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Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876–1920 (review)

From: Libraries & Culture
Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 2004
pp. 332-333 | 10.1353/lac.2004.0045

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Libraries & Culture 39.3 (2004) 332-333

Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. 2nd ed. By Dee Garrison. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. xxxiv, 319 pp. $24.99 (paper). ISBN 0-229-18114-6.

This book was published in 1979 and has already become a classic in American library history. It has been reprinted as a volume in the Print Culture in Modern America Series and includes a seventeen-page foreword, "Reading Apostles of Culture: The Politics and Historiography of Library History," by Christine Pawley.

The book is divided into four parts: "The Missionary Phase"; "Moral Passage: The Fiction Problem"; "Melvil Dewey: Mission and Mechanics"; and "The Tender Technicians." When Apostles was initially reviewed, Marion Casey cited the first part as the weakest section but did not say why. It is weak because it relies too much on Stow Person's The Decline of American Gentility, a book that was not well received by most historians because it is based on literary sources and because it is founded on a faulty and romantic analysis of American society—the bifurcation between a gemeinschaft and gesellschaft society. From this social theory, she constructs two librarian types: a genteel librarian such as Justin Winsor and a progressive librarian such as Melvil Dewey. Each type had its own characteristics. In truth, these types never existed. Any librarian at any time could have exuded some of the characteristics that she assigned to each type. Her argument is too pat and too procrustean. The foundation or building block for her book is, to my mind, weak.

Part 2 is an informative study on the Fiction Problem. Garrison skillfully relates librarians' changing attitudes toward books dealing with liberated women and sexual undertones. She attributes this evolution to changing attitudes toward the purpose of the public library—the shift from education to recreation—and to the need for mass support.

Part 3 is the strongest section of the book and deals with Dewey's life and work in five chapters. Garrison's characterization of Dewey and her ability to get into his heart and soul are remarkable. She gives us Dewey on the couch: anal retentive, paranoid, arrogant, grandiose, megalomaniacal, duplicitous, petty, and an anti-Semite to boot. Not an engaging fellow at all. And no, he was not the Lothario that people sometimes snicker about. He was a true case of arrested development. Garrison balances this assessment with a careful rendering of his accomplishments, such as the Dewey Decimal Classification system, library schools, and his activity within the American Library Association.

Part 4, the Garrison thesis itself, is the weakest section of the book. Garrison wants us to believe that librarianship never developed as a profession because its practitioners were women. She says more, of course: that women were timid, meek, and unassertive and could not be accorded intellectual leadership. But the relationship between women and professional development is at the heart of her argument. She weighs librarianship against three criteria of professionalism—service orientation, knowledge base, and autonomy—and finds it wanting. She puts quotation marks around "profession" when she refers to librarianship (173), and she serves up a whopper: "A woman-dominated profession was obviously a contradiction in terms" (185). Any truth to her thesis? None. Recall the words of Gen. Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre on the eve of the first battle of the Marne: "The enemy is offering us its flank."

I agree that librarianship did not develop as a profession, unless one defines a profession as what one does for a living. But if women were the cause of librarianship's failure to become a profession, then we must ask what the situation would have been if it had emerged as a male vocation. What was the reputation of librarians in the pre-Dewey days when the good old boys dominated? Garrison tells us: "In the 1860s the popular concept of the librarian was that of a preoccupied man in black—a collector and preserver who was never so happy as when all the volumes were safely on the shelf. He was thought to be ineffectual, grim and 'bookish'" (194). With this image, why would librarianship...

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