documenting the public library through oral narratives / LIS dissertation, part i

From my independent study on library history summarised in the three previous posts, a few concluding observations should be pointed out:

• First, library history is an expanding field, both in scope and in number of researchers, as throughout the twentieth century and with the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities, library history came to accommodate a great variety of investigations: from the (often boring) narrative of events and big characters surrounding the library as grand institution, to the library as basis for historical inquiry, potentially encompassing an infinitude of themes such as book history, print culture, social history of knowledge, architecture of library buildings, cataloguing and classification systems, information science, digital information technology developments, etc.

• Second, oral history is a timely and potentially enriching approach to library history, with quite a few and prominent library historians having highlighted the value of personal narratives to library history, as it provides new insights from a bottom-up perspective. Alistair Black has been using the documents from the Mass Observation Archive (which ‘specialises in material about everyday life in Britain’) to have a glimpse on people’s perceptions of public libraries and library buildings; Wayne Wiegand took advantage of the thousands of recently digitised and archived American newspapers to capture people’s relations to public libraries for his Part our lives: a people’s history of the American public library.

In the introduction of the Volume 3: 1850-2000 of the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland Alistair Black summarises the potential of a still missing oral history of libraries:

User’s written accounts of libraries in autobiographies, diaries and social commentaries are invaluable source in library history. Such accounts are an important primary source for historians seeking to learn about the part that events, people, social practices and institutions have played in people’s lives, as well as the meanings that autobiographers attach to these. Libraries have also featured in user’s life stories, a significant number written by members of the working classes.
Notwithstanding these efforts on a ‘domestic’ scale, library historians have been largely inactive in capturing the history of libraries in the words of users. Evidence of library use can be found in large-scale general oral history projects, but such references are extremely rare and difficult to detect. Unfortunately, despite the importance of the topic and the considerable potential value of the evidence, no systematic oral history of library patrons has been attempted. [my emphases] 

But there is also something else with which a more systematic collection of oral narratives might contribute to libraries, and specially public libraries: assessment. As Wiegand put it, referring to stories people have to tell: ‘Assessing what happens in library places does not easily fit into statistical taxonomies documenting library use, yet anecdotes … demonstrate that public libraries help build community in multiple ways.’ (Wiegand, 2015).

A small section of the major “Shining a light: How people in the UK and Ireland use public libraries and what they think of them” by the Carnegie UK Trust, Dr. Jenny Peachey. [click on image to access full booklet]. In my view, extracting meaning from statistical data and attempting to distinguish figures like 46% from 50% is no easier, nor more ‘rational’ task than exploring so-called ‘subjective’ stories and narratives.
He is talking about ‘statistical taxonomies’ meaning all the increasing new ways developed to try to measure the public library’s value to society or to a specific community. Librarian Aaron Tay from Singapore proposes ‘5 reasons why library analytics is on the rise’: Trend 1. Rising interest in big data, data science and AI in general; Trend 2. Library systems are becoming more open and more capable at analytics; Trend 3. Assessment and increasing demand to show value are hot trendsTrend 4. Rising interest in learning analytics; and Trend 5. Increasing academic focus on managing research data provides synergy. Being ever more capable to collect, manage, and quantify using data will evidently reflect on attempts to express value through such means—but for public libraries this might simply not be a good idea. As Wiegand noted, this quantified approach might actually just be in essential opposition to what the library as place is about, or just the wrong way to talk about public libraries.

The issue gets worse when we have local governments having decisions about public libraries made with such statistical data as main base. In the UK, public libraries’ advocacy movements have been discussing this problem for some years now; from a report of a workshop that discussed the ways in which public libraries can better communicate their intrinsic value and worth (Walker et al., 2011):

The basic premise is that public library services need to identify effective means of communicating their value to society. … There was agreement that libraries are traditionally good at presenting data about activities and processes but less good at gathering qualitative data and evidence of personal or social impact. Reasons for this were lack of expertise, of time and of resources. Another important and possibly overriding reason was the type and level of data requested by the government or local councils, which needs to be concise and in a specific format.

