July 17, 2008

Corrupting Young Minds (with Books) in the Library

Filed under: Uncategorized — tsladmin @ 5:45 am

So it turns out there are a couple of potentially controversial things about the current issue of The New Yorker, one of them being an article called “The Lion and the Mouse” by Jill Lepore. I’ve always agreed with the ethic and attitude of “Library 2.0,” even though I didn’t like the implication that libraries had never before in our history evolved. For me, it symbolizes the need to change again, in what may seem to some like radical ways (online conversations, user-generated content, zoned physical spaces, collaborative relationships with users, etc.), but this article shows just one example of when this happened in the past. Libraries responded then, as many are responding now.
As a proponent of gaming in libraries, one of the criticisms I hear about the movement is that libraries are for books and the edification of the mind. That we shouldn’t corrupt young minds with games, and that we shouldn’t use games as a ploy to get kids in the door. But libraries are vibrant places where quite a wide range of other things happen besides just books, and I think it’s sad when patrons or librarians portray us as just warehouses. Any building can be a book warehouse – that’s not what makes us “libraries” and community centers (regardless of type of library), and librarians certainly aren’t “book tellers,” just sitting behind a desk waiting to hand over a book in return for seeing a library card.
I believe quite strongly that libraries are about content, people, and communities. The people create community there, often around the content, but not always, especially in public libraries where we also serve a recreational role. All of this is why I believe gaming in libraries is a perfect fit, and I cringe when I hear someone conjure up “the good old days” when all kids did was sit in the library and read. When I hear this, I wonder whose childhood they’re remembering, because while I certainly loved the library and would often read there, a lot of my friends never went there, maybe even most of them. The truth is that a lot of the kids I grew up with weren’t spending their days reading the classics unless they were forced to by teachers, let alone enlightening their minds by just sitting quietly in the middle of the library.
And if we go back far enough in “the good old days,” it turns out they couldn’t have done those things even if they’d wanted to, because children simply weren’t allowed in the library, a point brought home in The New Yorker piece. While the author spends the majority of the article discussing rivalries between the early players in the world of book reviews of children’s literature, the background history is relevant to our own discussions today.

“At the time [1895], you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library, which opened in 1854, the same year as the Boston Public Library, the country’s first publicly funded city library, where you had to be sixteen. Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the ‘young fry’ read nothing but ‘the trashy’: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books). Samuel Tilden, who left $2.4 million to establish a free library in New York, nearly changed his mind when he found out that ninety percent of the books checked out of the Boston Public Library were fiction. Meanwhile, libraries were popping up in American cities and towns like crocuses at first melt. Between 1881 and 1917, Andrew Carnegie underwrote the construction of more than sixteen hundred public libraries in the United States, buildings from which children were routinely turned away, because they needed to be protected from morally corrupting books, especially novels. In 1894, at the annual meeting of the American Library Association, the Milwaukee Public Library’s Lutie Stearns read a ‘Report on the Reading of the Young.’ What if libraries were to set aside special books for children, Stearns wondered, shelved in separate rooms for children, staffed by librarians who actually liked children?
Much of what [Anne Carroll] Moore did in that room had never been done before, or half as well. She brought in storytellers and, in her first year, organized two hundred story hours (and ten times as many two years later). She compiled a list of twenty-five hundred standard titles in children’s literature. She won the right to grant borrowing privileges to children; by 1913, children’s books accounted for a third of all the volumes borrowed from New York’s branch libraries. Against the prevailing sentiment of the day, she believed that her job was to give ‘to the child of foreign parentage a feeling of pride in the beautiful things of the country his parents have left….’ In each of the library’s branches, Moore abolished age restrictions. Down came the ‘Silence’ signs, up went framed prints of the work of children’s-book illustrators. “Do not expect or demand perfect quiet,” she instructed her staff. ‘The education of children begins at the open shelves.’ In place of locked cabinets, she provided every library with a big black ledger; if you could sign your name, you could borrow a book.” (Thanks, Richard!)

So when we talk about “the good old days,” let’s be sure to specify which period we’re referring to, because just over a hundred years ago, fiction was the great corrupter of young minds. A few decades later, it was E. B. White’s “Stuart Little.”
But things change, and now it’s games in the libraries that are bad influences or candy or inappropriate instead of books. What a difference a century makes! How much more powerful is it to look back on our history and see how library services to all patrons have changed during the last hundred years? It’s something to be proud of, even as we experience another transitional period and change again to serve new [and old] users in new ways.


