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  • Our Historiographical Enterprise:Shifting Emphases and Directions
  • Edward A. Goedeken (bio)

In the introductory note to a small collection of essays she published in the mid-1930s, Willa Cather observed that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts."1 She was referring to the cultural divide that separated forever the cultural sensitivities of America before the First World War from the America just a few years after the war's end. In looking over the historiography of American libraries, librarianship, and all its related cultural accoutrements, I have come to believe that the few years that bridged the recent turn of the century also served as a kind of dividing line, separating the writings and thinking about library history of the 1980s and 1990s from those of the first few years of our new century. It is not a hard and fast dividing line (more crooked than straight), but I think a number of important contributions relating to our historiographical enterprise appeared between 1998 and 2003 that signaled a shift in emphasis and direction for library historiography.2

The Turn at the Turn of the Century

During the period 1998-2003 several of our most respected scholars produced important thought-pieces on both the status of our scholarship and where they thought our scholarship should be heading. These essays represent landmarks in our historiographical journey.

Alistair Black initiated the shift in emphasis in library historiography with his 1998 article in Library History, "Information and Modernity: The History of Information and the Eclipse of Library History." Black called for library historians to broaden their view to encompass the history of the entire array of information that has been generated over the centuries, especially from the period of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Building on the work of scholars such as Foucault, Giddens, and Chandler, Black stressed that since librarians are already comfortable in a world that strives for method, system, and organization, writing [End Page 350] about these topics from a broader perspective would be a good way for library historians to become more relevant to the profession of library and information science. In so doing, library historians would move away from the "institutional anchorage" that undergirds the contemporary approach that so often characterizes our work.3

Black's remarks—which were, I believe, deliberately provocative—were greeted in 2001 with an impressive response from Donald G. Davis, Jr. and Jon Aho. "Whither Library History? A Critical Essay on Black's Model for the Future of Library History, with Some Additional Options" provided a wide-ranging response to Black's call for a new history of information.4 Davis and Aho described four main models for the conduct of future library history: 1) the current model, what Black calls the "institutionally based" approach; 2) an information science model; 3) a model more closely associated with mainstream history and historians; and 4) the history-of-the-book model. They then took issue with Black's assessment, arguing vigorously that looking at libraries as repositories of knowledge and keepers of the physical objects holding this knowledge is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. (I have to admit that I am partial to this so-called traditional approach and to note that the book history model as well as the suggestion that we become more closely associated with mainstream historians was the most appealing to Davis and Aho.) Each model has pluses and minuses as a future approach for library history, and indeed all four remain in place today as options.

Incorporating Theory into Library History Scholarship

A person cannot get far into any historiographical discussion of libraries before running into Wayne Wiegand, who joined the conversation over the direction library history should take with a few contributions of his own. In the January 1999 issue of Library Quarterly (a journal he now coedits) with his article "Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots: What the Past Tells Us about the Present: Reflections on the Twentieth-Century History of American Librarianship," Wiegand carried forward into the twentieth century Kenneth Carpenter's 1996 evaluation of nineteenth-century library literature.5 After surveying the most important historical writings on libraries that have appeared during the past...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 350-358
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-19
Open Access
No
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