A History of Academic Libraries in the U.S.

I started off my first week in LS 531, Academic Libraries, with a few readings about the history of academic libraries in the United States. 

Budd, John M.  “A Brief History of Higher Education and Academic Libraries in the United States.”  The Academic Library.  Englewood, CO:  Libraries Unlimited, 1998.

Lynch, Beverly P.  “The Development of the Academic Library in American Higher Education and the Role of the Academic Librarian.”  Leadership and Academic Libraries.  Eds.  Terrence F. Mech and Gerard B. McCabe.  Westport:  Greenwood Press, 1998. 

Personally, I’m a “start at the beginning” kind of person, so I’m pleased to get the backstory on the development of American universities and the concomitant growth of their libraries. 

One idea I gleaned from the readings, and which I expect will be an underlying assumption of the class, is that the purpose of an academic library is dependent upon the university’s need for it.  For instance, in Budd’s discussion of Harvard’s library, he notes that in the late 17th-early 18th century, not only was the size of the library modest, but also the method of instruction (lecture and recitation) did not create a demand for the library among students (29).  Thus, the library’s collection was not directly linked to student use or need.  By the early 19th century, even though the size of collections had grown, students and faculty continued to level the general complaint that university libraries were not useful or relevant to their needs (34).  Apparently it was the professionalization of scholarship in the 20th century that provided the greatest boon to academic libraries.  Researchers contributed to the proliferation of academic journals and other scholarly publications, which at the same time became necessary resources for libraries to have in support of the faculty’s research mission (41).       

A note on trivia:  I learned that the University of South Carolina can boast of having the first building set apart exclusively as a library (34).  I am not sure how that building fared during the Civil War, which decimated the University of Alabama’s library (35).   

I like Budd’s slightly more pessimistic slant on history, compared to Lynch’s.  Her history is briefer, and breezier, while Budd dwells on the mishaps of fires and wars, and the internal battles fought over the curriculum, the growth of information, and conceptions of the university as Ivory Tower or Practical Training Ground.  I was especially drawn to the accounts of fire, such as the 1705 fire which decimated the collection at the College of William and Mary.  (Understandably, libraries at the time were reluctant to be open during evening hours, when the necessity for gas lighting raised the specter of fire damage (34)).  Any good student of Anglo-Saxon studies will reflect on the disastrous fire that ravaged Sir Robert Cotton’s fine collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in 1731, giving the Beowulf manuscript a decorative charred edging and destroying 13 manuscripts.  (One history of the Beowulf manuscript can be found here.)

One thing I had not considered before was the competition the university library has faced from other campus-based collections.  It appears that up through the mid-19th century, the typical university library was growing but was still not championed by faculty and students, who did not view it as instrumental in their study and teaching (Lynch 8).  Among its competitors have been literary society libraries, professors’ private collections, and departmental libraries.  From writing a paper on the research habits of humanities scholars, I know that it’s not unusual for scholars of a certain generation to prefer to use their personal libraries over the university library’s collection.  Empirical evidence supports this idea:  how many professors’ book-lined offices have you walked into during your college years? 

The English department of the University of Georgia has its own departmental library.  I remember it well:  it was the setting for my orals as well as my dissertation defense.  I wish I could locate a photo of it online, but perhaps others who have passed through the program have similarly ambivalent feelings about that particular room at the end of the hall, to the left, on the second floor of Park Hall.  After all, who needs a photograph when the room is seared into your memory?

For me, the most interesting point in Weiner’s “A History of Academic Libraries in the United States” is Orvin Lee Shiftlett’s contention that “academic librarianship has failed to become fully defined because it lacks a body of theory and research” (2).  Talk about a challenge!  I wonder, though, how the state of affairs is now, more than 25 years after Shiftlett’s (1981) assertion. 

Weiner, Sharon Gray.  “The History of Academic Libraries in the United States:  A Review of the Literature.”  Library Philosophy and Practice.  7.2 (2005).

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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