Remembering Rockstar Librarians Of History

First Los Angeles County Librarian, Celia Gleason

First Los Angeles County Librarian Celia Gleason established 165 branch libraries between 1912-1917! All while wearing a big hat. (source)

How many librarians of the past can you name? I’m not talking about Casanova or Benjamin Franklin (not a librarian, btw), I’m talking about real actual working librarians — the leaders of library service in your state or country. Sure, most librarians know of Melvil Dewey or S. R. Ranganathan (see: Five Laws of Library Science), but do you know the founder of your library system? Do you know State Librarians of decades past? How about the pioneers who established library service in your community? Do you have library heroes that are no longer alive? Librarians of old who inspire you in what you do today? Do you read about these icons of our profession and let their work teach you? Sure there are rockstar librarians today, but they weren’t the first. It’s time we began establishing an online and, more importantly, an in-mind presence for the heroes of librarianship.

Certainly the unstoppable flow of current events gives today’s librarians plenty to discuss and dispute, but I for one find much of this “dialogue” stuck solidly in the analytic mode of the shallow present. A historical context is vital to presenting issues with depth and clarity; upon diving into library literature of the ten, twenty, sixty years ago, I am frequently surprised by just how much it mirrors what is being said today. Are we not learning from the past? Apparently not. More to the point, are we not moving beyond the plateau of previous ideas and concepts? It’s a sad fact that long-term thinking (both into the past and the future) is not a strength of librarianship and human nature in general. As a consequence, not only are we constantly repeating ourselves, but we haven’t a clue that we’re doing so.

I realize that I am sounding like the requisite introductory lecture in high school history class and so will continue in that vain by repeating philosopher George Santayana’s oft-cited quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Indeed, the harm of solely focusing on the near-past and present lies not simply in recycling former faults but also in the precious time wasted in re-doing someone else’s thinking. The problem is akin to re-discovering pasteurization over and over again as if you had no more pressing problems to solve! If we are truly a library science then we should, like the hard sciences, stand on the shoulders of our professional ancestors instead of walking mindlessly by, unintentionally snubbing their achievements.

And so I call on my colleagues to include on your current smorgasbord of inspiration and professional reading a steady diet of past library leaders and (dare I say it?) rockstar librarians. Let’s give our profession a proper heritage, but more to the bone, let’s use the scholarship that brings about that heritage to inform the work we do today. Never should the giants that built our libraries, the services those libraries provide, and the concepts on which those services rest be made irrelevant.

p.s. – Here are a few links to get you started:
California Library Hall of Fame
Library History Buff Blog
– Past ALA and PLA Presidents (with very little in the way of biography, alas)
Information & Culture: A Journal of History

If you have any links to add, feel free to post in the comments or email me using the addy above.

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