Dee Garrison’s Apostles of Culture is an engaging look at the development of librarianship in America. It provides an unflinching view of the luminaries of the library and explores the way in which their own history, combined with their place in history has affected the work we do today. From the very beginning the leaders of the library sought to advance culture, education and social status. In many ways those struggles and our role in them as professionals is the focus of great debate to this day.
From the establishment of the earliest American libraries, the motivations of culture, morality and literacy have been bound together. At once part of the social reform movements of Temperance Unions, at times leaders such as Dewey were themselves in need of social reform, being driven more by personal habits than by the desire for progress.
Coming into being at the end of the Victorian era, the library became the last stronghold of the gentry. Their social standing greatly diminished with the rise of industry, they sought to maintain influence and relevance by exerting control over the affairs of culture. As is the case today, many in this social class sought leadership within the world of the library to express their social and cultural leadership.
While men of industry would build great libraries, and impose their vision upon them, others would come to positions of leadership within the profession itself. Just as Andrew Carnegie was instrumental in constructing many of America’s libraries, leaders such as Samuel Swett Green lead movements to encourage reading amongst school children and laborers. Men such as Dewey and Cutter developed classification systems that allowed for easy retrieval of materials as collections expanded greatly.
For his part Carnegie would bring the “Carnegie Library” to towns across America, sometimes in the face of great opposition. In particular, union members and Socialist leaders were repulsed by the idea that the Carnegie libraries were nothing more than an attempt to polish the image of a union-busting industrialist soon after the Homestead Strike. The formation of such libraries was seen not as a deed of altruism, but as a further effort to lull workers into complacency and quash their expansion with bland fiction.
Furthermore, at this time the library was seen as the place of the leisure classes, with workers shut out by the social mores of the institution. Such refined halls reflected an air of upper-class exclusivity that made many working men feel unwelcome. At the same time as working men were feeling shut out, the feminization of the library was taking hold. Women began to remake the library in the image of the home. This suited the gentry quite well as the gentry began to find their power, rooted this time not in industry or money, but in morality. Thus they saw themselves as protectors of women and savior-teachers to the worker; and guardians of morality for all.
Just as the gentry struggled to redefine their status at this time, much of the struggle experienced by early library leaders revolved around matters of status. In the economy of ideas they wanted to be seen as more than department store clerks selling literacy to the masses. Rather they saw themselves as professionals, akin to educators. While they espoused high culture ideals, they were often forced to reconcile this with the demand for the dime novel. Efforts were made to curtail this demand by culling from the collection works of fiction and works that were deemed morally questionable. Yet the desire for fiction never waned. Even as the library would be re-imagined as the University of the working- man, librarians were forced to understand that their students did not always want to study the Classics. Thus, as the society changed, so too did the role of librarians. Where once they were cultural ambassadors, infusing the masses with the works of Shakespeare, and Chaucer, librarians began to understand the place of recreational readers in the life of the library.
At its core, Apostles of Culture is a story about the development of the library, sometimes in spite of those who are viewed as pioneers within the field. Between Carnegie’s anti-Labor views, and Dewey’s eccentric refusal to write in standard English, it is amazing that a public backlash to the idea of the library did not develop. More than anything then the book is a story about the persistent draw of the written word in spite of those who sought to control it. In the modern world of media saturation, one has to imagine that such personalities properly projected and distorted could have derailed the development of the American library. It is fortunate then, that the library took hold before the quirks of the personalities took over the public imagination.