For my LIS dissertation, I’m addressing this plea from both library history and public libraries’ advocacy by attempting to build a collection of oral narratives from librarians and users of public libraries of London. The first ones I’m approaching are Kensington Central Library, Swiss Cottage Library, and Finsbury Library—I have to start somewhere! I’m conducting this interviews—which will produce an audio file, a portrait of the interviewee, short profile and transcript—with the aim of uploading them to the Layers of London project website.

Layers of London is a project being undertaken in the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It aims to bring together, for the first time, digitised heritage assets provided by key partners across London including: the British Library, London Metropolitan Archives, Historic England, The National Archives, MOLA. These will be linked in an innovative new website which will allow you to create and interact with many different layers of London’s history from the Romans to the present day. The layers include historic maps, images of buildings, films as well as information about people who have lived and worked in London over the centuries (Layers of London, 2017).

The website itself is still being developed at this moment, but the project’s team is working hard on its dissemination, as a major element of the project will be work with the public at borough level and city-wide, through crowd-sourcing, volunteer, schools and internship programmes. Everyone is invited to contribute material to the project by uploading materials relating to the history of any place in London. This may be an old photograph, a collection of transcribed letters, or the results of local research project’ (Layers of London, 2017).

A glimpse of the current Layers of London project website [click on image to access]
I believe that oral narratives of public libraries will have much to reveal about their local communities, and will help understand both the value of the library form the librarian and the user perspective, and also the place of the/each public library in the wider historical context of the city of London. This hypothesis, of course, is to be tested by the actual running of interviews, analysis of the outputs, and uploading and engagement through the Layers of London website.

digital libraries complicate library history / my independent study, part iii

iii.i Marija Dalbello and the ‘digital convergence’

A very different library history from the ones we have been talking about is presented by Marija Dalbello in her article Digital Convergence: The past in the present, which is also the last chapter of a 2015 book edited by her, along with Wayne Wiegand and Pamela Richards entitled A History of modern librarianship: Constructing the heritage of Western Cultures. The book presents a ‘cross-national dimensions of librarianship in the context of modernity’, and Dalbello’s last chapter aims to provide a history of librarianship’s digital convergences of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.


Dalbello characterises the digital convergence as ‘a series of innovations that are bringing about an increasingly interconnected world of recorded knowledge, documents, data, and information’, with a history ‘nested within a larger history of scholarly and scientific communication, bibliographic systematisation, provision of free and universal access to public information, the world of knowledge dominated by scientific methods, and the authority of professional experts’. Couldn’t this ‘larger history’ that she refers to simply be library history? I understand her inquiry as: how to understand the many uses of digital computing within the framework of library history? I’m not sure I like the idea of ‘convergence’ very much, because we then risk looking at phenomena from the past as making part of a process (‘convergence’) that would be century-old by now, as if people back there were working with the same objectives as we today are. Anyway, her history is compelling as it connects library history to information science (perhaps, information science within library history?) in the context of modernity. Her point:

The convergence of information technology, bibliographic control, and networking constitute an important element in the development of the digital environment that heavily influences how many people use libraries today.

She follows a chronological narrative in the structure of her article: Origins and prototypes, 1890 – 1960s, including Otlet and La Fontaine’s Mundaneum, and the development of the Dewey Decimal Classification and the Universal Decimal Classification; Online catalogs and the World Wide Web, 1970s into the 1990s; Digital libraries: mid-1990s to 2005; and The ‘semantic web’ and social media from 2005, including the ascendance of the digital humanities and large-scale collaboration projects of digitisation.

