ONCE THOUGHT TO BE ELITIST, THE PUBLIC LIBRARY INQUIRY IS AS RELEVANT TODAY AS IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO
At the brink of a new millennium, the American public library totters on the edge of change, and the view is more than a little frightening. The accelerated pace of our transformation into an information society make the future difficult to assess, but a historical strength of the public library is its capacity for change in response to social conditions, and many librarians draw on this strength to face the future with confidence. In addition to our adaptability, we have some valuable new tools with which to build our future.
Planning for Results: A Public Library Transformation Process by Ethel Himmel and Bill Wilson (ALA, 1998), for example, can help us think what our communities need and what we can do for them, and for the time being, the Universal Service telecommunications discounts make possible the rapid deployment and development of information technology. Despite these advantages, however, some troublesome questions persist. When so much changes so quickly, isn't it time to stop and ask, what kind of world are we making? Is it really the world we want or are we merely riding the tiger and trying to convince ourselves that the inevitable is good? What role should the public library play in this new world? Interestingly enough, all of these questions would sound very familiar to the librarians who organized the Public Library Inquiry over 50 years ago.
Immediately after the end of World War II Carl Milam, executive director of the American Library Association, began to think about the need for a comprehensive study of the public library in America. Milam, like many other Americans, believed that post-war conditions offered both new promises and new threats. War-driven technological progress was combining with pervasive political and social change to create a volatile and uncertain world, not unlike our own, characterized by instability. Milam and others developed the idea of the Public Library Inquiry as a means to assess the condition of the public library in America, to determine if it had achieved its goals, and to chart a course for it in the postwar world. Underlying of all these questions, however, were more fundamental questions. On what grounds could the public library base its legitimacy as a public, tax-supported institution? Why have public libraries?
Milam wanted the library's purpose to be connected with the creation of the informed citizenry generally believed to be the source of wisdom in American politics; but at a 1946 meeting between ALA and Brookings Institution officials he conceded that defining "what library service is may be important and not easy."
The Public Library Inquiry was initiated by ALA, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, and undertaken by a team of some of the leading social scientists of the day in order to answer these questions. At the heart of their answers is the argument that the public library and its purpose are central to the meaning of American democracy. This argument is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago to those who are trying to understand the complex relationship between the need for the public library to adapt to change and the compulsion to remain true to its enduring purposes.
Politicize and strategize
The Public Library Inquiry was informed by an awareness that the public library is a political institution, and that its funding and future depend on the outcome of the political process and the civic purposes the library serves. To provide needed services, librarianship must have a political strategy, not only to serve as a guide to developing those services, but also as a means to promote and secure its own interests. By identifying and providing a legitimate public good, librarianship might establish for itself a widely recognized professional identity and gain the public's commitment to the necessity of library service. To accomplish this end, however, public libraries have to define specific and achievable goals that can be taken into the political arena and win out in the competition for public funds.
The most challenging conclusion of the inquiry was that despite the existence of a number of good public libraries, public librarianship had generally failed to accomplish the goals it had set for itself. The source of this failure was a political strategy and professional ideology that the director of the inquiry, Robert D. Leigh, called "the Library Faith." In a volume of the inquiry titled The Public Library in the Political Process (Columbia University Press, 1949), Oliver Garceau described the Library Faith as a belief in the utilitarian and moral value of reading[middle dot] The public library was held by most librarians to be an instrument for public enlightenment and democratic values because it made books available to readers. Garceau, however, concluded that while elements of the Library Faith were worth preserving, its idealism translated poorly into a program for action.
Working librarians found wanting
Evidence of the failure of the Library Faith can be found throughout the volumes of the inquiry. Charles M. Armstrong in Money for Libraries: A Report on Library Finance (Social Sciences Research Council, 1951) identified as a basic problem the difficulty of securing funds for an institution whose services were socially valuable but largely intangible. The value of library service, according to Armstrong, is difficult to express in "concrete terms, quantitative measures or immediate results."
Alice Bryan, the only librarian among the authors of the inquiry, studied library personnel and concluded in The Public Librarian (Columbia University Press, 1952) that while many individual librarians possessed great skill and insight, too few libraries had a staff adequate to the task of accomplishing library goals. For her the heart of the library personnel problem lay in the gap between the personnel requirements implied by official library objectives and the actual qualities that could be found among then-working librarians. She argued that a general campaign to raise salaries and recruit more promising people was an insufficient solution since "[t]he inadequacies are imbedded deep within the structure of the public library institution itself and the educational institutions that train librarians."
According to Bernard Berelson's The Library's Public (Columbia University Press, 1949) libraries were simply not used, either in the manner or to the extent that had been assumed and hoped for by a great number of librarians and their supporters. Despite these criticisms, Garceau spoke for the inquiry when he concluded that the Library Faith had "not been drained of all it can give."
The public library's failure was attributed not to an inherent weakness of the institution or to the intellectual laziness of the American people - these problems were associated with the structure of modern society and mass public communications. One of the ironies the inquiry addressed was that in a society increasingly characterized by the production and flow of information, less information of substance and enduring value was consumed. Leigh noted that while the absolute number of book readers continued to grow, it was far outpaced by the growth of mass markets for products of what he called the communications revolution. He argued that the information provided to the public by the commercial communications structure, ranging from newspapers to the pulpit, was largely determined by market demand. The kind and quality of information required to sustain a democratic culture were not necessarily excluded by this structure, but likewise, the market did not necessarily demand that such information be provided.
