Our Great Depression: Librarians' Raw Deals during the New Deal
Manley, Will, American Libraries
Want to get depressed? Read through the editions of this magazine from the 1930s--the decade of the Great Depression. Unemployment topped 30%, wages declined, tax bases eroded, and until the New Deal moved into gear, there was no social safety net to provide for the increasing numbers of sick, homeless, and starving Americans.
Money became the big concern of the library profession. More and more articles in the Bulletin of the American Library Association (precursor to American Libraries) were devoted to securing funding through trusts, charitable donations, and government support. By the end of the decade, the role of ALA had shifted from being a forum for discussing professional issues to becoming a pseudo-political action committee to lobby the state and federal governments for financial aid. Actually, the decade wasn't all bad for libraries; the public used them as never before.
Tough times produce tough people, and librarians got tougher in the 1930s. After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government became far more active in providing financial assistance to individuals and institutions, and librarians fought for their fair share of the pie. The 1930s was also a period of laborunrest. Because of the high unemployment rate, employers paid substandard wages and subjected employees to intolerable working conditions. The result was a protracted fight for labor legislation to proscribe unfair employment practices.
Librarians began to express their displeasure at how they were being treated on the job. At the 1937 ALA Annual Conference in New York City, the first presenter at a symposium titled "Square Pegs in Square Holes--Bringing Together Talent and Opportunity in the Library Profession" was Louis M. Nourse of the Brooklyn Public Library, who spoke on behalf of the "dissatisfied" young librarian. …