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Reviewed by:
  • Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of the Seattle Public Library
  • Andrew B. Wertheimer
Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of the Seattle Public Library. By John Douglas Marshall. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. vii, 192 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-295-98347-7.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist John Douglas Marshall, like many Seattleites, is obviously proud of his public library and how it developed from a frontier private reading room in 1891. He seems even prouder of its new postmodern central branch, the vision of award-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Marshall's book does a passable job of relating that story in his well-illustrated work, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams. Three of the book's eleven chapters deal with the new building. Marshall is at his best when he takes readers into the architect selection process. He also gives much attention to the administration, board members, Friends of the Library groups, and previous buildings. Ever the journalist, Marshall also found a few scoops along the way, such as the firing of Russian-born Natalie Notkin in 1932 for supposedly acquiring Communist books, information that was buried in the director's files. Marshall also provides an interesting, albeit brief, story of the rescue of the inner-city Yesler Branch and its transformation to the Douglass-Truth Branch.

Readers of this journal, however, expect much more from historical monographs, especially one with the imprint of such a prestigious university press. Unfortunately, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams is fairly typical of the many books produced to commemorate anniversaries or new buildings in that it relies on limited documentation and does not do a good job of relating to the wider social history of the community or libraries at large. Most of Marshall's citations seem to come from his own newspaper's morgue or SPL annual reports. This is almost criminal for a city so rich in newspaper sources. For example, there is nothing about Seattle's famous general strike of 1919, the first general strike on a city level in the United States. How did that event impact the library? The Seattle Times or especially the Union Record would have had a different take at times. Equally criminal, in this reviewer's mind, is the lack of citations to relevant secondary literature on the history of libraries such as Wayne Wiegand's Politics of an Emerging Profession and Joanne Passet's Cultural Crusaders: Women Librarians in the American West, both of which deal with librarians in the Pacific Northwest. Marshall did not even cite the ALA Bulletin, Library Journal, or any other professional publication. Because he did not look at other libraries he is unable to truly highlight Seattle's achievements such as the 1996 "If All Seattle Read" campaign. He also neglected to locate published biographies of former SPL workers such as Charles H. Compton's Memoirs of a Librarian. Reading memoirs or conducting oral histories would have allowed Marshall to dig deeper and reflect more on the many changes in the library.

Library historians would expect a deeper analysis of the Notkin firing and loyalty oaths after the publication of works by Louise Robbins, Christine Jenkins, [End Page 188] and Ellen Schrecker. Had Marshall included such background his prose might not have jumped around as much as it did. He also might have avoided misstatements such as how the Notkin firing was an aberration from librarians' stance on intellectual freedom. Marshall seems to have been carried away by more recent intellectual freedom fights such as the debate over Playboy and Show Me, not realizing that library values were quite different in 1932. Despite these serious flaws, LIS scholars should read this for Marshall's outsider coverage of recent management issues such as "Carpetgate," the visionary leadership of Deborah Jacobs, and the "voluntary resignation" of Elizabeth Stroup.

Andrew B. Wertheimer
University of Hawaii at Manoa


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pp. 188-189
Launched on MUSE
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