The Virginia Library Association: A Retrospective
by Alyssa Altshuler
Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.
—Thomas Mann, “Whims of Mercurius,” The Magic Mountain
When reflecting upon the centennial celebration of the Virginia Library Association in 2005, what resonates is viewing what has been achieved over the past one hundred years in light of the vicissitudes of historical, cultural, and economic events in Virginia and the world. Since its founding in 1905, VLA has grown in number; expanded the scope of its organization; engaged legislatively at the state and federal level; provided its members with newsletters, scholarly journals, and a website; and supported library education, training, and outreach. This article will highlight some of the milestones that define the type of organization VLA is today.
VLA must first pay homage to a library stalwart, Melvil Dewey, who along with two other colleagues, Justin Winsor and William Frederick Poole, founded the American Library Association at the first organized conference for librarians in Philadelphia in 1876, thus setting the precedent of unity and strength through numbers and pursuit of a common goal. 1 ALA’s charter followed in 1879, stating that these individuals, including five additional members, had “associated themselves … for the purpose of promoting library interests [of the country] by exchanging views, reaching conclusions, and inducing cooperation in all departments of bibliothecal science and economy; by disposing the public mind to the founding and improving of libraries; and by cultivating good will among its own members.” 2 A decade later, the first library school was founded by Dewey in New York City in 1887, replacing apprentice-based library training programs. 3
At the turn of the century, world events were occurring that would ultimately reverberate throughout the next century: President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt; the Wright brothers successfully tested their airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903; Henry Ford founded his car company in Detroit in 1903; work began on the Panama Canal in 1904; and Albert Einstein proposed his theory of relativity in 1905. It was during this time of great change in the country that John P. Kennedy, Virginia State Librarian, decided to spearhead the effort to organize librarians formally in Virginia. He called a meeting in Richmond in December 1905, and the newly formed group adopted a constitution and the name Virginia Library Association. The constitution stated, “We, citizens of Virginia, believing that library facilities are necessary for the education and culture of the people and that libraries are as important as any branch in the great system of public education; do hereby organize ourselves for the promotion of a closer intercourse among librarians and all interested in library work in Virginia and to further library interests in general.” 4
Though VLA was founded with good intentions and its members had set high goals for the organization, the first two decades of its existence were affected both by economic and transportation problems in Virginia and by World War I and its aftermath, which kept membership low and prevented meetings from taking place on a regular basis. 1927 Fortunately, the foundation set by Kennedy and the work of his fellow VLA officers and members were strong enough to endure the cataclysmic world war and ultimately survive through a combined organizational effort with the Virginia Educational Association in 1922. After reestablishing firm footing, VLA broke from VEA in 1925 and became a separate organization again. 6
The service of VLA members and their dedication to the mission of the organization have been critical elements in VLA’s long-standing success. During various stages of development, a few individuals carried the organization forward during turbulent times. One such notable figure was Dr. Earl Gregg Swem, who served as president of VLA in 1927–1928; he was the first to request state aid for public libraries from the Virginia General Assembly. In an appreciation of Swem’s fifty years of library service, it was noted that “[d]uring his twelve years in the Virginia State Library … [he] wrote, compiled, and edited close to forty publications … many of them have become standard fare for any librarian, historian, or student of Virginia history.” 7 He transformed the library at the College of William & Mary by expanding its collection tremendously from 1920 until 1944, and remained active in VLA throughout his career and during his retirement.8
Just as Swem helped to keep the momentum moving forward for VLA before and after the Great Depression era, Jack Dalton, who served as president of VLA from 1942–1945, was instrumental in keeping the group cohesive during World War II, when much of VLA’s membership was serving in the armed forces overseas. It was during this time that VLA considered holding a conference, but Dalton decided that “with gasoline, tires, and transportation facilities at a premium, such a conference would be ill-advised and unpatriotic.”9 Dalton also guided postwar planning for libraries throughout Virginia when demobilization began. As a testament to his distinguished career, the Lippincott Award, one of the highest honors in librarianship, was awarded to him at the 1954 ALA annual conference. He was described as a “firm exponent of the liberal tradition in librarianship, including the essentiality of books and the right to read them.”10
Since 1906, when the Virginia General Assembly first appropriated money for traveling libraries to serve rural areas and schools, funding for public libraries has been a priority for VLA, with the goal that everyone in the state should have equal access to library service. A commission was established by the General Assembly to survey the educational system in Virginia, and a task force formed to research library needs in 1927. It was during this year that VLA President Earl Gregg Swem requested $25,000 for rural libraries in the first bill for state aid that was proffered to the state legislature. The bill was defeated, and only $3,500 was provided to operate traveling libraries in 1928.11
In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression era began. However, based in part upon an endorsement by State Librarian Dr. H. R. McIlwaine, VLA was still able to advocate and successfully push through an aid request to the Virginia General Assembly for $15,000 to implement a county library system in Virginia. One year after VLA voted to apply for chapter membership in the American Library Association in 1930, ALA advocated for federal aid for rural library service in 1931. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which helped to fund library services throughout Virginia and the nation.12 Randolph W. Church, who would later become the state librarian, published a “Regional Library Plan for Virginia” in which he asked for a state grant-in-aid program in 1936.13 VLA noted in its publication News Letter J.M.R.T. in 1939 that “[t]he WPA State-wide Library project has this year been giving library services to many parts of Virginia where libraries have too long been inaccessible. … Book Wagons … are now being operated in the Tidewater area, the five-county central Virginia area and in Charlotte and Carroll counties.”14“In 1939, this state only spent thirteen cents per capita for library service against an ALA standard of $1.00.”
