So it turns out there are a couple of potentially controversial things about the current issue of The New Yorker, one of them being an article called “The Lion and the Mouse” by Jill Lepore. I’ve always agreed with the ethic and attitude of “Library 2.0,” even though I didn’t like the implication that libraries had never before in our history evolved. For me, it symbolizes the need to change again, in what may seem to some like radical ways (online conversations, user-generated content, zoned physical spaces, collaborative relationships with users, etc.), but this article shows just one example of when this happened in the past. Libraries responded then, as many are responding now.
As a proponent of gaming in libraries, one of the criticisms I hear about the movement is that libraries are for books and the edification of the mind. That we shouldn’t corrupt young minds with games, and that we shouldn’t use games as a ploy to get kids in the door. But libraries are vibrant places where quite a wide range of other things happen besides just books, and I think it’s sad when patrons or librarians portray us as just warehouses. Any building can be a book warehouse - that’s not what makes us “libraries” and community centers (regardless of type of library), and librarians certainly aren’t “book tellers,” just sitting behind a desk waiting to hand over a book in return for seeing a library card.
I believe quite strongly that libraries are about content, people, and communities. The people create community there, often around the content, but not always, especially in public libraries where we also serve a recreational role. All of this is why I believe gaming in libraries is a perfect fit, and I cringe when I hear someone conjure up “the good old days” when all kids did was sit in the library and read. When I hear this, I wonder whose childhood they’re remembering, because while I certainly loved the library and would often read there, a lot of my friends never went there, maybe even most of them. The truth is that a lot of the kids I grew up with weren’t spending their days reading the classics unless they were forced to by teachers, let alone enlightening their minds by just sitting quietly in the middle of the library.
And if we go back far enough in “the good old days,” it turns out they couldn’t have done those things even if they’d wanted to, because children simply weren’t allowed in the library, a point brought home in The New Yorker piece. While the author spends the majority of the article discussing rivalries between the early players in the world of book reviews of children’s literature, the background history is relevant to our own discussions today.
“At the time , you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library, which opened in 1854, the same year as the Boston Public Library, the country’s first publicly funded city library, where you had to be sixteen. Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the ‘young fry’ read nothing but ‘the trashy’: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books). Samuel Tilden, who left $2.4 million to establish a free library in New York, nearly changed his mind when he found out that ninety percent of the books checked out of the Boston Public Library were fiction. Meanwhile, libraries were popping up in American cities and towns like crocuses at first melt. Between 1881 and 1917, Andrew Carnegie underwrote the construction of more than sixteen hundred public libraries in the United States, buildings from which children were routinely turned away, because they needed to be protected from morally corrupting books, especially novels. In 1894, at the annual meeting of the American Library Association, the Milwaukee Public Library’s Lutie Stearns read a ‘Report on the Reading of the Young.’ What if libraries were to set aside special books for children, Stearns wondered, shelved in separate rooms for children, staffed by librarians who actually liked children?
Much of what [Anne Carroll] Moore did in that room had never been done before, or half as well. She brought in storytellers and, in her first year, organized two hundred story hours (and ten times as many two years later). She compiled a list of twenty-five hundred standard titles in children’s literature. She won the right to grant borrowing privileges to children; by 1913, children’s books accounted for a third of all the volumes borrowed from New York’s branch libraries. Against the prevailing sentiment of the day, she believed that her job was to give ‘to the child of foreign parentage a feeling of pride in the beautiful things of the country his parents have left….’ In each of the library’s branches, Moore abolished age restrictions. Down came the ‘Silence’ signs, up went framed prints of the work of children’s-book illustrators. “Do not expect or demand perfect quiet,” she instructed her staff. ‘The education of children begins at the open shelves.’ In place of locked cabinets, she provided every library with a big black ledger; if you could sign your name, you could borrow a book.” (Thanks, Richard!)
So when we talk about “the good old days,” let’s be sure to specify which period we’re referring to, because just over a hundred years ago, fiction was the great corrupter of young minds. A few decades later, it was E. B. White’s “Stuart Little.”
But things change, and now it’s games in the libraries that are bad influences or candy or inappropriate instead of books. What a difference a century makes! How much more powerful is it to look back on our history and see how library services to all patrons have changed during the last hundred years? It’s something to be proud of, even as we experience another transitional period and change again to serve new [and old] users in new ways.