Libraries and Learning
January 22, 2018
As I was idly poking into library history, I came across something that surprised me. In a 1901 conference proceeding, Melvil Dewey predicted this would happen by 1926:
Books, except a few rarities, will be regarded less as fetiches [sic] to-be protected with a kind of sacred awe, and more for use. When a volume cost as much as a village, this reverence and jealous watchfulness were justified. Now that it can be bought for the price of a single meal, such reverence is a mediaeval survival. Students will cut up books freely for notes and scraps.
Librarians are known to quote Ranganathan’s laws, including “Books are for use” but this is going a bit far.
The context for this prediction: there were hot debates going on about whether libraries should allow browsing in open stacks. Those who supported the idea argued that books were no longer so special, rare, and sacred that they had to be protected from the public. Or even, apparently, from vandalism.
Dewey, in addition to being an anti-Semite and harasser of women, was a serial entrepreneur fascinated with business and big ideas. He wanted libraries to be efficient, cost-effective, and (though they didn’t use the term back then) a good return on investment. He had plenty to say about how to run libraries – including that bookish people need not apply, but rather libraries should be directed by “men of affairs” who would “throw into their work the same administrative skill that has made possible the successes of the captains of industry and commerce.”
The entire essay is in many ways fascinating in that so many of his predictions seem fairly current:
- Access to information matters more than ownership
- New technologies should be harnessed to provide information services (he was really excited about telephones)
- Since it’s fruitless to try to own everything libraries should reduce their collections to items that get lots of use and cooperate with large research libraries to preserve print collections.
- Libraries and universities should become involved in academic publishing
- Libraries are more than just books (he thought libraries should provide illustrations, which could be more informative than texts, and include museums; no mention of 3D printers, though)
One prediction that goes against the current grain: he thought reference services would be big. That was once true, but has faded as basic information is readily available online.
Respondents to Dewey’s paper were interested if not entirely convinced. One thought browsing was fine, so long as young people were limited to really good books selected and arranged for them. Another said “I am inclined to think that the present cheapness and the greater cheapness of books hereafter is not in itself a great public benefit . . . so much miscellaneous reading enthralls and paralyzes the power of thought.” A third said “I should like to hear competent persons discuss the question of fictitious literature in the library. Is there any way of limiting it? . . . If a free library has an enormous supply of works of fiction, and any child old enough to read can go and help himself, not from the shelves, of course, but by the ordinary methods, and can do this as often as he pleases, is it on the whole desirable? Should there not be some check?” There followed much discussion of the misleading nature of library circulation statistics, dominated by novels which “demoralize the intellect.” That was another big debate of the time along with open stacks.
Anyway, fun stuff and a reminder that we have always been talking about the future of libraries.