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LIS 950: Libraries and community

The purpose of this seminar is to explore an important topic in library and information studies in depth — in all its intertwined historical, cultural, philosophical, and political aspects — through a graduate reading/discussion seminar. The topic varies each time the course is taught; this time around, we will focus on "libraries and community"

Friday, September 16, 2005

melvil dewey's childhood

I enjoyed reading Garrison's book again. It seems that it is itself a historical document now. So much of what she said was new and disquieting at the time, and just taken for granted now. The section on Dewey, for instance. Before Garrison, nobody in the library world ever talked about Dewey as anything other than the god-like creator of the revered classification system. Sandy Berman's iconoclasm with Library of Congress Subject Headings, for instance, was still in the future. To learn that Dewey was driven, eccentric, and anti-Semitic was to realize that one had been uncritically accepting of things that needed rethinking. Does Dewey's character and personality, and the tenor of his times, influence his creation? That's the interesting question for me.

Likewise, the notion that womens' inequality is rooted in the foundations of the library profession provided women librarians at the time (the 1970's-1980's)with ways of focusing on what had before that been somewhat incoherent realizations that the structure and dynamic of work in their profession were flawed. A feminist analysis of librarians was a new idea then, and energizing. It opened the door I think, for other uncomfortable considerations: why were librarians complicit in racial segregation, for instance? did any rebel? what sorts of things are librarians complicit in now? It opened the door to a lot of thinking about social issues that hadn't had much consideration before. A history of the feminist movement of the 1970's and how it played out in libraries has yet to be written, as far as I know, and Garrison's book would be a primary source for it.

But, in retuning to this book now, I question Garrison's reliance solely on a few individuals as carriers of an argument that is much broader. I question her somewhat uncritical reliance on the records and discussions of the ALA, at the time a small organization mainly composed of chiefs and administrators. I wish she had looked for other kinds of indicators. But, truly, I am finding it hard to be so very critical of a book that was for me and others a kind of watershed in how we thought about what we were doing and why we were doing it. So much that is just accepted now was new and controversial then, and Garrison's book and its reception and the controversy it contributed to in the library world if not in the world of history are part of the recent past that forms the basis for things that are just taken for granted now.



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