Fall, 2002
Volume 48, Number 3

Confessions of a Library Historian

Dr. Haynes McMullen

Recently, members of the reference staff in the Hampton Public Library have been able to tell by the kind of questions I have been asking that I am interested in libraries. I have admitted that I am a retired librarian who is trying to learn more about the past history of the kind of work that I have done. One member of that reference staff, Earlene Viano, has persuaded me to tell why I have had this kind of interest and what I have done about it.

It all started innocently enough. When I was a student in a small college (Centre College in Kentucky), I spent a lot of very pleasant time in its library, mainly reading its books, but also observing what its librarian did to earn her living. I decided that I would like to earn mine in a similar way, and so, on her advice, I went off to library school at the University of Illinois.

After library school, I quite happily worked in academic libraries but was advised to get a doctor's degree in library science, which was then available only at the University of Chicago. A doctoral student needs a topic for his or her dissertation, and Ralph Beals, who was then University Librarian, suggested one-a history of his library. I chose that, partly because the necessary information was close at hand.

I became fascinated as I learned about the personalities and activities of its librarians, its university officials, and its faculty members. At one time, William Rainey Harper, its first president, persuaded his board of trustees to buy the entire contents of a bookstore in Berlin, Germany. And once Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System, etc.) was invited to become the University Librarian but decided to refuse because Harper would not pay him enough. The history of that library was interesting, but it covered only a few years because the university was not founded until 1892.

My first job after leaving Chicago was as head librarian at what is now Madison University of Harrisonburg. While I was there, I saw a copy of a very fat volume, Public Libraries in the United States of America, Part 1, 1876 Report, which has a list of more than three thousand libraries that were in existence at the time of its publication. I began to wonder what kinds of libraries existed in various parts of the country in the early days. The "library movement" is sometimes considered to have begun around the date when the Report was issued, but, clearly, Americans were much interested in libraries before that volume appeared.

In 1951, I gave up full-time work as a librarian and, as a teacher in a couple of library schools, had time to gather information about early American libraries and write about them. My students were a great help. Many of them had "assistantships," getting paid by our employers to search for early references to libraries. By the time I retired in 1985, we had learned at least a little bit about each of ten thousand libraries in existence before 1876.

After retirement I had planned to take life easy but found that studying and writing was more fun. In the year 2001, the Greenwood Press published my book, American Libraries Before 1876. Now I may really retire, leaving library history to other people.

One aspect of early American library history that is wide open for study is the role of the librarians of those days. Very little is known about thousands of individuals who had charge of collections before the middle of the nineteenth century. There are several reasons for our ignorance.

One is found in the Dictionary of American Library Biography, published in 1978. The authors of almost two hundred sketches of individual librarians give the exact dates when those persons began library work, and only thirty-eight of these most-memorable librarians entered the field before 1877. Half of them began library work in 1895 or later.

Another indication of the lack of interest in the early librarians can be obtained from the book, Libraries in American Periodicals Before 1876, published in 1983. That book has more than a thousand abstracts of articles about libraries. Only eleven of the short summaries that are listed in its index under the headings "Librarianship" and "Library Organization and Management" actually point to articles dealing with librarians themselves. In addition to those eleven articles, Americans wrote a few articles, each about an individual librarian, and a few other articles were actually written by librarians.

Of course, most librarians, up through the first half of the nineteenth century, gave only part of their time to library work. I wonder: Has any historian ever written about the relationship of that large group of individuals to the owners and users of libraries?

Photograph by Prof. Budd Gambee, UNC at Chapel Hill
by KMB