Despite my reservations with regards to the idea of ‘convergence’, I find this approach to library history fascinating: it fits Information Science inside the broader, cultural framework of modernity, conferring some social perspective to this subject often considered technical and neutral. Dalbello’s article proves that library history can express itself in a multitude of ways.


iii.ii library history for public libraries

One challenge concerning digital library history, if I may call Dalbello’s fine work that way, is the risk of reducing library history to ‘the development of technical practices and procedures for information organisation’, or something like that, if we forget the value of library history as proclaimed by Shera and the importance of culture to library history.

Also, something revealing we get from when library history starts talking about digital information technology developments is that it stops talking about places and spaces; suddenly, no more descriptions of shelves and stacks, no more reading rooms, the people coming and going, no more where it was, how long they stayed, what was where. With the digital, materiality becomes insignificant and so does place/space.

Materiality & space are much more expensive than computer storage. That’s one of the main arguments for public library funding cuts: there’s just a cheaper version now. But people know the value of the materiality of the book and of the people you share a space with in a public library. This knowledge is not measurable through any quantitative tool available. And even harder: each person knows in an unique way, based in her very particular experience. As Wiegand explained in his Part of our lives: ‘Assessing what happens in library places does not easily fit into statistical taxonomies documenting library use, yet anecdotes demonstrate that public libraries help build community in multiple ways’.

Anecdotes. Stories, personal experiences and narratives: they characterise the value people see in public libraries. It is fundamental that we work to document and publicise these narratives as library history.


Richards, P., Wiegand, W., Dalbello, M. (eds.), 2015. A history of modern librarianship: constructing the heritage of western cultures, Libraries Unlimited, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC: Denver; Santa Barbara.
Wiegand, W., 2015. Part of our lives: a people’s history of the American public library. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

the widening of library history / my independent study, part ii

In the part i of this series of posts, I have briefly introduced the field of library history in its values and problems, with the promise to come back to talk about some historians who had been expanding library history by diversifying their inquiries and looking more broadly to the library’s social milieu. And here I go:

ii.i Adding ‘culture’ to library history

History in general has become a much more diversified discipline throughout the twentieth-century, owning greatly to the Annales school and their introduction of culture, anthropology, microhistory and many other themes to historical inquiry. And library history, it seems, has been benefiting from this widening trend. In his 2016 essay The Library as History, German librarian Elmar Mittler confirms that ‘Library history is an expanding area of research’, and that ‘The main focus of library history is changing with new research methods and the interests of cultural history. Library history as institutional or organizational history is really only of minor interest. Rather, the relevance of the library as part of the history of different fields of study is coming into greater focus’.

This is in consonance with the previously explored Jesse Shera’s ideas about library history as valid only if it considers the culture where the library is both part and agent of. And to be able to do that, the historian has no option but to resort to the history of other disciplines.

ii.ii Wayne Wiegand and the American library history

An active member of the group of library historians who had been widening the field is American author and academic Wayne Wiegand. One of his most preeminent works is what is considered the best biography of Melvil Dewey written so far, 1996’s Irrepressible Reformer; even though it is a research concentrated on an important figure, it is far from being a descriptive, gentle biography—quite the opposite, as Wiegand didn’t shy away from the man’s more controversial characteristics and actions.

In an assessment of decades of library history in America, Wiegand has recognised that many of the limitations of studies in the field can be attributed to an assumption by library historians that libraries are simply ‘good’ institutions, to be investigated ‘from the inside out’:

To stretch a metaphor, they generally study the history of individual trees with little attention to the ecological patterns and changes in the much larger forest in which these trees are rooted, grow, and survive, prosper, or die. And because librarianship itself has not generated influential or significant theoretical perspectives (it is focused mostly on process, seeking to answer “how” rather than “why” questions), American library history has lacked theoretical diversity.


