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Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 417-419

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Winsor, Dewey, and Putnam: The Boston Experience. By Donald G. Davis Jr., Kenneth E. Carpenter, Wayne A. Wiegand, and Jane Aiken. Occasional Paper no. 212. Champaign: GSLIS Publications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002. 37 pp. $8.00. ISBN 0-87845-121-8; ISSN 0276-1769.

This occasional paper is the outgrowth of papers delivered at a 2002 IFLA conference in Boston. With an introduction by Donald G. Davis Jr., it brings together three of the most eminent library historians to discuss the Boston connection of three of the most eminent librarians of the nineteenth century.

Kenneth Carpenter's essay, "Justin Winsor, Librarian and Scholar," examines Winsor's tenure at the Boston Public Library and Harvard University. He [End Page 417] posits two theses: first, that "Winsor's understanding of libraries and his accomplishments as a librarian at the Boston Public Library (BPL), along with his personality[,] . . . brought him to the fore of librarianship" (6). He also argues that Winsor's reputation as a scholar-librarian resulted from diminished opportunities for "creative librarianship" at Harvard. His accomplishments at the BPL were huge: "building collections, making them accessible through catalogs and promoting use" (10). Carpenter's Winsor is a man with an eye for detail and with enormous vision. His self-confidence and congeniality merged early with his entrepreneurial skills and propelled him to the presidency of the American Library Association. He "brought credit to librarianship," Carpenter writes (9).

And he also caught the eye of Harvard University. He was "called" there (no one is ever "hired" at Harvard) in 1877 and brought the same vision and ability to paint with broad strokes that he had demonstrated at the BPL. He dreamed about building programs, centralizing the library, increasing undergraduate use of the library, and making the library important. But he failed. Muckety-mucks in administration stymied him, and teaching faculty, the bane of all academic librarians, hounded him. The result of this unique alchemy, however, was the emergence of Winsor the scholar. His scholarship, Carpenter tells us, was an "adaptation" (14) to his environment, although "compensation" might have been a better characterization. Carpenter believes that we "lost" Winsor the scholar librarian and "got" Winsor the scholar-librarian. If so, this was a good bargain for all of us. It is no accident that the most prestigious award for library history is named for Justin Winsor.

Wayne Wiegand's essay, "Dewey in Boston: 1876-1883," examines Dewey's multifaceted career during his Boston residency. Wiegand's Dewey is characterized as what we would call a real piece of work. He was vain, arrogant, contumely, cantankerous, mendacious, and more. He seemed to be a person that people either loved (or at least respected) or found odious. A rationalizer and synthesizer, he presided over a pyramid of Ponzi schemes that he called "bureaus": spelling reform, metric weights, and free public libraries. While personally honest, he moved funds from one bureau to another with alacrity. To this empire, he added the editorship of Library Journal, a medium that he used to promote his bureaus. For a while it all worked. Business grew apace, even if Dewey did not exactly wax rich. Mimicking the mergers in the business community, Dewey consolidated his bureaus into the Readers and Writers Economy Company (RWEC). But, like Humpty Dumpty, it all came tumbling down. He was fired from LJ, and investors in RWEC, seeing how the books were cooked, brought suit against him. He eventually settled with the company but, like a phoenix, was back in business only five months later with a Library and Metric Bureau.

Wiegand's Dewey can be likened to a prism that reflected various rays of American culture, chief of which were consolidation and rationalization in business and the formation of associations. Dewey was a rationalizer, but he was too much the buccaneer to fit in and to lead a corporation. He might have done well at Enron. It is probably a good thing that people like him don't appear too often.

Herbert Putnam was...


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