- Libraries:Meaning and Use
People are anxious about the future of libraries, with justification. There are good reasons to worry about levels of funding for US public libraries, for example, but sometimes astonishing claptrap even from otherwise reputable sources feeds the anxiety about the health of libraries. Here’s what Alberto Manguel had to say about public libraries in the New York Times in October 2015: “Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online.” Manguel produces no evidence for this extraordinary assertion and seems unaware that in 2012 (the latest year for which data are available), Americans made 1.5 billion trips to public libraries—the equivalent of more than 4.1 million visits each day. Some were undoubtedly sheltering from the cold or job hunting, but the great majority were there to check out library materials (two billion items circulated in 2012, an increase of 28% over the previous 10 years), or attend programs (92 million attendees—an increase of 37% over the previous eight years) (“Public Libraries”). Despite these encouraging numbers, the overall tenor of Manguel’s article is that public libraries are in dire straits.
More positively, but similarly misconceived, is the commonplace “Libraries aren’t just for books anymore.” In another recent New York Times article, “These Public Libraries Are for Snowshoes and Ukuleles,” Patricia Leigh Brown draws attention to unusual circulating materials like cake pans and science equipment, as well as to “makerspaces” that can be found in public and academic libraries, where library patrons can use state-of-the-art technologies (3-D printers are common) to work on projects, join clubs, and share skills. Since assertions about library obsolescence usually rest on claims about the primacy of individually owned electronic or virtual resources, librarians appreciate media attention to communities’ value for the physical spaces and services the library provides. But to claim that libraries used to be “dusty warehouses” of books shows ignorance of the library’s past as well as its present. Libraries have [End Page 156] long circulated nonprint items and provided space and equipment for activities other than reading. In 1936, for instance, the Los Angeles Public Library circulated toys; in 1940s New York, a branch library provided space for amateur dramatics. Even earlier in the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for libraries to facilitate activities such as art displays, health forums, and flower shows. In addition, focusing on activities that are not book related (while helpful in pointing out the value of library space) fails to recognize library users’ enormous appreciation for books and reading. It is hardly fair to blame the public for unfamiliarity with library history, however, when many librarians are just as ignorant since the history of libraries has all but vanished from the professional curricula in American librarianship offered by what used to be called “library schools.”1
Fortunately, the history of libraries no longer depends on the strenuous efforts of a few librarians and faculty. Perhaps, looking back, the year 2015 will be seen as an annus mirabilis in US historiography of libraries, the year it emerged as an area of general historical interest. Until recently, writing the history of libraries has been largely segregated from mainstream scholarship, resulting in a story told by librarians mostly to their colleagues within the small community of Library and Information Science. That in 2015 several major university presses have published books about library histories suggests that this situation is changing. These notable studies include two of the three books reviewed here: the collection of essays in The Meaning of the Library, edited by Alice Crawford, and Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not for All, while The Library Beyond the Book (by Jeffrey T. Schnapps and Matthew Battles) was published in 2014.2 Broad trends that have contributed to this...