In 1942, at the advent of World War II, VLA and the State Library of Virginia were successful in persuading the Virginia General Assembly to appropriate $50,000 for public libraries in the first law establishing state aid. Mary M. Barksdale, a VLA member who would later serve as president in 1954, noted the following truism about lobbying efforts regarding funding, which is equally applicable today:
Seventy-six percent of our more than a million and a half country people still have no ready access to reading material. Why? Blissful ignorance and complacence on the part of the majority of taxpayers, who, aware of the worth of libraries, might bring pressure to bear upon their local purse holders. In 1939, this state only spent thirteen cents per capita for library service against an ALA standard of $1.00. What can be done? Publicity, good [and] steady … from each library and from everyone enjoying the privileges of libraries.15
Throughout the next sixty years, and in varying fiscal climates, the heroic legislative advocacy efforts of VLA have been crucial in ensuring that the Virginia General Assembly provided adequate state aid for public libraries, which has been augmented by federal aid since the passage of the Library Services Act in 1956.16 The latest legislative package for public libraries in Virginia, which was passed in 2005, appropriated over sixteen million dollars for state aid.17
While VLA has worked tirelessly since its inception to ensure that there was adequate funding for libraries, it has also concentrated its efforts in addressing a wide range of fundamental library issues. One issue that stands out is the need to combat censorship and support intellectual freedom in all forms. During the Cold War era of the 1950s, the prevalent fear of communism in the United States was exploited by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in his modern-day witch-hunt for communist sympathizers. It was against this backdrop that VLA first began to explore the issue of censorship and to advocate against it. As early as 1962, VLA published ALA’s statement, “How Libraries and Schools Can Resist Censorship,” which used as its foundation ALA’s Library Bill of Rights.18 In a 1969 article in Virginia Librarian, Assistant Librarian Helen Vogel of Falls Church Public Library asked, “Where Do We Go from Here?”
Historically, it has been pointed out that there are three areas which receive the greatest scrutiny in the area of intellectual freedom: sex and obscenity, religion and politics. Politics came in for its greatest share of attention during the McCarthy era of the ’50’s, and religion has enjoyed the “God is dead” controversy. The disturbing thing about politics (read “ideologies”) is that the so-called de-fenders of democracy who detect enemies of the republic lurking behind every bush tend to be like the many-headed hydra. When one is stamped out, another takes its place. Such has been the experience of many librarians.19
Carrying the tradition of combating censorship into the following decades, VLA assisted various localities to fight book and periodical challenges in the 1980s, garnering national press coverage for being “in the forefront in their defense of First Amendment rights of the reading public.”20 VLA joined with the American Library Association and other library organizations in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency, which directed the removal of unclassified documents from public access at the George C. Marshall Library at the Virginia Military Institute in 1986.21Traditional censorship must now try to catch up with technology.
