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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.3 (2002) 491-492

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Book Review

The Changing Culture of Libraries:
How We Know Ourselves Through Our Libraries

The Changing Culture of Libraries: How We Know Ourselves Through Our Libraries, ed. Renee Feinberg. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. 134 p. $39.95 paper (ISBN 0-7864-1138-4)

The Changing Culture of Libraries is an eclectic collection of eighteen essays on a broad range of subjects. The editor, Renee Feinberg, is retired from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York where she was a librarian and a professor. She had initially "asked writers to consider the uniqueness of their work and their service commitments to their communities" but changed her call "to allow for personal essays which have a political note." (p. 7) She also hopes that "readers will find in this collection some heroes who struggle to preserve something of our traditional library culture until a time comes when the currents of the ideology of the book and preservation of book collections are stronger." (p. 7) With perhaps three exceptions, I would concur that the volume focuses on personal stories without claiming to provide objective, generalizable conclusions. There are four main themes: 1) information as power, especially in third world countries; 2) the positive role of libraries in the author's life; 3) libraries as a counter force against the dominant market-economy culture; and 4) the library's role in the preservation of culture.

A closer reading of the essays, however, reveals a mixed message. First, both the blurb on the back cover ("18 librarians have their say about classic library culture in a era") and Feinberg's introduction ("[I]t was my intention to gather practitioners who seldom appeared in print") (p. 7) lead the reader to believe that the authors are all librarians. According to the brief biographies at the beginning of each essay, however, six authors have never worked in a library while several others are students at the beginning of their careers. Some of the staunchest defenders of traditional library culture in this volume are not librarians but faculty and writers, all with a humanities or social sciences bent. These outsiders, along with several librarians, are the ones who tell how wonderful the traditional library has been in their personal and professional lives.

The librarians in the volume often tell a different story. They are critical of library [End Page 491] school (Tony Doyle), library support for the blind (David Faucheux), insensitivity to foreign libraries (Bruce Jensen), library resources in Third World countries (Gracelyn Cassell and Faye Reagon), and the lack of minority librarians (Barbara Bishop). If this is how the authors describe traditional library culture, perhaps we should all welcome the new technologies. As further evidence, Carla Stoffle, perhaps the best known author in the volume, titles one of her sections "New Technology's Role in Reaching Those Who Have Been Traditionally Underserved by Libraries." The good old days often become so only in retrospect. But I do not want to push this point too far because I hope, like Ms. Feinberg, that the profession will continue to support the positive elements of the traditional culture of print and libraries, especially reading for pleasure and a strong service tradition.

Is this an essential book for the professional development of academic librarians? No. Does it provide an opportunity for a few hours of enjoyable reading while still feeling as if you are fulfilling your obligation to keep up with library literature? Yes, at least for the most part. The personal stories are refreshing, showing the human side of libraries and librarianship. My final point comes from the cynic in me, wondering whether stories such as these would do more to gain additional financial support for libraries than all the objective research studies, replete with statistics that have become the norm in the current business-oriented climate.


Robert P. Holley
Wayne State University



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