- Readers' Advisory Service in North American Public Libraries, 1870–2005: A History and Critical Analysis
On one wall of the newly renovated Berkeley Public Library in California there is an old plaque that reads in brief: "Contribution of the Citizens of Berkeley to the Cause of Education, Board of Trustees, 1931." The wording prompted me to ask, Do public libraries in their current form still play the educational role envisioned by early library founders?
The book under review poses a similar question but distills it down to a particular service (provided mostly by larger public libraries) called the "readers' advisory service." Juris Dilevko and Candice McGowan, both associated with the University of Toronto, offer a critique and a historical analysis of readers' advisory from the early years of American public library development to contemporary times. Unlike most conventional historical monographs, the book takes on a dual purpose. First, the authors outline the long story of readers' guidance services in public libraries and in the process show quite remarkably that the readers' advisory initiative closely intertwined with the movement to make public libraries educational agencies rather than simply book depositories. In sum, the authors trace the evolution of the guiding tenets, or the underlying philosophy, of the American (and Canadian) public library movement, especially as it relates to adult education. [End Page 378]
In a secondary argument the authors deliver a stinging critique of the relatively recent incarnation of readers' advisory services, which they refer to as "new style" readers' advisory. They assert that this post-1980s readers' advisory sadly has diverged from the traditional public library educational mission and become a sort of solipsistic catering to leisure reading and popular genre fiction aimed primarily at a middle-class audience. "New style" advisory service has "lost its way," they claim, by eschewing traditional educational advocacy and "social uplift" in favor of a media-oriented "edutainment" culture, that is, reading for pleasure rather than purpose. This ideological critique of contemporary practice, although telling, feels a bit repetitive and heavy-handed, but it is sure to arouse heated debate, if not renunciation, among readers' advisory librarians and library administrators.
The book is divided between these two purposes: formal historical analysis (chapters 3, 4, and 5) and critique of "new style" readers' advisory (chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7). The historical analysis clearly is the strength of the book, and it's a fascinating story. Dilevko and McGowan do original and groundbreaking research based on a close reading of library literature from the 1870s onward and employ other primary resource materials such as library annual reports and oral histories of early librarians.
Although the focus of the book is readers' advisory services, the authors examine at length the underlying tenets of the early public library movement, which is quite a rewarding experience in itself. In a chapter entitled "The Formative Years: Philosophical Debates and Lively Tensions" the authors follow the establishment and evolution of public libraries and readers' services beginning in New England in the 1870s. As proposed by librarians and civic leaders, these readers' advisory ideals had a central goal: elevating patrons' reading tastes so that they might gain a meaningful education through purposeful self-study. Dilevko and McGowan's survey offers some heavy hitting, alternating between incisive historical analysis of the American public library movement and an examination of the long roster of social activist librarians going back to Justin Winsor, Samuel S. Green, Charles Cutter, Frederick Crunden, William E. Foster, and others. They trace library development from the breakthrough years of the Boston Public Library to the innovative work of war camp libraries during World War I. Beginning in the 1900s through the early 1910s public libraries exhibited a gradual shift toward a "circulation-obsessed and social and entertainment oriented public librarianship" (86), corresponding to Melvil Dewey's influence on the proliferation of mechanical processes and efficient operation, the "best books for the most people at the least...