Archive for June, 2012

The Enlightenment Room, British Museum (By Flickr user mendhak CC BY-SA)

About a month ago, I read an interesting post by Andy Woodworth wherein he argued that even though we have an obligation to provide access to the “junk food literature” our patrons demand, “that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices.” As you can imagine, more orthodox librarians in the comments jumped all over the suggestion, calling it elitist, snobbish, and condescending. After all, they argued, tastes are subjective, so all books are equally valuable, and it’s elitist and authoritarian to suggest otherwise…librarians should always remain passive, neutral providers. This line of thinking is as stupid as it is cynical, but it’s emblematic of the tension in librarianship between  those who view libraries as passive information and entertainment sources and those who want libraries to take on more responsibility for educating their communities. I mention this debate because I think it provides a helpful framework for understanding the value of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s new book Libraries and The Enlightenment (Library Juice Press, 2012) which makes the case that, far from being neutral providers of information, libraries are “agencies of education and enlightenment” (p. 133) that embody the best of Enlightenment-era ideals.

Sapere Aude!

At its heart, this book is an intellectual history of the modern library. Bivens-Tatum begins with a brief survey (and adequate defense) of the Enlightenment era (Chapter 1) which he characterizes as being distinguished by “the emergence of a coherent set of values centering on human reason and freedom” (p. xi). The former of these values form the philosophical side of Enlightenment, characterized by the free use of reason and scientific inquiry in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The latter value forms the political side of Enlightenment and is the wellspring of democratic principles such as “individual liberty, equal rights, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to education and political participation” (p. 23). Subsequent chapters trace the influence of the philosophical Enlightenment on the rise of the academic library Enlightenment (Chapter 2) and the influence of the political Enlightenment on the public library (Chapter 3).

In discussing the rise of the academic library, Bivens-Tatum presents a well-researched historical overview that traces the concept of intellectual freedom from Kant’s 1798 Conflict of the Faculties, through the German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling, and Schleiermacher), and into Wilhelm von Humboldt’s sweeping education reforms, which form the basis of the modern research university. Academic libraries,  being “dependent on their parent institutions for their form and motivation” (p. 83), followed suit as necessary adjuncts. Public libraries, on the other hand, are presented in light of the political values of Enlightenment (i.e., equality, education, and other democratic ideals) to the extent that “the belief in the ability of individuals to improve themselves through self-education persists through the history of public libraries” (p. 99). Democracy requires an educated and informed citizenry, so libraries were built to educate and inform.

The remainder of the book focuses on the concept of the Universal Library as a larger, unrealized Enlightenment goal that is still with us today. The idea is of a library “for everyone in the world to be able to find and access every human document or form of information ever created from any place” (p. 141) and Bivens-Tatum traces this pursuit from Alexandria through Naudé , Diderot, and Bush, and on to Google and Wikipedia. Bivens-Tatum ends with an exhortation to librarians to look back at the philosophical foundations of the modern library and embrace the educational mission of libraries.

By Flickr user amodiovalerioverde

Why Enlightenment matters

I introduced this review with the issue of whether librarians should act as neutral information providers or as active educators and I think Bivens-Tatum’s book presents a compelling argument for the latter. As he explains (quite eloquently):

It should be clear from the brief history presented here that public libraries began as instruments of enlightenment, hoping to spread knowledge and culture broadly to the people…[but] the course of the twentieth century proved that no matter how high the purpose or grand the rhetoric of the public library movement, people just did not use public libraries en masse, and those that did use public libraries were primarily interested in entertainment. As a result, public libraries shifted from instruments of enlightenment to information and entertainment centers, and librarians shifted from purveyors of education to neutral providers of that information and entertainment. Instead of enlightenment and education, the goal eventually became to get as many people using libraries as possible, regardless of whether that use had anything to do with the traditional purposes of the public library.” (p. 133

If libraries are to survive the 21st century, we have to decide what role we play in our communities. Are we going to be providers or educators? Providers focus on satisfying patron demands; educators focus on satisfying patron needs. Providers measure gate-counts; educators measure community impact. Providers want patrons to read; educators want them to read well. What Bivens-Tatum offers is a reminder that libraries aren’t just there to satisfy their communities…they are there to improve them, to educate them, to enlighten them.

By Flickr user andyi

Summing up

Overall, this is a wonderful survey of the intellectual history of the modern library with very little to criticize. I could nitpick Bivens-Tatum’s interpretation of Kant, but it wouldn’t change the general thrust of his argument. Likewise I could point out the glaring omission of Hume, Reid, Hutcheson, and other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a movement equally as influential on university reform as German Idealism, yet more truly a part of the Enlightenment. But, this isn’t a commonplace book, so Bivens-Tatum isn’t obligated to cover every 18th century philosopher. In fact, the only substantive criticism I’ll offer is that the book isn’t really about libraries and the Enlightenment, per se. Rather, it’s about the 19th century interpretation of Enlightenment values during the Romantic era (in the case of academic libraries) and again during the second Industrial Revolution and into the Progressive era (in the case of public libraries). Basically, Bivens-Tatum hasn’t shown the influence of the Enlightenment itself on libraries as much as he’s shown the influence of certain post-Enlightenment movements. Yes, the Enlightenment influenced the modern library, but only by way of other philosophical and political movements, and it would have been nice to see the relationships made clearer. But, these are minor concerns that aren’t meant to detract from the value of Libraries and the Enlightenment. There are several recent books out there urging libraries to transform, and many include the call to educate or improve our communities. What Bivens-Tatum has provided is the context by which we can understand what it means fora library to educate in the first place.

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. Libraries and the Enlightenment. Los Angeles: Library Juice Press. 2012. ISBN: 978-1-936117-42-0

$25.00 through Library Juice Press

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