Learning Library History from Our Patrons

March 23, 2016

Wayne Wiegand

An Interview with Allen Smith Visiting Scholar Dr. Wayne Wiegand

November 2015 marked publication of the 35th edition of Howard Zinn’s landmark book, A People’s History of the United States, in which canonical, colonialist versions of our nation’s past are deconstructed by vivid, well-researched accounts of a different American experience—the view of the oppressed, the voiceless, and the disenfranchised. Wayne Wiegand, known as the "Dean of American library historians," chose Zinn’s pivotal work as the inspiration for the title—and ethos—of his recent lauded book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public. Part of Our Lives provides a critical, comprehensive history of the public library and all its functions, and closely examines the relationship between broader social issues and policy and collection development.

Simmons SLIS hosted Dr. Wiegand last month as the 2016 Allen Smith Scholar. In addition to being a renowned scholar and author, Wiegand was the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies and Professor of American Studies at Florida State University from 2003 until his retirement in 2010. In 1992 he was a founding co-director of the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where he was teaching at the time), was an organizer and director of the Florida Book Awards (2006-2013), and has been a fellow at numerous academic institutions and literary organizations. Wiegand and his wife, Shirley Wiegand (Emerita Professor of Law at Marquette University Law School, Wisconsin) recently completed a manuscript on the history of desegregation of libraries in the American South.

Dr. Wiegand gave a public lecture at SLIS, focusing on major topics raised in Part of Our Lives, and led a conversation on the need for public library advocacy. He also participated in a panel with Jeffrey Schnapp of the metaLAB @ Harvard and Amy Ryan of the Digital Public Library of America on the role of public libraries in 21st-century American lives. Wiegand was available for one-on-one meetings with students and faculty, and was kind enough to sit down with InfoLink’s Lily Troia to discuss his recent book, the complex role of the historian, and how a deeper understanding of the past can (and should) shape current conversations and policies in the public library world.

You recently wrote a blog post for American Libraries commemorating ALA’s 140th anniversary, which highlighted the activities surrounding the first librarians’ conference (and formation of the ALA) in Philadelphia in 1876. How do you think the organization has managed to maintain relevance after nearly a century and a half?

The vast majority of American libraries are not compulsory institutions—they must serve their clienteles in order to draw numbers in. The American Library Association has operated in concert with that imperative, and has remained relevant to the practice of librarianship because it has been nimble. The ALA is willing to change, perhaps not as fast as some librarians would like, but fast enough to keep their interest and organize themselves into a national voice. ALA still does speak for the nation’s library community when it comes to communicating with Washington politicians.

As a historian, what role do you think unearthing the past should play in our present day decision making practices?

This could be four lectures! In American library history we have generally celebrated library institutions, heroes, and practices. What we have not done very well is critically analyze them; and it is from the latter, I think, that librarians and the library community can learn the most.

I went into the research for Part of Our Lives with a critical eye. My only question was: why do people love their public libraries? That question takes one out of LIS’s professional discourse, which is: libraries are essential for democracy, and one cannot have a democracy without an informed citizenry. By removing myself from that discourse I was able to see things that my predecessor library historians have not. For example, reading is a lot more important for the people who use libraries than we have previously thought, and the library is a physical space in which communities construct themselves. We have not fully realized those things to the extent that our users have. Unearthing the past in a critical way—and that does not necessarily mean negative—with scholarly analysis will serve present day librarians by showing them what they have done well and poorly in the past. If they know their past, they will better understand their present, which will help them more accurately plan their future.

In a recent interview with WORT (Madison, Wisconsin) you and your wife discuss a recently completed manuscript that examines the desegregation of libraries in the South. At one point you give, as an example, the ways in which Reader’s Guide and other reader’s indexes contributed to African American’s restricted access to information and resources reflecting their experiences, and ultimately their different perspective on print culture. Do you see parallels in conversations happening in libraries today regarding diverse collections and inclusive programming?

Yes, I do. We inherit the past. We change certain things we have inherited, but we tend to look past other things. Librarians are like other practicing professionals. They inherit systemic biases. Some of those biases are racist. Some of those biases are gender-related, some relate to sexual orientation. Look at something as simple as the Dewey Decimal classification system—you simply cannot change the classification system in major ways. A Christian-rooted foundation, for example, still tends to privilege males over females, heterosexuals over homosexuals. Those are things we have inherited from the past. For us to adjust the Dewey Decimal classification system to rid itself of these biases would be impossible, and would be a huge cost to the 95% of public and school libraries in the country who use that system. Systemic biases are with us. We simply must struggle through them and show where those biases exist.

A new book came out last fall by Cheryl Knott, [Not Free, Not For All:  Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow], that discusses Jim Crow libraries in the American South before 1950. A large number of our colleagues practicing librarianship today are unaware that these Jim Crow libraries even existed—and that unawareness was inherited from previous generations of library historians. Many African Americans today were probably told stories by their grandparents about these Jim Crow libraries. It may be part of their consciousness, and not necessarily part of the consciousness of many white librarians.

The Library Services Act—the first time librarianship [as an organized profession] got its fingers into federal money in a systematic way—was passed in 1956. The primary reason the law was passed was because Southern State librarians went to their congressmen who, because of seniority in Congress, were able to push the legislation through with the promise the money would not be used to integrate libraries. From the get-go in 1956 it was understood that federal monies coming into the states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, for example, would be handled and allocated by the white state library officials of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia.

