Saturday, September 12, 2009

Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture

Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920 Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920 by Abigail A. Van Slyck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read quite a bit of “Free to All” for my Public Libraries class, and greatly enjoyed pouring through all the photographs and floor plans of the old libraries- the grand arched entries and classical colonnades that are easily recognizable as libraries, even today. I was surprised to see different subject areas housed in different rooms instead of all together (fine arts, social sciences, music) and stack rooms in the back (housing what types of volumes exactly?) that only library workers had access to. But despite the housing differences, I still saw many similarities to today's libraries: meeting rooms and auditoriums (in the large city libraries), and lots of tables and chairs for reading and study. They were public meeting places, even if the libraries then had a much more pensive atmosphere, and daunting librarians watching over their tomes.

I was very pleased to read about Melvil Dewey’s positive stance on women working in the library (even if it might sound a little sexist with today’s career freedoms). He got women interested in working in the library and appealed to their sense of order and enticed them with the quiet atmosphere away from the hectic tiring job of a teacher. He expressed to others concerned with their advancement in the profession by saying, “The natural qualities most important in library work are accuracy, order (or what we call the housekeeping instinct), executive ability, and above all earnestness and enthusiasm.” (p. 163) There were many men who felt the librarian profession was already shaky in its recognition of stature and credibility. I knew there were few professions open to women during this time period (mainly teachers and nurses), but I didn’t know many specifics of how they came to the library profession, or how they were discriminated against in pay (receiving up to a full quarter less then the men in the same position), and in position- they were only allowed to hold lower assistant positions dealing mainly in clerical work- cataloging, index making, book repair and working with children, but need not be “bookish” or need that “intellectual spark” that was considered necessary for the highly sought reference positions.

Andrew Carnegie received a lot of criticism for how he dispensed his funds through libraries. I think because he had so much money to give, and a vision of libraries across the nation, he needed a plan. A plan that would help him determine where to build, and how to divide funds. I think if he just gave the cities and towns a chunk of money, there are so many different ways it would have been used, and many of them probably would not have followed his vision. So he was strict on whom he dealt with (city officials only), and the architecture and structure of the library itself. I think that he was fair in giving money only for the building itself and letting the cities furnish and fill with books, because nothing should be completely free, and also in doing so the town could take ownership of its new library.

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