“‘What do we need libraries for? We’ve got the Internet now!’ FACEPALM” – Cory Doctorow
“Wherever you are in America, there is a librarian fighting to get YOU something”
This book will be published on May 16, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.
Last week I recommended five non-fiction books on libraries which were mostly academic and history-focused.
This book is not a history book but a celebration of libraries, and librarians, accomplished by a collaboration between photographers, librarians, publishers, and authors. By comparison to last week’s recommendations, this book is much more accessible. Kyle Cassidy published a photo essay on Slate in 2014 called “This is What A Librarian Looks Like,” a montage of portraits and a tribute to librarians. The essay had success and spread widely through social media. Cassidy expanded this project into what is now the new-coming book This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information.
The book has three components:
- Brief essays on the history of the American Library
- Photographs of contemporary American Librarians
- Essays by writers, journalists, and commentators including Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, and others who discuss what the library means to them now, and what memories they have of the library from their childhood and/or youth.
The three sections are woven beautifully combining the history, interviews, and photographs according to historical periods and American geographical regions. Cassidy opens with an introduction to this book on the ideal of the library by discussing the Library of Alexandria. He writes:
“What made the Library of Alexandria great wasn’t just the collection of books, but rather, its intellectual raison d’être: the insatiable pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge as a force to drive civilization.”
While discussing the leap across the digital divide and community service provided by librarians, this book urges readers not to look away while the Government is taking funds away from libraries. One such initiative is called Send Librarians to Congress, where the goal is to put a copy of this book in the hands of each member of Congress before Federal funding for libraries is eliminated as proposed in the “Skinny Budget” from President Trump. Cassidy writes:
“libraries in America today are at a crossroads, facing dangers not unlike those of the Great Library [of Alexandria] as well as an evolving technology that has the power either to make libraries exponentially more valuable or to erode their foundation if we are not careful.”
The book then focuses a chapter on America’s First Lending Library: The Lending Company of Philadelphia which was opened in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. The second history-based chapter is on artifacts and tablets interviewing Sumerologist Steve Tinney at the Tablet Room at the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the tablets similar to those which got us the Epic of Gilgamesh (British Museum) and Cuneiform writing.
Cassidy then turns his attention to individual library histories like the chapter “The Little Library That Tried” on M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, Massachusetts and “History you can Hold” focusing on the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. There are also insights to libraries collecting non-texts like the Franklin Public Library which collects ‘The American Girl’ dolls instead. The book closes with “Archiving the Past” at University libraries in Texas and Iowa with a conversation between Cassidy and George R.R. Martin.
I really enjoyed this book with all its components, however, as a reader and librarian I was much more interested in the essays written by authors and the history parts. I wish they were longer. Some author interviews were only a paragraph long. For 220 images of librarians to fit in this large book, expect a coffee-table-style book. I understand the political undertones, specifically the one I mentioned above, where this book aims to put a face to the community of librarians in America for Congress, but as a physical codex, the book will become immediately dated because of the abundance of contemporary photographs. On the other hand, the same component makes it somewhat unique to preserving the ‘here and now.’ I would urge the reader to look at this book first and foremost as an art/photography book, where the histories and author essays are the supplements for the images, not the other way around as is usually the case. Nonetheless, the book advertises itself as a celebration of libraries and librarians, and in that respect, it has succeeded.
In terms of librarians photographed, this book is America-centric. Though the librarians are multicultural and diverse, the workplaces of the librarians photographed are mostly in the United States covering an array of public libraries, special collections, school libraries, and academic libraries. The authors interviewed are American, Canadian, and British. Overall this book focuses on the Western experience of the library.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in libraries, photography, and who has enjoyed blogs/books like Humans of New York which focus on individuals with an excerpt on what they do, and what they enjoy. I especially recommend this book to Congress.
Many thanks to Hachette Books, Black Dog & Leventhal for sending me a copy of this book for an early review.
I will leave you now with this excellent quotation on the importance of librarians taken from the introduction to the book :
- Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles
In this book Battles covers the history of the library, giving an overview, starting with Alexandria and working his way to present times. This is a great starting point to get a general history of the library and readership. Battles takes into account Chinese and Middle-Eastern approaches to librarianship in history though it is mostly Euro-centric, particularly in the sections discussing the Medieval period and the Renaissance. I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the long history of libraries. To go from Antiquity to Present time in only 222 pages is a lot to cover so he doesn’t go into too much detail. Very pleasant.
- Apostles of Culture by Dee Garrison
This book covers the history of the American Public Library System since its conception post-American Civil War until present times– which for this publication is 1979, missing a rather large portion of the technological advances in the digital revolution. Its main focus is expository from an objective standpoint though it dives into the ideals and theoretical beginnings of the library and contrasts them with what the library eventually has done/become over time. It focuses on the transcendentalist ideals and key figures such as Melvil Dewey, and Andrew Carnegie and their role in the transformation of the library from a private institution to a public one. In addition the book explores the role of the librarian both from a gender studies perspectives exploring the collision between men and women in the field, the feminization of the field as well as the librarian’s role moving from imposing censorship to advocating for freedom of information. This book focuses on the public library as we know it today as it was begun by the United States in the mid-1800s.
- Part of Our Lives by Wayne A. Wiegand
This book covers the history of the American Public Library as well, like Garrison’s book, but it’s published in 2015 so it incorporates newer concepts and does a much more detailed job. What makes Part of Our Lives different from Apostles of Culture is that it uses many anecdotes. Wiegand interviewed many people who had experienced the library and uses the anecdotes to draw conclusions on American Public Library history. It’s not as history-heavy as Garrison’s book, but the anecdotes bring history to life. Wiegand wrote a lot on librarianship history. He also wrote a book focusing on Lewis Sinclair’s library mentioned in Main Street and looks at four small town libraries and argues that although people claim the library to be the pillar of democratic culture of an entire country, libraries actually cater to each individual town locally, and each individual community. Wiegand contextualizes the library within specific communities and shows how they specifically adhere to local rules that are negotiable and adaptable rather than broad and nation-wide. He published that book in 2011 and it’s titled Main Street Public Library.
- The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
More famously known for A History of Reading, Manguel focuses on readership histories and reading patterns in a lot of his published works. In this one he focuses on library history, but more on the library as an idea. For instance he examines how the library exists in our society as order, as space, as power, as shadow, as mind, as imagination, or identity (among others). It’s an easy and pleasant read. Unlike Dee Garrison’s book this is not as academic heavy. Manguel takes into account non-Western libraries and explores readership practices in other parts of the world as well. It’s more inclusive than books 1-3 mentioned above.
- The Library Book (2012)
This is a tiny book and contains 23 essays written by different authors. Each author discusses in a brief non-fiction essay what books as print culture or the library as space means to them on a personal level. They contextualize the library into their history as they were growing into the authors they became today. Authors include Lionel Shriver, Stephen Fry, Zadie Smith, Kate Mosse, China Miéville, Caitlin Moran, and Tom Holland, among others. Its main goal as the foreword suggests is to celebrate libraries. This is an easy read, it’s pleasant, and it’s the least academic form the five listed.
BONUS: Essay by Neil Gaiman (the first in The View from the Cheap Seats) Called “Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming.”