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Libraries as Agencies of Culture (review)

From: Libraries & Culture
Volume 39, Number 2, Spring 2004
pp. 219-222 | 10.1353/lac.2004.0039

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Libraries & Culture 39.2 (2004) 219-222

Libraries as Agencies of Culture (American Studies 42, no. 3 [fall 2001]). Edited by Thomas Augst and Wayne A. Wiegand. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. 211 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0-299-18304-1.

This book is the best collection of essays that I have reviewed. Each essay was carefully crafted and superbly researched. The contributors come from a wide spectrum of cultural studies, library history, and other aspects of librarianship. They were obviously chosen with great care. Moreover, the introduction by Thomas Augst was outstanding. He not only read the essays and encapsulated them but ruminated about their significance "in relation to major issues that have defined the production, dissemination and consumption of American culture: issues of social access, the construction of public life, and the organization of knowledge" (6). Today we take access and consumption for granted, but Augst reminds us that it was always an uphill battle, with victory never certain. Gender, class, ethnicity, and race "belied" the rhetoric of republican ideology and limited access to books. Each essay, he writes, will document the "social life of books" and explain "how American culture has been shaped by controls over access" (8).

Ari Kelman's essay, "The Sound of the Civic: Reading Noise at the New York Public Library," sets the tone for the book: it is imaginative and provocative. He ponders the relationship between urban noise and social civility and the means by which city fathers attempted to socialize new immigrants. Parks and the City Beautiful movement were one way of creating "social space," and libraries were another: stillness and "hush" were essential to the production of a civil society. If the consumption of knowledge proceeded quietly, good citizens would produce good cities and a sound social order. Silent library patrons were proof that this gleichschaltung was working.

"High Culture, Low Culture: The Singular Duality of the Library of Congress" by Elizabeth Jane Aiken is a sound piece of archival research. She traces the evolution of that venerable institution's music collection policy from the "best" to homegrown folk music. Herbert Putnam served as the link between these two genres. He had the ability to identify and hire able people such as Oscar Sonneck and Carl Engel, both classicists, and let them do their work. Aiken also discusses the importance of private funds, such as the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowment, as a means of leeching money from a parsimonious Congress. Finally, she relates the Library of Congress's transition to folk music and the cultural themes—nostalgia and musical heterogeneity—that undergirded this new thrust. We meet "new" people like Robert Winslow Gordon, who played a critical role in collecting folk music. We learn the significance of this transition: "By expanding the definition of institutional collections to include the oral tradition, by defining the American musical heritage to include the rural poor, the uneducated, and the disadvantaged, and by proclaiming a center for the support and study of a tradition far closer to the population than the classics, the Library of Congress extended its natural authority to a celebration of American memories" (58) and also its cultural authority.

"Home Libraries and the Institutionalization of Everyday Practices among Antebellum New Englanders" by Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray promises "to study library history 'from the outside in' by peering into private lives as lived rather than assessing particular institutional constructions" (66). The authors fulfill their promise by focusing upon the "production, flow and consumption" of books—how they were collected, cataloged, lent, borrowed, discussed, and evaluated. This essay is based upon nearly four thousand manuscripts, diaries, and letters written by New Englanders from 1830 to 1861. These everyday practices were never institutionalized but arose from custom and a "dense social network" (81). While the authors believe that public libraries provided a wider array of specialized knowledge and symbolized a community commitment to "knowledge," their presence also eroded social customs. Reading, for example, lost its social significance when people borrowed books from a library instead of a neighbor. One would not steal a book from one's neighbor, but one might steal it from an institution.

Christine Pawley's "Reading...

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