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.

One thought on “documenting the public library through oral narratives / LIS dissertation, part i

  1. This is a great introduction and background for your dissertation, and also a compelling argument for the use of qualitative narrative as evidence of impact.

    The link with Layers of London is fabulous; it makes excellent use of your research material, and promotes the often overlooked role of libraries within our City. Looking forward to more 🙂

    Like

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