In his The Public Library in the United States: The General Report of the Public Library Inquiry (Columbia University Press, 1950) Leigh granted that the communications revolution might nave a greater impact on cultural lite than did the printing press, but he wasn't convinced that such an influence would be entirely positive. He identified what we now recognize as the problem with information overload when he wrote that the "bewildering abundance," "cheapness," and "easy accessibility" of modern mass communications render them "obtrusive" to the ordinary person. "In some public places he cannot escape them; he is part of a captive audience." This condition leaves an opportunity for the public library to play a unique role in the structure of public communication. It is likely to be a small role, but an important one.
According to the recommendations of the inquiry, the public library is in a position to satisfy a need and demand not met by commercial agents in the marketplace of ideas:the provision of reading material and information required for the rational conduct of public and cultural affairs. The library need not attempt to compete with commercial information sources, but should instead focus its resources and efforts on the civic responsibility of a democracy to provide a means for informed citizenship and social participation[middle dot]
In what was surely its most controversial recommendation, the inquiry identified for the public library a natural audience of people who generally possessed more education, participated more in public affairs, and used a wider variety of information sources than most Americans. Leigh called these people the community's opinion leaders. By serving them as individuals and providing for their involvement in public affairs and cultural progress, the library can contribute to community progress. The material selected to support these services must provide a balanced, comprehensive picture of the contemporary world, regardless of the extent to which that picture might be unpopular, challenging, or critical of accepted ideas. It was assumed that librarians must become members of this group in order to anticipate their needs and provide information relevant to the solution of community problems. Given the limited resources available to libraries, this strategy provided a rationale for limiting services. The services provided can be justified as public goods, and librarians can have a sound basis from which to argue for more resources and greater respect and professional reward.
The recommendations of the Public Library Inquiry were not well received, and unfortunately the messengers were too often blamed for the message. In some ways, that message was misinterpreted. The authors of the inquiry did not believe that the library's natural audience was either a single unified group or one closed to entry. On the contrary, the inquiry stressed the pluralist nature of American politics. Community leadership varies depending on the issue.
In addition, the inquiry's recommendations insisted that the public library must be assertive in providing an equal opportunity for every member of a community to participate in community affairs, and that its services must take into account the interests of all the groups that make up a community. Leigh's book argued forcefully that "[o]pinion leaders can be reached surely with information and ideas only by making the information and ideas available to everybody." It is true, however, that the authors of the inquiry did not expect a majority of Americans to participate actively in civic affairs. This made it all the more important for those who did to have access to material that reinforced democratic values.
Much of the negative reaction to the inquiry was well-founded, but important aspects of its critique were lost in the heat of debate. The inquiry was fairly criticized for its elitism, for example, but the issue of determining a realistic mission did not go away.
The inquiry was also criticized for its lack of emphasis on providing entertainment to meet popular demand, but the problem of understanding the difference between, and balancing community needs and demands is still very much with us. It is also true that the inquiry stressed the role of the library as an institution for adults, and missed an opportunity to examine the needs of children and their role as a primary audience for library services.
Despite these problems, however, the Public Library Inquiry raised an important point that should not have been overlooked. It was based on the explicit recognition that values are intimately related to decisions about the kinds of collections and services that libraries offer to the public, and that the nature of these decisions is linked to the kind of use and political support libraries can expect to receive.
Librarianship is a political practice, and in order to establish its legitimacy as a profession, it must establish a politically legitimate role for the public library in American society. The inquiry offered the idea that the public library might base its legitimacy on its role as a civic institution that facilitates informed citizenship and the maintenance of democratic values.
Today we again face the need to establish such a role within the context of new modes of communication, and new demands for new kinds of knowledge. The inquiry's effort to examine the structure of public communication, and to find in that structure a unique role for the public library is still relevant to our current dilemmas.
The Internet offers so many new possibilities for access to information that to imagine them all sometimes seems beyond our capabilities, but the authors of the inquiry would have us ask this simple question: What can libraries and librarians do that the Internet cannot?
The notion that the public library is a civic institution, intimately linked to the purposes of democracy, is a powerful idea.
Certainly the public library must become a technologically dynamic institution. It must be prepared to adapt to change and take advantage of technology, but we would do well to keep in mind the public library's enduring relationship to democracy.
The public library must:
* Realize it is a political institution and have a political strategy for funding.
* Gain the public's commitment to the necessity of library service.
* Base its legitimacy on its role as a civic institution that facilitates an informed citizenship.
WHAT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY INQUIRY IS
The Public Library Inquiry yielded seven published volumes and five supplementary reports. The published volumes include:
Bernard Berelson. The Library's Public. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
Alice I. Bryan. The Public Librarian. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
Oliver Garceau. The Public Library in the Political Process. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
Robert D. Leigh. The Public Library in the United States: The General Report of the Public Library Inquiry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1950.
James L. McCamy. Government Publications for the Citizen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
William Miller. The Book Industry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Gloria Waldron. The Information Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
For further commentary and analysis of the Public Library Inquiry see Mary Niles Maack, ed., "The Public Library Inquiry: Reminiscences, Reflections; and Research," Libraries & Culture 29 (Winter 1994); and Douglas Raber, Librarianship and Legitimacy: The Ideology of the Public Library Inquiry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
DOUGLAS RABER is an assistant professor at the School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee/Knoxville.…