Thursday, September 6, 2012

30th Year Reflections/14: Librarians of Congress and the Minnesota Connection

“According to the best American and European tradition, the librarians that have left the most enduring marks have not been technical librarians….The danger of the technical librarian is that he over-emphasizes the collection and classification of books—the merely mechanical side of the library—and fails to see the library as the gateway to the development of culture.” — Justice Felix Frankfurter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on choosing a new Librarian of Congress

I like to read library history. One of the fascinating things to me as I read this history is how the profession expresses itself whenever the President of the United States fills a vacancy for the post of Librarian of Congress. Only one such vacancy has occurred during my professional life, in 1987 when the current Librarian, James Billington, was nominated by President Reagan. The Library of Congress web site lists all the previous Librarians. George Herbert Putnam, according to the site, was Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), the Boston Public Library (1895-99) and “the first experienced librarian to hold the post of Librarian of Congress.” By my count there have been two professional librarians in the post, the second being L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974).

To me the most interesting squabble was over the nomination of Archibald MacLeish as the Ninth Librarian in 1939. Justice Frankfurter had more to say to Roosevelt on the matter:

What is wanted in the directing head of a great library are imaginative energy and vision. He should be a man who knows books, loves books and makes books. If he has these three qualities the craftsmanship of the librarian’s calling is an easily acquired quality. But only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars, because he alone really understands the wants of scholars.

The American Library Association “vigorously opposed” the nomination. 1,400 librarians signed a petition, sent by the ALA to Washington, declaring that “confirmation of Archibald MacLeish as Librarian of Congress would be a calamity.” McReynolds and Robbins, in their book The Librarian Spies, observed that librarians “would have been wounded by the dichotomy that Roosevelt and Frankfurter saw between ‘technical’ librarians and visionaries….To a great extent, however, librarians had themselves to blame for the apparent distinction since they had labored since the Melvil Dewey era to be businesslike, scientific, and efficient.” So the question in some ways comes back to professional identity and the curricula present in library schools of the day. Has the situation changed? I don’t think so.

There is another interesting tidbit in the historical record, this time related to filling the post after MacLeish. One name that appears in letters between Roosevelt and MacLeish as they discussed the latter’s successor was University of Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen. By some accounts FDR was prepared to name Blegen as the next Librarian before he, Roosevelt, died. Truman wanted to act on the Librarian post shortly after taking office. Working outside the ALA structure a number of other librarians including Keyes Metcalf at Harvard and E. W. McDiarmid at Minnesota lobbied Truman for the Blegen appointment. Carl Vitz, head of the Minneapolis Public Library and ALA president, was also brought into the effort. But it was not to be; Luther Evans was nominated for the post. It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened if Blegen received the appointment and what it might have meant to the citizens of Minnesota.

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