In his most recent and fascinating book, 2015’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wiegand traveled all around the country to capture librarians and mainly users’ views, memories, and experiences of the public library, in a ‘bottom-up’, ‘library in the life of the user perspective’ to the history of the American public library—an approach which, according to the author, allowed him to ‘shift the focus from issues of information access to include analysis of the competencies and skills public libraries helped users develop that fostered sociability and invited community involvement’. His history of the public library, then, is ‘primarily about people’ who used these libraries’ spaces in the most various ways and the reading they were able to obtain from them. And concluded: ‘From a “library in the life of the user” perspective, public libraries have put cultural participation on public display’.

ii.iii Alistair Black and the British public library

In the UK, scholar and author Alistair Black is one of the most significant names in recent library history and great enthusiast of a more diversified disciplinary field. His perceptions of what it had been and what it should be match Shera’s, as he recognises a valuable library history as the one that engages with debates on social processes; as he wrote in A New History of the English Public Library: Social and Intellectual Contexts 1850-1914: ‘Too frequently researchers have taken the documents relating to a library, or group of libraries, and examined them with a view to producing a mere chronicle, bereft of references to non-library influences. Such an approach misses the central purpose of library history, which should not be pursued for its own sake, or for the glorification of individuals and institutions, but for the comprehension of social processes, historical and contemporary’.

The strong focus on public libraries in his extensive work in library history is no aimless choice. Just as Wiegand, Black also thinks there is a certain idea of the public library as an institution that is simply ‘accepted’, with no political commitment, which really impairs historical inquiry. Instead—and interestingly, like Wiegand, also using a tree metaphor!—he affirms:

The public library has never been a self-contained institution. As argued above, its numerous cultural roots spread far and wide. …[It] has successfully emerged over the past century and a half as an integral ingredient of the social fabric of our villages, towns and cities. It is ingrained in our cultural folklore. Historians of the public library are consequently best advised to view their subject as a part of, rather than apart from, society.

And that is the reason that ‘there is no reason why libraries should not be examined with reference to the history of leisure, or urbanization, or ideas, or class, or social policy, or the economy, or culture, or central-local government tension, or social space, or professional-expert discourses, or any other issue’—being that the exact approach Paul Hoare and himself used in the edition of the lovely volume III of the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland 1850-2000where one can find articles on the political roots of the ideal of public libraries, on libraries as leisure, on public library services for children, on libraries in relation to urbanisation processes, on women in libraries, on working-class and public libraries, and many other themes that borrow from other disciplines to paint deeper picture of libraries in historical perspective.

My take: Public libraries can function as both starting and ending point of historical research; you start from there to establish your inquiries, then explore the diverse surrounding fields of interest, to finally be able to come back and understand the library in its comprehensive nature. I am very interested in what the activities of people (librarians and users) in public libraries can reveal of the social and cultural milieu, and how can we capture these experiences that are often very personal and limited.


Black, A., (1996). A new history of the English public library: social and intellectual contexts, 1850-1914. London: Leicester University Press.
Black, A. and Hoare, P. eds., (2006). The Cambridge history of libraries in Britain and Ireland. The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mittler, E. The library as history. Quaerendo, 2016, volume 46, issue 2-3, pages 222-240. DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341352
Wertheimer, A. and Davis D. eds., (2000). Library history research in America: essays commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Library History Round Table, American Library AssociationWashington, D.C. : Library of Congress, The Center for the Book.
Wiegand, W., (1996). Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey. Chicago: American Library Association.
Wiegand, W., (2015). Part of our lives: a people’s history of the American public library. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

library history / my independent study, part i

i.i On the value of library history

In an article of 1952, the American librarian and scholar Jesse H. Shera reflected On the value of library history. His purpose was ‘to examine the contribution which history can make to an understanding of the role of the library in society’. First, he thought it was important to establish what is the social utility of history itself; for that he borrowed from English philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History that:

What is history for? … My answer is that history is “for” human self-knowledge. It is generally thought to be of importance to man that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing … his nature as man … Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.

