4 Guiding Library Lights (and one cool initative)

4 Guiding Library Lights (and one cool initative)

Like every other profession, modern librarians owe the standard practices and innovations on those that came before. The history of library science in America includes some amazing people. It also includes some less than noble ones. The following are five of the librarians that laid the foundation that exist in libraries today.

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Melvil Dewey (1851–1931)

Dewey is a recognizable name to many due to his classification system, but his contributions to librarianship continues today. His legacy, however, has been reassessed in recent years. The trailblazing organization system he created, first published in 1876, is used to this day. He was also one of the founders of the American Library Association and Library Journal magazine. He introduced the first library for the blind, the children’s library and Inter-Library Loan program as head of the library in Albany, New York. Finally, he initiated a training program for librarians at Columbia University. In recent years, Dewey’s reputation has undergone a reassessment his problematic behavior towards his female subordinates and peers lead to his removal from his position as Head Librarian in Albany in 1906 after he acted inappropriately towards four female librarians during a business trip to Alaska. He also owned a resort with his wife that did not permit Jews, African Americans and other minorities. We like to think that the sexism that infected other professions has bypassed the female dominated world of librarianship, but we owe it to all future librarians to make clear that this behavior, from any quarter, is unacceptable. The ALA’s decision to strip his name from a medal given for excellence in librarianship is a gesture in the right direction.

Mary Cutler Fairchild (1855–1921)

 Fairchild graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1875 and spent two years teaching there when an illness caused her to reconsider her professional goals and she decided to shift into librarianship. She turned to Melvil Dewey for help and he got her a job as a cataloger at Columbia, rising to the role of head cataloger in 1889. She left that position and followed Dewey to Albany, New York as the Vice Director of the New York State Library School, and ran the day to day operations of the first library school for sixteen years, improving the curriculum and starting the bachelor degree program in 1902. She also became the librarian to the State Library for the Blind in 1889 and built a 5,000 volume ‘model library’ at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 that was used to showcase modern library methods for librarians from smaller cities and towns. Sadly, an illness in 1905 forced her retirement, but she remained a frequent contributor to professional journals. Librarianship is a relatively new field, and Mary Cutler Fairchild worked hard to make sure that it gained the academic standing it deserved.

Linda Eastman (1867–1963)

Eastman began her career as a teacher. She pursued this for seven years. During this time she saw the values of books and decided to change careers and got a job at the Cleveland Public Library as an apprentice in 1892, rising in the ranks as branch director in 1894 and assistant librarian. During this time, Cleveland adopted several innovative programs including open shelving, starting a business information bureau and expanded services to the blind and disabled. In 1918, her friend and mentor, William Brent, died in an automobile accident, she took his place as head of the Cleveland Library District. She lead it through the building of the main branch, a project that took most of the 1920s to complete, as well holding things together during the depression. Along the way she was also President of ALA in 1928–1929. When she retired in 1938, it was as head of the third largest library district in the country. She also represent the shift of women taking Executive positions.

Pack Horse Library Initiative

The initative, a division of the Works Progress Administration, was a program to bring books. During the Depression, Kentucky got hit especially hard. One of the many programs during the Roosevelt administration to get people back to work, this one also sought to bring books and literacy to the difficult part of Appalachia in eastern Kentucky. The program housed book in any facility that would donate space and twice monthly, a transporter, called a climber, would take books into the difficult to navigate mountain trials. The program started with local donations for materials, and eventually gathered donations from 25 states getting books to 50,00 families and starting 155 school libraries. The program was ended in 1943, but technology took over in 1946 with the coming of bookmobiles and showed how communities could come together to provide books in the most extreme areas.

Judith F. Krug (1940–2009)

The last week of September is Banned Book Week, an event started in 1982 by our last amazing librarian. Krug spent her entire career fighting against censorship, and several of her battles ended on the floor of the Supreme Court. She became the Director of ALA’s Officer for Intellectual Freedom, moving on The Freedom to Read Foundation in 1967 where she spent the rest of career raising money to support 1st Amendment cases, and adding the challenges of the Internet to her agenda. She fought for all books, including books she disagree with, making her a consistent, but controversial, figure. The fight to read remains constant, and libraries remain defenders of access to all books.

We build on the foundations of those that came before us. Librarianship includes both saints and scoundrels, but both contributed to the growth and spread of the ideal of the public library today. Knowing that history allows us to learn from it as well as avoid the mistakes one finds there.