep culture of mentorship in our field, which is how science works. They don’t have bosses, they are all equal citizens of a republic, at least if you believe Polanyi, which I am optimistic enough to do. Our organizational structures are industrial (wow, we now have teams, how enlightened) not liberatory, and certainly not intellectual.

    Then again, what we do ain’t rocket science. And we’ve never really decided to let go of the trivia that keeps us from exploring the universe of ideas more deeply. The mentorship we have is often about how to be a better public servant, not how to make a real difference.

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