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Volume 45, Number 2

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Of Books, Readers, and Reading: New Directions for Virginia Library History

By John T. Kneebone

The Library of Virginia Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Book have announced an annual award to be given for at least the next five years to recognize and encourage outstanding research and writing on the history of libraries in Virginia. The announcement may have barely registered with many of Virginia's librarians, busy with the tasks of the day. Why the history of Virginia libraries? To what purpose? This essay attempts to answer those questions and to invite the involvement of Virginia librarians in making their heritage better known.

A few years ago I received a call from a gentleman with a great interest in books. He wanted to read a history of libraries and librarianship in Virginia. I searched the Library of Virginia's online catalog and found numerous materials for such a history--annual reports of libraries and planning documents from state and local governments--but only a few histories of individual libraries. Not only was there no comprehensive history of libraries in Virginia, but hardly any of the necessary scholarly foundations for such a work had been laid.

I told my caller the bad news, and he responded that Virginia needed a library history. He was prepared to help, too. He would fund a generous annual prize to recognize outstanding contributions toward a fuller, more complete understanding and appreciation of the history of libraries in Virginia. Each year's winning work in Virginia library history would be announced at the annual conferences of the Virginia Library Association.

To ensure that quality works repaid such generosity, I sought the advice of a dozen or so scholars associated with the American Library Association's Library History Round Table and the journal Libraries and Culture. The responses were enthusiastic but also realistic.

There are some fundamental tasks to be done, the scholars agreed. What records do Virginia's libraries hold that document their histories? A records survey would be invaluable and therefore demand consideration in the awards competition. Researchers also need to know what has already been done. Bibliographies of relevant works, both published and unpublished, would be worthy projects, too. The scholars suggested American Library History: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature (1989) as a good starting place. Libraries and Culture, formerly the Journal of Library History, has published a biennial annotated bibliography of scholarship in library history since 1968, and a similar bibliography featured in the newsletter of the Library History Round Table is available at the LHRT's Website <>.

One respondent pointed out that library historians often define and organize projects by chronology (such as a study of Virginia libraries during the Great Depression) or by type of library (for example, the development of school libraries in Virginia). Bibliographies and existing information about archival materials can be used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the historical literature on Virginia libraries and thereby identify topics that have been neglected and periods of the past about which we know very little. For this work, the annual indexes to scholarship in American History and Life and the Library of Virginia's compilation, Theses and Dissertations in Virginia History (1986), would also be useful. Any serious bibliographer would be expected to make a systematic search of online bibliographic databases, electronic library catalogs, and the Web, too.

The respondents were also emphatic that library history should be defined broadly enough to include the exciting research and writing being done today under the rubric of book history. The international Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) identifies its interests as broadly as its name, but libraries are a central concern, and not only as subjects. For example, the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society builds on that institution's vast collection of American imprints issued before 1876. Similarly, the new Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison draws on the combined resources of the libraries of the university and of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. For links to more information about those programs and other aspects of book history, see SHARP's Website at <>>. SHARP's annual conference in 2001 will be in Virginia, co-hosted by the Library of Virginia and the American Studies Department and the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary, by which time the Virginia Library History Awards will have begun to bear fruit.

To be sure, useful works on Virginia library history exist already. A century ago defensive Virginia antiquarians collected data, usually from wills and estate settlements, to prove that book ownership in colonial Virginia had been more widespread than smug historians from New England had claimed. More recently, Joseph F. Kett and Patricia A. McClung used similar records to analyze "Book Culture in Post-Revolutionary Virginia" in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1984). Most notable among several studies of the private libraries of early Virginians are Kevin J. Hayes's detailed description of the nearly 2,500 volumes in the Library of William Byrd of Westover (1997) and E. Millicent Sowerby's five-volume Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (1983).

