- “Louder Please”:Using Historical Research to Foster Professional Identity in LIS Students
Caught up in a changing environment, pressured to keep up with new technology and to catch up with the for-profit sector, librarians may find it difficult to reflect on their profession's past. Preparing to enter this fast-paced world of practice, LIS students may feel they have little time to study library history. I would suggest, however, that an understanding of our past is an integral part of our professional culture. The history of our institutions and of our predecessors is our intellectual endowment, a strategic asset, essential to our shared professional identity and continued strength. Lacking historical perspective, our students may not see what is unique and important about the work of libraries and librarians. Without the context that history provides, they may fail to understand the professional nature of librarianship, its contribution to society, and the values for which it stands. In preparing future professionals, our LIS programs provide students with technical know-how, inculcate them with a commitment to service, and equip them with an ethical compass. When we are threatened by an overemphasis on one or another of these elements, historical examples can help us right the balance among civic obligation, technological expertise, and ethical practice—three central aspects of "profession."1
My own exploration of American librarianship from 1926 to 1956 suggests how our history can serve as an essential component of professional education and a continuing source of lessons and examples to guide future practitioners. It examines an era of social and technological change much like our own. As today, librarians struggled to define their role amidst competition from new media and information providers. This period witnessed the transformation of America from a rural to an urban and suburban nation, the economic dislocation of the Great Depression, the political upheavals of World War II and the cold war, and the growing popularity of film, radio, and television. For librarians, [End Page 487] the period is bracketed by the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the American Library Association in 1926 and the passage of the Library Services Act in 1956. Delving into the historical record, I asked how librarians met those challenges. In my courses I use examples from this period to demonstrate the readiness of librarians to expand their community of users, adopt new technologies, and engage in major social issues facing their communities.
Over these three decades librarians developed a professional voice of outreach and advocacy, using the latest means of communication to reach the broadest possible audience. This history provides the professional identity we require to counter the popular image of our librarians devised by others. I believe these eras have three challenges in common: tradition, competition, and marginalization.
As they have during the age of the Internet, librarians in the 1920s questioned what the role of libraries should be. Judson T. Jennings, at that time director of the Seattle Public Library and president of the American Library Association, expressed concern that the missionary spirit of librarians and their strong desire to be of service had led libraries to undertake many activities beyond their central purpose.In his 1924 ALA presidential address, Jennings lamented that "librariesare operating art galleries, maintaining museums, giving lecture courses, operating community centers, and collecting lantern slides. Others install a stage with scenery and drops for dramatics, a moving-picture machine, or a banquet room with facilities for serving large groups Still others hold exhibitions of various kinds."2 Recounting the accumulation of wildlife specimens and music scores in his own library, Jennings argued that library work dealt primarily with books and reading and that the legitimacy of every library undertaking should be measured by "its relation to the primary function of promoting reading."3
During these years, library leaders warned of the increasing competition libraries faced not just from new media but from other professional groups and government agencies. At the ALA's fiftieth anniversary observance Melvil Dewey himself declared that "the book is not sacred" and, referring to movies and radio, warned that "the enemies of the book and reading grow apace." He urged librarians...