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Banishing The Ghost Of Melvil Dewey: How Public Libraries Are Outgrowing Their Classist Roots

Modified from Vancouver Public Central Library

Vulnerable voices will not be heard in public discussion of the library; if money talks, they are nearly mute.

The free public library is a product of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the mid-1800s, only the rich read. That all changed, however, when Melvil Dewey took over as State Librarian of New York in 1888. The concept of a free public library had been gaining ground sluggishly since the mid-1800s but, few libraries were truly free for all, with most requiring annual subscription fees. Dewey goosed the growth of free public libraries with funding, infrastructure, and regulation.

He invented professional organizations and opened librarian schools, bullied committees, and made rousing speeches. He was a zealous librarian celebrity, famously arrogant, and completely committed to the idea that the public could only improve themselves if they understood and embodied Christian morality. Dewey could provide this education with books, which would “elevate” them through a system of ideologically coordinated public libraries. When shown the foundation of Western literature—ran the logic—readers would understand how society functioned as well as their place within it. The result would be literate but passive components of a capitalist machine. Public libraries would be its oil.

Those same public libraries began to move away from Dewey’s vision almost immediately upon his ouster from the profession for sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, and career-spanning fiscal hijinks around 1905.

Almost as soon as Dewey opened a library school, librarians began to migrate away from his conservative ideals. Library doctrine of the 21st century emphasizes empowerment rather than passivity; the library should serve as a bastion of free thought and durable democracy. The American Library Association—Dewey’s own organization—vigorously supports seditious and controversial literature, and the Office of Intellectual Freedom thrives with its blessing. Librarians of the 21st century are more likely to be secret radicals than soldiers of conformity. They have appeared at Occupy Wall Street, stood up against White supremacists, advocated for Black lives, and gone to bat for LGBTQ book displays.

Nevertheless, the bones of public library work are Dewey’s, and if the profession no longer exists purely in his image, then it still bears a striking familial resemblance. As libraries move forward into an increasingly diverse future—one where the yawning gap between rich and poor is constantly exacerbated by technology and lack of education—it finds itself in the rare position of equalizer, leveler, and sharer of privilege. Public libraries could be powerful mitigators of a class crisis in an increasingly class-distressed nation, but first, they must grow past Dewey’s architecture and define themselves anew.

Those at the very bottom of the class pile make up the public library’s most loyal and most dependent users. For them, book purchase and charitable giving are simply out of the question, never mind a run for the office of Trustee. Their voices will not be heard in public discussion of the library; if money talks, they are nearly mute. However, they make their wishes known through their avid use of the Internet, driving libraries through classic consumer modeling. Low-income library patrons don’t just enjoy public-access computers, they rely on them.

Craigslist is now a critical housing service; many high schools distribute homework over Google services; being unable to use the Internet at will is debilitating. Even reliance on mobile technology–which is how most low-income people access the Internet—can’t make up what users lose when printers, keyboards, and full-size screens are out of the picture.

Public libraries are keenly aware of their role in bridging the digital divide, which is the little-discussed but gaping success gulf between people who can afford technology and people who can’t. But even as libraries work to fix a digital revolution that is crushing vulnerable people, cognizant of the fact that few other organizations are filling this niche, they struggle to keep the library “nice” for donors, who may jump ship if the library seems to be “deteriorating,” and elected trustees, who may cease to support library outreach to marginalized communities if they feel that a quaint, attractive book warehouse is becoming un-vote-for-able.

Vulnerable voices will not be heard in public discussion of the library; if money talks, they are nearly mute. Click To Tweet

Compounding this problem is the fact that many librarians in administration can’t articulate, and sometimes don’t realize, the importance of class awareness in library work. This is because most librarians are white, middle-class people who are able to afford graduate degrees. Those who can’t afford the degree may still work in libraries as technicians or clerks, but administration is generally out of reach for them. Opportunities to steer the library’s direction are rare for non-degree holders who might otherwise give the profession a more diverse perspective. Again, we have Dewey to thank.

Dewey believed, at least in word, that idealists shouldn’t worry about money when devoting their careers to the public good. His own initial willingness to take less money for library work compounded his later willingness to pay other people less money for library work, leading to his decision to hire women into the profession. After all, a woman could be paid far less than an equally qualified man, and she posed no threat to established male leadership. How ironic that Dewey’s conserve blinders led to the eventual women’s takeover of libraries, to the extent that 79% of librarians were women in 2017. How tragic that this very same takeover still resulted in an internal pay gap.

In 2016, the average degreed librarian was paid a little north of $27 per hour. The degree that made this wage attainable costs at least $5,500 from Texas A&M Online and upward of $50,000 from Syracuse University; the Master’s requirement to become a librarian functions as a gatekeeper, and many people—especially those from disenfranchised backgrounds— simply can’t afford the toll. Alternatively, if a graduate degree becomes possible for a student who otherwise couldn’t afford it, why not make the most of the opportunity and become a lawyerwho average a yearly income of $118,160—instead of idealistically gunning for a middle-class job?

Anyway, most library jobs are now part-time positions, even those requiring degrees, and breaking into a benefited full-time library job can take years. In effect, the graduate degree—which Dewey also introduced as a requirement for professional librarian status—filters talent and diversity out of the profession. The result is a cohort of well-meaning librarians who may not have vital enough connections to the marginalized sectors of their communities to make the best possible impact there.