Both the Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Legislative Committee for VLA are working diligently today to prevent legislation that would mandate the implementation of Internet filters in public libraries, with funding consequences for those who do not comply. As former VLA President Edwin “Sam” Clay noted in his article “Censoring the New Millennium,” “[a]s long as there are human beings, there will be a perceived need for censorship. I contend that it is a part of human nature to want to present only access to thoughts that are considered ‘right’ or ‘correct.’ What has happened, however, is the advent of the information age. Traditional censorship must now try to catch up with technology. As there are now new types of non-print communication mediums, there are also now available new types of forms of censorship.”22
Legislative advocacy by VLA has become more sophisticated and focused over time, as the issues it supports and defends have be-come more complex. As early as 1972, VLA planned an organized effort by its members to promote its message to legislators through a letter-writing campaign: “1972 is the year that Virginia Librarians are planning to let their Governor and State legislators know their community library needs and what they think the State of Virginia can do to help.”23 On the national level, VLA has participated in the annual Library Legislative Day, where its members travel to Washington, D.C., to advocate concerns to Virginia congressmen and senators since 1973.24 In 1995, VLA hired the firm of Hazel & Thomas, whose attorney Philip F. Abraham has very ably performed legislative liaison activities in conjunction with the work of the VLA Legislative Committee for the past ten years.25 Carolyn Caywood, a librarian from the Virginia Beach Public Library and recent recipient of the New York Times Librarian Award, testified before a United States Congressional Subcommittee regarding the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2001.26
VLA publications, aimed primarily at the membership, have evolved over the years from five-page issues, such as the News Letter and the Virginia Library Bulletin, to the more substantive and scholarly Virginia Libraries. The editors of the Virginia Librarian shared the rationale for a VLA publication with the readership in 1954: “Veteran members agreed that the Commonwealth was a large state and that it might be helpful if librarians of the various sections and types of libraries were better acquainted with each other. To put it another way, the Virginia Librarian exists to let the left hand of the Virginia library world know what the right hand is doing.”27 Currently augmenting the quarterly publication of Virginia Libraries is the monthly VLA Newsletter, which debuted in 1987. The VLA website went online in 1996 under Steve Helm’s direction; it has been a dynamic source of information about the organization.28 The Jobline moved to the VLA website shortly thereafter in 1997.29 The VLA-L listserv30 began the next year in 1998, and Virginia Libraries went online in 1999.31 The VLA Shipping List, an official publication of VLA since 1981, reports on issues regarding national documents, Virginia documents, and legislative activities affecting libraries and government agencies.32
The breadth of membership in VLA includes paraprofessionals, students, friends-of-the-library groups, trustees, and institutions. One’s membership today includes a choice of four sections: academic, public, school, or special. One can also join multiple forums, including administration and management, collection management, local history, genealogy and oral history, multicultural, new member, paraprofessional, public services, technical services and technology, trustees and friends, volunteer management, and youth management. The fact that all of these disparate sections and forums of VLA exist today is due to a recognition that different types of library staff can better voice their issues and concerns to both VLA and the public from smaller, more specialized subgroups.
Service on VLA’s standing committees as an officer or as a member has expanded over the years to include a wide variety of interests, as expressed by the following committee titles: Administrative Services, Awards and Recognition, Conference, Continuing Education, Finance, Intellectual Freedom, Legislative, Membership, Nominating, Publications, and Scholarship.
Continuing education opportunities are offered by VLA year-round, including the sessions at the annual conference, opportunities sponsored by the VLA Paraprofessional Forum, regional offerings, and specialized classes. In keeping with its commitment to recruit people to the profession, VLA offers three competitive annual scholarships of $2,000 each to individuals who are pursuing master’s degrees in library science.
The role of VLA President, who sets the tone and shapes the agenda for the year, has been very ably filled by individuals from a variety of libraries. Those officers who have served as VLA Vice President, 2nd Vice President, Treasurer, and Secretary have also been critical for the efficient and effective running of the organization. The role of ALA Councilor has been very important to VLA, keeping the membership informed about the national organization and its agenda.
In 2005, VLA remains strong because of the commitment of over 1,100 members to continually strengthen and enhance the organization. Whether one joins as a member, works on a committee, or fills the role of an officer, it is the active participation of everyone that is the key ingredient for continued success. I want to close this retrospective with a few thoughts regarding the importance of VLA from three past presidents.
Frank Shirk, VLA President in 1965, said forty years ago that “VLA has grown to considerable size—we now have over 800 members—and should inject its influence throughout the state in matters that affect us as librarians. We should educate the public on library matters. We should speak up for extension of library service, improvement of libraries and for the upgrading of librarianship as a profession.”33
Morel Fry, VLA President in 2003, pointed out to the membership that VLA “offers you a voice in your professional community—and in your service community. When you need to speak as an advocate for your library, you are not alone in your city, facing its citizens. You are backed by VLA and the information it can provide you through its surveys on salaries, cooperative studies, and member research … your fellow members can give advice on programs and services … your best ideas can come from another librarian who faced a similar situation.”34
Carolyn Barkley, VLA President in 2000, emphasized the two-way commitment that is necessary when joining VLA: “We individually take away from VLA participation a renewed sense of energy, an enlarged support group of individuals, and a memory of shared experience and new knowledge. I strongly believe that the wealth of our gain is paralleled by an obligation to return to the organization our energies, support, experience and knowledge. … [O]ffering back to VLA enhances us as individuals, enriches the overall quality of librarianship in Virginia, and ultimately increases the quality of the library experience for each customer coming through the door of a library in Virginia.”35
1“About the ALA,” in The American Library Association Student Chapter at the University of Michigan’s School of Information [website] 12 September 2004 [cited 8 June 2005]; available from http://www.si.umich.edu/ALA/-history.shtml.
