I recently read the book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand. Rather than write a typical review of it, I want to share a letter that I sent the author.
(TL;DR version: This book is wonderful and every public librarian and public library user should read it. I think it’s important.)
Dear Dr. Wiegand,
I’d like to thank you for writing Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. Before I proceed to explain why I want to thank you, I need to spend some time voicing a complaint about something you wrote in your introduction. Bear with me—the extent of my gratitude for your work won’t be clear without this context.
In your introduction, you state that the reasons why public library patrons use their libraries fall into three basic categories: “for the useful information they made accessible; for the public spaces they provided; and for the power of reading stories….” You then make the following statement regarding the available professional library literature:
[A]lthough library literature does a good job analyzing the first [i.e. information and access] from a ‘user in the life of the library’ perspective, it does little to explain from that view the roles public libraries have played as community places, and the power of reading libraries provided to fulfill essential needs in patrons’ everyday lives.
This statement is accurate about the state of our professional literature, but it implies something untrue about viewpoint of public librarians.
It highlights a significant deficit in our professional library literature which continually frustrates me: most of it is written by people in the academic branches of the profession, particularly library school professors and administrators. Comparatively little is written or published by librarians in other branches of the field—public librarians, in particular, produce very little literature about our work. It stands to reason: academics work in a “publish or perish” environment and such writing is built into the job to some degree. Public librarians, by contrast, don’t have any requirement to publish professionally, and the time and resources required to do so aren’t included in our job structures. Given how short-staffed and under-funded many public libraries are, we don’t have time to undertake these sorts of writing responsibilities on top of our day-to-day duties.
As a result, the professional library literature strongly reflects the perspectives and obsessions of academia. The perspectives and values of other fields of librarianship are comparatively under-represented.
Likewise, professional library literature is more likely to be written by library leaders than by front-line librarians.
To say that professional library literature largely fails to deal with public libraries as public spaces or as hubs of the culture of reading in a community is an accurate characterization of my experiences in graduate school. I continue to follow some portion of the academic library conversation online, and this statement accurately characterizes much of what I encounter there.
But it does not reflect the reality of my experience as a public librarian in a metropolitan environment. It does not represent the interactions and conversations I have with other public librarians in larger professional settings. It’s not an accurate summary of the professional public library discourse that I participate in. Most public librarians focus the bulk of their efforts on services to readers, and the use of the library as a public place: social services, cultural centers, and community hubs. Reading and place are the main things we strive to do.
So I’m frustrated by the dearth of accurate representation of the day-to-day experience of front-line public librarians in the professional library literature. What does this have to do with me wanting to thank you for this book?
I’m grateful to you for writing this book because it captures so well all the reasons why I do what I do as a public librarian. This is the voice of public library experience that’s largely missing from the professional literature. It accurately reflects my professional values and my desire to serve my community. Your book speaks for public librarians and proclaims, “This is why we do what we do.” Not through the rhetoric of library theory, nor through grandiose statements of principle, but through the voices of the people we serve.
I’m heartened to hear the voices of our patrons throughout the history of the public library’s existence. We’ve made some mistakes over the years—enacted some misguided ideas, headed down some misguided paths—and we may not have always valued the same things our patrons did, but I’m struck powerfully by how well public libraries have met the needs of our patrons and communities over the years.
You call out several instances of librarians who clearly failed to understand the needs of their communities at various points in time, particularly how slow the profession was to realize the benefit of leisure reading and the important role it plays in people’s lives, as well as the industry’s insistence in clinging to circulation statistics as the primary measure of a library’s worth. You note times when some public libraries placed themselves on the wrong side of civil and social issues. Like all industries and professions, there can be significant disconnects between administration and in-the-trenches service, between theory and practice.
As a child, I practically lived in my local public library, as well as in the library at my school. The library staff were consistently among my greatest cheerleaders, whatever I wanted to read, whether it was Hardy Boys, classic science fiction, or books that were technically beyond my ability at the time. They all understood how important leisure reading was for me—as escapism, as entertainment, as a challenge, as a way to make sense of the world and my experiences, as a tool to build empathy and understanding. They all understood that I didn’t separate “leisure” reading from “serious” reading. I think librarians who have worked directly with the public over the years have usually understood these things.
What strikes me most powerfully about your people’s history of the public library is how many of the challenges and issues we face today are the same challenges and issues that public libraries have faced from the very beginning. How many of the services and innovations we offer today mirror services and innovations of the past. The needs we serve are essential and universal. No matter how radically or rapidly formats and technology change, these needs remain essentially human. It’s important for public librarians to know what has been done before, to know what worked and what didn’t, to guide us to the most productive strategies today.
The fact that public libraries have been so successful throughout our history gives me tremendous confidence that we’ll continue to be successful in our efforts now. When I go through the list of services my public library system currently offers, all of them fit into the three categories you identify as the reasons why people use libraries, all of them answer expressed patron needs. And we’re constantly striving to do more and serve our communities better.
We’ll continue to listen to our patrons, and continue to meet the needs of our communities to the best of our ability. It’s our job to serve.
Thank you for this book. I’m very proud to be a public librarian.