Friday, August 22, 2008

Books on libraries

Libraries as Agencies of Culture. Edited by Thomas Augst and Wayne Wiegand. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. (Appeared originally as a special issue of American Studies The Library as an Agency of Culture, Fall 2001, volume 42, no. 3).

Submitted by R. Stuhr

The essays in this collection each look at some aspect of the role of libraries in supporting cultural and civic life. In his introduction, Augst considers the social interaction of the reader with the book and notes that books acquire social life through exchange and use, thus claiming the innate social nature of libraries. He describes the library as a social enterprise, a physical space, and a symbolic site of collective memory. Augst provides food for thought and some very nicely expressed ideas, including, "To read a book is to borrow from established forms of cultural authority and to refashion that authority within personal and communal contexts of meaning and practice (p. 15).

In "The Sound of the Civic: Reading Noise at the New York Public Library," Ari Kelman, writes about the rule of silence in the New York Public Library reading room, and the code of behavior patrons were expected to follow. He describes the NYPL as a "public institution that attempts to foster private interactions between people and texts.... The library provides information but it cannot facilitate congregation or conversation" (p. 28). He compares this state with Habermas's description of the public sphere which requires conversations among readers (although based on shared texts) to prosper. However dreary this idea of imposed silence and stifled conversation may seem, Kelman contrasts this kind of spiritually nourishing space with the nonstop noise of the city and stresses the goal of the library to "ensure the safe and clear transmission of information from text to individual," p. 40.

Contrast these ideas with "Exploring the American Idea at the New York Public Library," by Jean L. Peer. This essay provides a history of Cold War era discussion forums which the NYPL devised to provide an opportunity for library patrons to read and discuss important documents and texts looking at US democratic principles from a variety of angles. These book forums were provided along with Great Books discussion groups, and eventually, film series. Nothing quiet about these programs!

The Library as Place: History, Community, and Culture. Edited by John E. Buschman and Gloria J. Leckie. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007.

This is another collection of essays. It is divided into three parts, with part one focusing on public libraries, part two on the research library, and part three on the myths created around libraries. The essays on public libraries are all about creating community, making spaces where disparate people from all walks of life come to feel comfortable, to learn, to read, to be with others, to relax and find refuge. Public libraries have had the role of creating social spaces, furthering the goals of democracy, and building a sense of civic responsibility. Julia A. Hersberger's article on the Greensboro Carnegie Negro Library drives home the idea of taking the library beyond the building as this library moved well past its initial community to serve the entire county through book mobile services. Ronald Tetreault's essay on the rise of military libraries during the time of the British Empire shows the library, in this context, moving from an officers' club to an institution that served enlisted men accompanied by an overall change in the militaries' view of these men which led to respect and improved conditions and opportunities.

Other essays in this collection look at the use of libraries by scholars and undergraduates. Antell and Engel show that scholars value the library as a place to work and where serendipitous discovery can take place. Lisa M. Given finds that undergraduates are still relying heavily on materials within the library as well as finding the library a welcoming place to work. She finds that students like to be able to arrange furniture to suit their needs--moving chairs and tables around to accommodate groups or individual study. Heavy, nailed down furniture is (may be) a thing of the past and she recommends that libraries should consult carefully with their students before renovating spaces. [By the way, this theory was carried out successfully by Georgia Tech and presented in a recent ALA session].

Both of these books provide thoughtful and interesting discussion on the role and purposes of libraries within existing communities and as micro-communities in and of themselves. They promote the idea of the library as a social space where conversations can take place inspired by texts. This can happen between the text and an individual reader or through group discussion. Learning and discovery can take place in solitude or as a shared and collaborative activity.

Library As Place
Burling 1st floor Z716.4 .L485 2007

Libraries as Agencies of Culture
on order for the Grinnell College Libraries

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