how libraries became public II

keyboard Reposted from Inside Higher Ed; photo courtesy of Toshiyuki IMAI

Here’s another interesting thing about the origins of American public libraries. We have women to thank for most of them.

Oh, sure, Andrew Carnegie had something to do with it. Unlike his fellow mega-rich philanthropists who built libraries, he didn’t want to build palaces. He wanted to produce relatively humble public libraries on an industrial scale, promoting the establishment of libraries in neighborhoods and small town throughout the country using a common set of standards, processes, and even architectural plans. He thought access to libraries could improve those among the working classes who wanted to improve themselves. They could be better workers, and some of them might even rise above their circumstances and become rich.

His 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth” argued that competition encouraged “survival of the fittest” and the “betterment of the race.” Once the best of the best acquired wealth, they should use it to better the world, because they – having proven their superiority – were best positioned to make the wisest decisions about what was good for society. Luckily, he liked libraries.

We’re even luckier that libraries became a cause for women. Carnegie provided partial funding for about half of American public libraries between 1887 and 1917. Women were the driving force between many of those, and for most of the other half, too. Encouraging literacy and wholesome uses of free time was something respectable middle-class women were allowed to do without stepping on masculine toes. Soon, the libraries they founded weren’t just providing reading materials; they were bringing aspects of social reform movements into libraries, providing English lessons for immigrants, hygiene lessons for children (who often were taught how to wash their hands before they could touch the books), folk dancing lessons, and public lectures. A library in Minnesota bought a sewing machine that sewing circles could use; branches in New York opened rooftop gardens where children who otherwise only had streets to play in could enjoy fresh air. (I’m obliged to Abigail Van Slyck’s Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890-1920 and Wayne Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library for teaching me library history).

Women not only founded libraries, they became librarians. Melvil Dewey (a serial entrepreneur and anti-Semite who liked women so much he became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal) thought they had a capacity for detailed and routine work that suited them for the profession – and even better, they could be paid far less than men for the same work. He invited women to join the first class in the first library school at Columbia, which he had to move to Albany because Columbia didn’t want to change its men-only admissions policy (and because they were  exasperated with Dewey’s habit of doing whatever he wanted).

Women’s supposed skill at detailed and often tedious work positioned women to become computer programmers, too. During both world wars, women were “human computers,” calculating ballistics trajectories and doing the complex calculations for the building of the atomic bomb. African American women did the math that put men on the moon, as the book and film Hidden Figures documents. And when the ENIAC general purpose computer came along, women programmed it. It only became Brogramming when software became more profitable and prestigious than designing hardware. In the mid-1980s, 40 percent of computer science majors were women; now it’s less than 20 percent.

In the early years of this century, the free-wheeling hacker ethos of the early internet melded with a world view in which high-stakes capitalism, freed of government interference or outdated business models, would allow a new meritocracy of entrepreneurs to radically change society. Entrepreneurs would disrupt tired industries and create new ones thanks to their hard work and intelligence. When they had more money than they could spend, they would fix education, start their own space programs, and seek ways to extend lives. It’s a twenty-first century version of Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, but unlike Carnegie’s philanthropy, the idea of public funding for public goods doesn’t seem to come into it much.

The five wealthiest companies today (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook) are all in the tech sector, and they are incredibly dominant in our daily lives. By entrusting so much of our information infrastructure, our shopping, and our social lives to profit-driven companies we’ve lost something important. The huge profits of these companies are built on surveillance capitalism and/or capturing a lion’s share of the attention economy.

This is the start of Choose Privacy Week. Most Americans are unhappy about their loss of privacy, but they aren’t sure what to do about it. Librarians might be able to help. They know something about privacy, and they care about the public good. The economic aggression and hubris that characterizes tech culture is far from the quiet, humble commitment public libraries have made to the public good for more than a century.

Google claims “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and Facebook says it wants “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” In reality they are both advertising companies, and they want to know everything they can about all of us because that’s how they make their enormous wealth. If the tech industries shared the values of librarianship, we’d have a more just world – and maybe working for the public good wouldn’t seem like such an archaic concept.

Author: barbaraf

I'm a librarian and writer.

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