These new perspectives harken to historical epiphanies that accompany reading Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for the first time! How did the spirit and vision of Zinn’s writing help shape Part of Our Lives? Do you hope this book to be a clarion call to librarians, much as Zinn’s words and works were for archivists?

I chose the title to attract the attention of individuals who had read Zinn. I did not expect librarians to have read a lot of old American histories. I expected them to read a considerable amount of library press and library publicity, but almost all of that is generated from the top down. Zinn inspired me to take this different perspective. I thought, “Why not listen to the user voices and see what comes up,” which is different from the way social science pursues research. When I do research, I identify a very broad subject and ask myself: what happened? I let the information reveal what is most important and how best to organize it. I came up with this tripartite institutional functioning that libraries fill by listening to the voices of the users of public libraries: information access, library as a place, and the transformative power of reading. I do not think I could have done that with any other angle of vision.

Do you think that some of the reason there is not as much of a body of critical literature or critical conversations in the library or LIS world about looking at history from this perspective because we are a service-focused profession?

Our profession is a practical profession, and practicing librarianship requires time and attention. Thus, I am not so critical of practicing librarians. I am, however, much more critical of our profession’s research and teaching communities. From my perspective they are asking questions about and devoting attention to only a fraction of what libraries do for users.

It has been suggested that public library sustainability is directly tied to environmental sustainability—both an ecological environmental science standpoint, and the idea of understanding our communities, being entrenched in working within the community as a whole, and looking at the kind of community ecology that exists.

I agree. It does wander away from the central principle of the professional rhetoric—and that is OK. I think we have to [wander] in order to understand. What you just cited has precedent in American library history, but it is a precedent we have lost sight of because our focus has been on information access.

What you refer to was already much in evidence in the two black branches of the Louisville public library system at the beginning of the 20th-century. Understanding the ecology of the community was necessary for the African American library director because he lived in a segregated society. There were not many public places that African Americans could use in Louisville. The director came out and said, “My library has got to be a community center.” I speak to some of this in Part of Our Lives, and it is addressed heavily in the forthcoming book on desegregating public libraries in the American South my wife and I wrote. Librarianship lost sight of his model—the library as a social center or community center—then, over time, librarians recovered it once or twice. Now the profession is recovering it again in the beginning of the 21st-century. My advice would be, look at history for some guidance to the future if you are looking at the library's place in the community. If you are focused primarily on information access, you won’t see it.

Can you discuss your experience balancing the roles of scholar and educator?

A major part of my job as a LIS educator was to do research, but my kind of research is not practical in nature. I don’t disparage researching practical questions like “how can we do this better?”   In librarianship, we have to do that kind of research. But my kind of research is different; I want to know “Why is this happening?”

Do you have a guiding philosophy to your own approach to instruction?

If I can ask good questions, I have done my job. Not necessarily the answers, just good questions. I think I ask some relevant questions in Part of Our Lives. Let’s see whether they ripple through the profession in the next 10-20 years, or if they get buried like that black librarian in Louisville who said, “My library has got to be a community center.”

Do you have any tips to engaging students with history?

In librarianship we have been taught that library history is largely nostalgia. If LIS students arrive with that attitude, I have a hard time showing them how valuable history can be. If they come to me with an attitude of inquiry, however, “I heard that public librarianship before 1950 was segregated in the Deep South. I would like to know more about that,” I can say, “Here are your resources. Go find out.” Right now, I am trying to convince a couple of people to do a book or a dissertation on the desegregation of Florida's public libraries. There are some huge stories in there that were carried by people who are still living. But I am always running into this attitude: “Oh, history is just nostalgia. We just use it for publicity purposes to make people feel good about what happened in libraries in the past.”

Do you think that the historian has a role in outreach and advocacy, and activism?

Those words--outreach and advocacy—carry with them baggage from history. The word “outreach” was crafted to describe a set of professional practices that were perceived to be something beyond the central core of activities. When budgets were crushed the activities would come back to the central core. Using the word “outreach” implies a value to the set of activities, but what many librarians consider outreach is central to the users. From a users’ perspective we need to rethink what is central and what is external.

The same thing goes for advocacy. To my knowledge I know of very few powerful professional voices saying “Harry Potter has benefitted the young adults who read him in many, many ways,” and then enumerated the scores and scores of ways Harry Potter has influenced them. Just recently somebody did an analysis of young adults who read Harry Potter as children, and they test out to be more tolerant of diversity than non-Harry Potter readers. Advocacy for me would be “let’s do another Harry Potter thing,” but advocacy in our profession is usually: “We need more money for our public libraries. We need to have a higher profile. We need to improve our brand.” I am saying let's look at this through the eyes of users, which might force different responses. For both those words—“outreach” and “advocacy”--I am cautious because they bring with them baggage from the past.  As for “activism,” I have every confidence the profession will be as activist in the future as in the past for practices it knows benefit user communities.

What projects were you working on while at Simmons?

I am doing six articles on “proud moments” in ALA’s history that American Libraries will be publishing on the occasion of the Association’s 140th anniversary. Simmons has excellent professional LIS collections. I do not have them where I am now living in the East Bay area of California, so that was the focus of my free time.