The digital divide is the little-discussed but gaping success gulf between people who can afford technology and people who can’t. Click To Tweet

Though modern librarians celebrate the role of non-degreed colleagues—also known as “para-professionals” or “para-librarians”—they also find themselves in a bind when confronted with the fact that the degree is a barrier for some of their colleagues. If the Master’s requirement goes, then librarian salaries may become devalued and current degree-holders, already struggling to find full-time work, will suffer financially. Lower salaries could also undermine the profession and fail to draw talent into public libraries. However, it is undeniable that some talent is already failing to be drawn into areas where it could be best utilized. Para-professionals and librarians work on different sides of an invisible fence, often doing similar work but having vastly differing levels of impact on their institution’s direction. In many libraries, they even belong to different unions.

But to all appearances, Dewey never intended the library profession to be accessible to people of non-middle class status. He and his fellow morally—and economically—elevated white Christian librarians were showing up to help everybody else become them, a mission of cultural homogenization. They had no stake in perspectives rooted in the communities they were trying to serve. Their perspective was the only one that mattered, and it was that everybody should read Socrates and the Bible.

During Dewey’s tenure as State Librarian of New York, library grants were determined by the number of “quality” titles that a collection contained. The work of William Shakespeare was of appropriate quality. Popular rags-to-riches fantasies and romances were not. While Dewey himself hailed from a working class background, he held himself separate from and above most of the people he set out to save. His substantial charisma amplified the force of his vision—flawed as it was—and whether because of contemporary ignorance, conscious preference, or infectious enthusiasm, nobody called him out on the problems with his model.

The first generation of truly professional, organized librarians were a pack of Dewey converts, peppered with the occasional skeptic who knew better than to speak up.

If Dewey could have imagined the diversity of modern library clientele and their respective needs, would he have considered them important? Not likely. The critical literature of homeless LGBTQ minors, Muslim immigrant mothers, and college-bound men of color isn’t conducive to the creation of obedient class-dwellers who sit contented in their particular pigeonhole.

Dewey’s concept of “quality” literature would never have extended to the likes of James Baldwin or Camille Paglia. Today, librarians and the ALA stand robustly in favor of diverse literature, but they are hampered by the homogeneity that Dewey’s system still fosters. Class fractures that run along racial and ethnic lines quickly become library problems; in an increasingly bilingual America, it is still the rare librarian who can explain how to use a printer in Spanish.

This issue isn’t limited to libraries, of course. Many middle-class professions, including social work and teaching, are overwhelmingly white and well-meaning for similar reasons.

The obligatory graduate degree filters talent and diversity out of the profession. Click To Tweet

Like teachers, librarians tend to put in a lot of off-hours work, often reading for several book clubs and professional background without even considering reimbursement. The relative value placed on books holds strong thanks to state and regional offices that depend on book circulation statistics as metrics of a library’s performance. But book culture, too, is privileged territory. A book takes time, and time is money.  

The concept that all people should or even could set aside hours in every day to “improve themselves” through reading has simply fallen through in an age when poverty is expensive and maintaining middle class status requires workaholic tendencies. Reading is a luxury activity; the ability of libraries to develop will depend on getting books into the hands of a broader audience.

Here, at least, the library is starting to change the game. E-book lending models are a roaring success fewer than ten years after their debut. They’re remotely available, mobile-friendly, and fee-less incarnations; they fit into pockets, budgets, and schedules alike—literature is available on the bus for free. The most significant threat to this new innovation is a chaotic publishing model that has shown itself to be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of digital loaning, however. Going forward, one of the library’s most critical missions may be to stand between their patrons’ reading rights and the companies that want those rights to cost money.

Librarians have worked hard to flip the script of the judgmental, classics-heavy library. Meanwhile, in the face of constant budget squeezes and the departure of full-time jobs, libraries themselves are reorganizing. Many are trying to combine innovation with healthy caution for ideas that could prove bad. As long as the moment is right for skepticism and self-awareness of present shifts, then perhaps it’s also time for a look at the roots of the public library, especially at Dewey and the men who sought to use libraries to impose class obedience through reading. Attempts are being made. Loanable collections of tools empower apartment-dwellers. Community meeting room space and summer lunch programs have become library projects. The traditional book bastion is growing into something more.

Book culture is privileged territory. A book takes time, and time is money. Click To Tweet

But if libraries are truly to transform, it’s time to do some much-needed navel-gazing. Only diversity will empower them to serve a diverse nation. If the solution must include the graduate degree, then it could manifest as an extensive, aggressive program of scholarships and recruitment. Without, it may involve union-like behavior on the part of the ALA, or even partnership with existing bargaining units. This may be prudent anyway. There are plenty of reasons for libraries to employ knowledgeable professionals full-time. The fact that these reasons may not always involve books only speaks to the fact that knowledge is versatile. Unions may be crucial to ensuring that librarians of all degree statuses do not fall between the cracks of the digital age themselves.

Dewey was short-sighted: providing information for free is always radical. Despite their problematic mold, libraries have reshaped themselves into unifiers, and deeply important Amazon alternatives. There has never been a better time for a free public information alternative to corporate greed. There has never been a better time for that alternative to represent a force for anti-division and equality.