  1. […] Original post by The Shifted Librarian […]

    Pingback by Books and Magazines Blog » Archive » Corrupting Young Minds (with Books) in the Library — July 17, 2008 @ 7:38 am

  2. Nicely done. I enjoyed the quote about the good old days. I for one support the corruption of young minds with information and content. Mine was corrupted by books, television, comic books, and pulp science fiction magazines.

    Comment by Bill Drew — July 17, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  3. When I was in library school I wrote a paper about the Library of Congress distributing catalog cards. This began also in the early 1900s. The general sentiment then was that LOC did not need to issue cards for fiction books because most libraries protected their patrons’ minds by not cataloging fiction… at all.

    Comment by Liam Hegarty — July 17, 2008 @ 11:53 am

  4. Good post. Nice perspective.

    Comment by mgmason — July 17, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  5. […] der Art von Artikel 2 einsetzen könnte: Wie verändern neue Medien das Leben und die Bibliotheken? Corrupting young minds with books in the library (gefunden bei The Shifted Librarian). […]

    Pingback by Wikis, Teil 1 - und anderes « Kawa13’s Weblog — July 18, 2008 @ 2:01 am

  6. Indeed it is important to figure which “good old days” we’re talking about–generally, in my experience, to figure out which mythical “good old days” is in question.
    I love knowing what came before me and I’m a rather old fashioned person in many ways. But gaming in libraries just makes a lot of sense right now. It may easily be a passing thing; it may easily become a vital part of libraries. That doesn’t matter a bit to those who are enjoying gaming right now.
    My grandmother and I used to speak about sex education from time to time. She was one of those people who was wildly liberal on some issues, wildly conservative on others, and right in middle when it suited her. Still, many people were surprised that this very religious woman in the South was all for sex education. Why? Because she had certainly known about sex as a young woman (she was born in 1923). There wasn’t any way to avoid it, as she lived in the same room with her parents and her brothers and sisters. The house was a little room, about 12 feet by 12 feet with a detached kitchen. So, how could you not know about sex?
    Somehow, that’s not the image that most people have of growing up in the 1930s. And, of course, many people didn’t grow up that way.
    But I think we, in libraries, often forget the very real limitations of our past, just as we often for get to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of libraries in the last 100 or so years.

    Comment by Dale — July 18, 2008 @ 5:14 am

  7. Thanks for the contrasting discussion between now and then in libraries: gaming versus early children’s literature. I enjoyed the link to the New Yorker article which was well researched and written. It inspired me to go to New York Public Library and shift through the rich history there.
    Having been a Librarian for years I am not surprised and know I must embrace the electronic changes including the thought of gaming as an educational, cultural influence to be accepted in the library world. However, the rate of changes in libraries with blogs, articles, 2.0 variations, gaming, and discussions are overwhelming at times. Information has exploded!

    Comment by Terri Bonow — July 18, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  8. […] and The Monkey Speaks: Where modern children’s literature (and librarianship) came from and The Shifted Librarian: Corrupting Young Minds (with Books) in the Library (these discussions point to and discuss an article in the New Yorker article The Lion and the […]

    Pingback by Library & Literary Miscellany Links of the Week » Library & Literary Miscellany — July 19, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  9. I enjoyed your post on the New Yorker article and am glad those “good old days” are long gone. I believe libraries should offer services and activities that will draw patrons in, and providing books is just one of those services. I’m a high-school librarian and, in my library, we open in the morning before school and sell hot chocolate so that students can socialize, read the newspaper and work on homework. We have contests, offer tech lessons for teachers and students, sponsor clubs, provide a website, offer college info. — you name it. And, we are always looking for ways to improve and new services to offer. As a result, our circulation stats have increased dramatically and we have received many positive comments on the changes the library has undergone. It’s a fun place to be!

    Comment by Leann — July 20, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  10. I remember my mother telling me that when she was growing up in Northampton, MA, certain books were kept behind the circulation desk and you had to be above a certain age (16 or 18, I can’t remember exactly) to check them out. And that was just in the 1950s, not that long ago at all. I think sometimes we forget how recent the professional commitment to no- or low-restriction access to information really is.

    Comment by Genevieve Williams — July 29, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

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