Friday, September 12, 2008

Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920

Van Slyk, Abigail A. Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture, 1890-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Submitted by R. Stuhr

Van Slyk, an architectural historian, focuses on the design decisions to look at the history of public libraries in the United States, specifically the building of Carnegie libraries. Her history is a social history in which the wealthy classes struggle with their desire to build and maintain an institution that served as a place for the elite to engage with and satisfy their cultural tastes. Central libraries were built in center cities as palaces to learning and the arts. Van Slyk notes that spaces that were more attractive to the working classes, newspaper and magazine rooms as well as rooms serving children, were often regulated to basements or ground floors accessible through altnerative entrances. The genteel reader could then use the more elegant spaces without crossing paths with the lower or noisy ranks of society.

Van Slyk looks at floor plans, building designs and furniture to demonstrate the 19th and early 20th century library planners' desire to regulate the behavior of library users. The branch library system developed out of the need to better serve communities and those in the middle and lower classes. In fact, Carnegie's foundation stopped funding central libraries and concentrated on branch buildings.

In her conclusion, Van Slyk writes that the Carnegie building program “helped perpetuate and reinforce a relatively narrow definition of the public library’s function in American society” doing away with an earlier model of the library as a multipurpose cultural institution (art gallery, museum, and book collection) to define library services as the quick delivery of books into the hands of individual readers and “supported larger cultural trends that encouraged libraries to ignore the issue of how readers used the materials that they did borrow" (p. 219).

She looks back on the 19th century social libraries that predated the free library movement, and which were “established specifically to facilitate an active sharing of idea. . . . The efficiency driven public library of the twentieth century defined reading as a solitary activity. In the process, the library lost its potential to serve as a site—literally and figuratively—for public discussion and debate.”

Something we are still living with, but perhaps gradually moving away from.

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