Shera agrees with this notion, and also with Collingwood’s pretty definition of history as a ‘science, or an answering of questions; concerned with human actions in the past; pursued by interpretation of evidence; for the sake of human self-knowledge’.

And then what for library history?

Shera characterises the beginning of the writing of the history of libraries as ‘long, tedious, and often uninspiring narration of the events, personalities, and circumstances surrounding the formation, growth, and development of individual institutions’. (Anyone who has ever researched a bit of library history certainly came across one or two of these ‘narratives’.) Thankfully, as Shera noticed, the scenario was changing, and historical studies which considered the library as a social institution embedded in a broader social milieu, not as a ‘isolated and independent agency existing in social vaccums’, were emerging.

A fine example, according to Shera, of a work that defied its time by arguing for history as essential to ‘an understanding of library in relation to its coeval culture’ is professor Lee Pierce Butler’s 1933 An Introduction to Library Science, in which ‘not only did he reveal that a knowledge of history is essential to the librarian’s complete intellectual equipment, but he showed history itself to be the logical starting point for almost every inquiry into the nature and function of the library as a social agency’.



And from Butler’s later tripartite definition of culture as ‘an organic intergration of a scholarship, a physical equipment, and a social organisation’, Shera then concluded in his article that:

Valid library history, then, can be written only when the library is regarded in relation to this tripartite division of culture, a phenomenon which not only has physical being, is formed in response to social determinants, but finds its justification as a segment of the totality of the intellectual processes of society. The library is an agency of the entirety of the culture; more specifically, it is one portion of the system of graphic communication through which that culture operates, and its historic origins are to be sought in an understanding of the production, flow, and consumption of graphic communication through all parts of the social pattern.

i.ii But should ‘library history’ even exist?

Six decades and the World Wide Web on, Shera’s “graphic communication” does sound a bit like history—but everything else seems not only right but timely, even. His article gets refreshed relevancy and is shed new light on when read along a paper presented in the 2015 Library History Conference by Kristian Jensen from the British Library, Should we write library history?

The paper is a provocation for debate, as the author described. He points out how there seems to be ‘a real uncertainty about what library history is’, as the many studies on ‘library history’ cover a too wide variety of themes and periods, suggesting a lack of cohesion in the field. Can a study on ‘the role of public libraries in the twentieth-century Scandinavian models of democracy’ and another on ‘the role of libraries in the life of a Cistercian monastery’ be recognised as doing the same kind of historical investigation?, asks Jensen:

An illustration of the Library of Alexandria (Public Domain), and The New York Public Library (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License- CC-BY-SA 3.0): Can it be that the activities performed in these diverse places are actually related?

Can one meaningfully ask questions of such a diverse set of institutions? Are these phenomena—these libraries—really in the same category, or is Library History one big error of classification?

And even though Jensen is sceptical about library history being able to stand up as a discipline, he is also ‘very optimistic about the opportunities which libraries offer to those who want to write about them from historical perspectives’ and recognises that ‘there is space for historiography on libraries, the writing of the histories of libraries rooted within disciplines, be they political, economic, cultural history, art historical, the study of vernacular literatures, the classics, politics or sociology’.

Both these precious articles go far beyond what I cited here, but when it comes to the author’s decades-apart perspectives on library history, it seems clear that they agree that:

1. the study of history is very much valuable to librarianship and others;
2. the social context and cultural milieu in which the library is embedded is essential to its historical enquiry.

In a next post, I will present the ways in which some historians have widened the antiquarian perspective on libraries to include cultural and political aspects in their approach to ‘library history’.


Butler, P. 1933. An Introduction to Library Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Butler, P. 1951. Librarianship as a Profession. Library Quarterly, XXI (October), 240.
Collingwood, R. G. 1946. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jensen, K. 2016. Should we write library history? Quaerendo, Volume 46, Issue 2-3, pp. 116-128. DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341349
Shera, J. 1952. On the value of library history. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 22, No. 3, Jul, pp. 240-251.