- Introduction:The Continuing Depression
The "Libraries in the Depression" theme for this issue was proposed on the Library History Round Table (LHRT) listserv prior to the 2009 American Library Association (ALA) meeting, and the motion to pursue a special issue on this theme was formalized at the July 12, 2009, Executive Board meeting of the LHRT by member Bill Olbrich. The editor of Libraries & the Cultural Record, Dr. David B. Gracy II, gave every form of support and encouragement to the idea, and I agreed to serve as guest editor. A call for papers was sent out on the LHRT listserv and the library education listserv, JESSE, in August 2009, and Lee Shiflett and Cheryl Knott Malone were indispensable in helping to vet submissions. A total of twelve abstract submissions were received, from which six were selected for development. Of these, four reached completion and make up this issue.
The themes and treatments in this issue are perhaps more seasoned than what has been written by library historians of the Great Depression heretofore. Eileen McGrath and Linda Jacobson provide a thoroughgoing analysis of the first years of the then-new Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, which was dedicated in conjunction with meetings of the Southeastern Library Association and the Southern Educational Association barely a week before Black Friday. Their account runs somewhat contrary to the popular wisdom about libraries as ultimate benefactors of the Great Depression and leaves little doubt that whatever collections and programs may have been initiated during the period, the Depression commensurably stalled growth at the South's largest university library. Of course, some places were hit harder: the University of Mississippi did not have a book budget during the first half of the 1930s, and Whitman Davis, the librarian, wisely used his time securing a BS degree in library science from the University of Illinois. 1 For relatively well-developed university libraries like UNC's, however, the effects of retrenchment may have been more apparent than in Mississippi, which had little to begin with. Like the apocryphal southern tenant farmer, interviewed by a [End Page 251] newspaper reporter about how he was faring in the Great Depression, poorer universities and, indeed, entire states could respond without irony, "Depression? I didn't know there was one going on."
Both Eric Novotny and Joyce Latham examine aspects of the effects of the Depression on an urban library—in this case, the Chicago Public Library (CPL). As Novotny's study suggests, the Great Depression provided hubris enough for idealists such as Carl B. Roden, who treasured the ethnic richness of Chicago and its neighborhoods and was anxious to elevate the libraries' mission and impact. Roden was caught off-guard by the perpetual need to restate the benefits of a public library to city officials and citizens who thought the purpose of a library was purely recreational, particularly during the economic crisis and subsequent budget restrictions. It was a challenging decade for which many librarians were unprepared, but Roden tried to adapt. Latham examines the labor response to the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, a response that resulted in the formation of a new CPL branch in South Chicago. Her account emphasizes the resilience of the library system and the South Chicago Branch services in spite of whatever economic shortfalls occurred. The construction of the branch and the planning that lay behind it are a testament to coalitions and compromises almost unimaginable in 2011. Together, these articles suggest some of the complexity involved in describing a wide-ranging catastrophe like the Great Depression, even when the subject is narrowed to its effects on libraries.
Tanya Ducker Finchum and Allen Finchum's chronicle of statewide library development in Oklahoma, one of the states hardest hit by both depression and drought, demonstrates the power of individuals and outside organizations to benefit libraries throughout the country in this era. Many of Oklahoma's libraries experienced growth or augmentation as a result of statewide library efforts, considerable citizen involvement, the relief and impetus provided by the myriad of agencies created by the federal government to confront the Depression, and the...