2“Charter of 1879 (Revised 1942), Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” in American Library Association: Our Association, Governing and Strategic Documents [website] 2005 [cited 30 May 2005]; available from http://www.ala.org/ala/ourassociation/governingdocs/charterof1879/charter1879.htm.
3“University at Albany School of Information Science and Policy History,” in School of Information Science and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York [website] 4 April 2005 [cited 2 June 2005]; available from http://www.albany.edu/sisp/level3/SISPHistory.html.
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4Henry James Jr., “Milestones in the Evolution of VLA,” Virginia Library Association LXXV Anniversary Program (1980): 29.
6Andrea Kross, “A Toast to the Past Century,” Virginia Libraries 46.2 (2000): 2.
7“Earl Gregg Swem,” Virginia Librarian 4.4 (1958): 30.
9“Do We Need a Conference?,” Virginia Library Bulletin, July 1943, 1.
10Carrol H. Quenzel, ed., Virginia Librarian 1.3 (1954): 1.
12“Significant Dates in Georgia Library History,” in The Georgia Library History Project [website] 1 September 2002 [cited 10 May 2005]; available from http://www.georgialibraryhistory project.org/timeline.htm.
13Florence Yoder, “State Aid for Public Libraries in Virginia,” Virginia Librarian 17.2 (1970): 26-27.
14“Book Wagons Propelled Around,” News Letter J.M.R.T., October 1939, 4.
15Mary M. Barksdale, “WPA, a Tonic to Libraries,” News Letter, October 1941, 25.
16Library Services Act, Public Law Number 597, 84th Congress (1956).
17Virginia General Assembly, Acts of Assembly, “Chapter 951, Appropriation of Funds for the 2004–06 Biennium” and “Item 259, Financial Assistance to Public Libraries—Formula Aid” (2005): 244.
18Joseph B. Runey, ed., Virginia Librarian 9.1 (1962): 1.
19Helen Vogel, “Where Do We Go from Here? A Question on Intellectual Freedom,” Virginia Librarian 16.3 (1969): 13.
20“Virginia Gains National Attention for Strong Censorship Stands,” Virginia Librarian Newsletter 27.3 (1981): 1.
21American Library Association v. Faurer, 631 Federal Supplement 416, 419 (1986).
22Edwin S. Clay, “Censoring the New Millennium,” Virginia Libraries 46.1 (2000): 6.
23Carl Cannon, “Librarians Write Their Legislators, Federal or State,” Virginia Librarian 18.1 (1971): 23.
24Sue Trask, ed., “Library Legislative Day,” VLA Newsletter 9.9 (1995): 1.
25Sue Trask, ed., “Legislative Committee Activities,” VLA Newsletter 9.10 (1995): 3.
26Helen Q. Sherman, ed., “People and Happenings,” VLA Newsletter 15.4 (2001): 5.
27Carrol H. Quenzel, ed., Virginia Librarian 1.1 (1954): 2.
28Sue Trask, ed., “VLA Introduces Web Site,” VLA Newsletter 10.8 (1996): 1.
29Sue Trask, ed., “VLA Jobline Moves to the Web,” VLA Newsletter 11.1 (1997): 1.
30Mary Hansbrough, ed., “VLA Listserv,” VLA Newsletter 12.2 (1998): 2.
31Mary Hansbrough, ed., “Virginia Libraries On Line,” VLA Newsletter 13.8 (1999): 1.
32Barbie Selby, “VLA Shipping List Is Back!,” VLA Newsletter 13.6 (1999): 1.
33Frank Shirk, “VLA,” Virginia Librarian 11.4 (1965): 59.
34Morel Fry, “Why VLA?,” Virginia Libraries 48.4 (2002): 3.
35Carolyn Barkley, “Give and Take in VLA,” Virginia Libraries 46.1 (2000): 4.