Much work remains to be done. One promising area is the study of reading and readers. Librarians know that books have power, that reading helps to forge personal identity and that common reading can create communities. Books express and enforce social and cultural conventions, yet reading can also help loosen those bonds and subvert the power of the status quo. Virginia researchers might profitably investigate literacy and the roles of readers in the slave community, print culture's part in the antebellum sectional conflict, differences between the groups that created social or subscription libraries, the contents of middle-class family libraries during an era that prescribed "separate spheres" for the sexes, or any number of other reading-related topics. Inventories of imprints, the printed works produced in a particular place, have been compiled for Abingdon, Fredericksburg, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, and Winchester, usually through 1876, and also for early German-language imprints in Virginia. The seeds of information in these volumes might flower into studies of the book trade and patterns of reading in Virginia before and after the Civil War, research projects that could also chart the emergence of a national market for printed books and magazines.

Students of library history in the U.S. regard 1876, the year when the American Library Association was founded, as the beginning of the modern era of professionalization of librarianship and of the public library as an institution. Virginia lagged behind. As late as 1922, public funds supported a mere six libraries in the state. In her unpublished dissertation, Richmond Rejects a Library: The Carnegie Public Library Movement in Richmond, Virginia (Virginia Commonwealth University, 1992), Carolyn H. Leatherman examined the various social, cultural, and political forces that conspired to delay the creation of a public library in Richmond for nearly a quarter century. Her work situates Richmond's library history within the full social and cultural contexts of the times, avoiding the tunnel vision that afflicts some library histories narrowly focused on successive library administrations.

All history is local, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill's famous remark about politics. Certainly there is ample opportunity for researchers in local library history in Virginia. The Library History Round Table's Web site offers practical "Guidelines for Writing Local Library History." Through its ambitious "Florida Library History Project" the University of South Florida's School of Library and Information Science is compiling and electronically publishing histories of every public and academic library in that state <>. Several Virginia libraries already include concise institutional histories on their Web sites, too.

First-rate local library histories will need to investigate complex issues. For example, the Roanoke City Public Library's Web site credits Mrs. W. W. S. Butler Jr. with leading a group of prominent citizens in raising the funds for the city's first public library, which opened on 21 May 1921. Sarah Poage Caldwell Butler (1892-1983) had grown up in Roanoke and attended Mary Baldwin College before being trained in library science at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She worked for the New York Public Library for a few years before returning to Roanoke to marry physician William W. S. Butler. As an experienced library professional when she began her campaign for a public library, Butler soon found that the standards of professional librarianship interacted with the realities of local conditions, just as they do today.

Sarah Butler's mother, Willie Walker Caldwell (1860-1946), had been one of the Roanoke women who organized the Women's Civic Betterment Club in 1906 because the city government and men's groups had done nothing to improve public sanitation. Caldwell's group commissioned studies by experts and lobbied, with limited success, for action to clean up the city. The Civic Betterment Club later became the Roanoke Women's Club, and Caldwell served from 1912 to 1915 as president of the Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs. The Roanoke City Public Library came about in large part because Sarah Butler was able to draw upon an existing local network of women activists and civic leaders.

Telling the full story of the founding of the Roanoke City Public Library would involve research into such intriguing questions as the political agency of women in the era before they had won the right to vote. Because the Gainsboro Branch, which served African American readers, opened just seven months later, the public-library campaign in Roanoke's black community would have to be studied, too. What were the exact connections between the campaign for the library and the women's earlier campaigns for civic betterment? How did Butler's professional training as a librarian figure into the success of the campaign for the library? Further research might lead to the fascinating conclusion that, at the local level, connections between female library professionals and other women leaders were essential to the successes of the public library movement in America.

Thanks to the generosity of the creator of the Virginia Library History Awards, we can look forward to answers to these and other questions. To provide a fuller field for nominations, the first award will recognize the outstanding work in Virginia library history completed between 1 January 1997 and 31 August 1999. The competition will be annual in the future. Nominations might include bibliographies, unpublished dissertations or theses, journal articles, local histories, or scholarly monographs, and the judges have agreed to define Virginia library history broadly to include relevant histories of authorship, reading, publishing and similar topics. Please direct nominations to Virginia Library History Award, The Library of Virginia, 800 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219-8000, and please encourage librarians and others to take up future projects in library history. Professional heritage is worth preserving in any event, but libraries are fully part of their times and places, and library history is important to understanding all of Virginia's history.

John T. Kneebone is Director, Publications and Educational Services Division of the Library of Virginia.

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