Reflections on the Library History Seminar XIII – Megan Browndorf

Megan Browndorf received a travel grant from LHRT to attend and present at the Library History Seminar XIII at Simmons College that was held from July 31 – August 2, 2015. The theme of the conference was Libraries: Traditions and Innovations.

Ms. Browndorf is a Research and Instruction Librarian at the Albert S. Cook Library at Towson University where she serves as library liaison to the Department of History. She agreed to provide an account of her time at the Library History Seminar XIII.

Congratulations, Megan, on the travel grant and thank you for sharing your experience at the Seminar.


The last time that I had taken a train any considerable distance, I was travelling through the Carpathians into Ukraine. Aptly, this time, I rolled up the East Coast to Boston to present research on Ukrainian library history. With a background in East European studies and as a working librarian, I was unsure what to expect from a library history conference. My verdict is overwhelmingly positive. With apologies to all past conferences I’ve attended, this was possibly the first conference where there was no session I regretted attending. I am grateful for the opportunity LHRT gave me as an early-career librarian to dip my toe into this fascinating library history community.

The keynotes book-ended a two day exploration on “Libraries: Traditions and Innovations” with Ann Blair’s opening keynote on traditions and David Weinberger’s closing keynote on innovation. But truly, these two keynotes did not differ that significantly. Ann Blair’s “Libraries as Sites of Discovery” built the library as a place that long served to gather, study, and display materials. In his “Future Matters” David Weinberger argued that libraries must become more involved in meaning-making and providing the tools to make this possible. Both see libraries as a place where connections happen and thus culture is constructed, expanded and explored. However the methods of fostering these connections have changed over time, must change now, and will continue to change in the future.

In the meat of the conference between these two keynotes was an image of the tensions and possibilities of change and consistency in libraries over time. I wrote nearly twice this detailing all of the sessions I wanted to share, but I unfortunately can only offer, but some examples.

The first session I attended was “Libraries in 19th century Anglo-America” whose panelists discussed gender and reading, mechanics’ institute libraries, and American circulating libraries (subscription rental libraries built on an English model). All three of these papers touched on or foregrounded class as a determining element of the user-population, procedures, and collection stock. The highlight of the next session on “Libraries in Evolution” was Matthew Connor Sullivan’s paper analyzing the rhetoric of the library as “warehouse.” Sullivan convincingly argued that the metaphor in which the storehouse stands in counterpoint to the way that libraries should be is by no means contemporary, appears cyclically, and ignores the reality that libraries do actually store books as part of their mission. The session in which I presented had two other excellent papers that looked at war as a fulcrum of change in library and reading practice. The panel following was a mix of papers considering contemporary efforts to document and safeguard the histories of diverse communities. All of these papers prioritized the role of the relevant communities in the process of creating and their own archive and developing its narrative. The first paper by Jennifer Jenkins used “tribesourcing” in the American Indian Film Gallery to allow American Indians to respond to the “voice of God” narratives that long characterized documentaries about their cultures. Rudolph Clay’s work at Washington University of Saint Louis has provided infrastructure for participants in the events following the Michael Brown shooting to share their digital media for archiving and preservation. The last panel I attended before the closing keynote was rather fittingly on “digital innovation.” The first paper explored UVA’s efforts to rebuild the original Thomas Jefferson law library from 1828 (and it is just plain cool). The second situated digitization practice in a socio-historical lineage of preservation work.

The weekend began with Ann Blair’s keynote “Libraries as Sites of Discovery” which set up a vision of the library as a place to gather, a place to display, and a place to study beginning in the medieval period. Underlying the physical place is a cultural library built upon the ideas that “no book is so bad that it shall not be kept” and that redundancy is the key to ensuring the survival of texts. After the superb keynote I had to begin making the difficult decisions about which sessions to attend, from those I only have the space here to describe a few of the highlights.

The first session I attended was “Libraries in 19th century Anglo-America” whose panelists discussed gender and reading, mechanics’ institute libraries, and American circulating libraries (subscription rental libraries built on an English model). All three of these papers touched on or foregrounded class as a determining element of the user-population, procedures, and collection stock. One tidbit I particularly enjoyed from Tom Glynn’s paper on gender and reading in NYC’s early public libraries was that libraries catering to the upper class sometimes advertised ladies-only reading rooms, but the ladies were perfectly happy mixing in the general reading rooms with the men.

The highlight of the next session on “Libraries in Evolution” was Matthew Connor Sullivan’s paper analyzing the rhetoric of the library as “warehouse.” Sullivan convincingly argued that the metaphor in which the storehouse stands in counterpoint to the way that libraries should be is by no means contemporary, appears cyclically, and ignores the reality that libraries do actually store books as part of their mission. He ultimately argues that this metaphor tells us more about the librarians employing it than the libraries which it seeks to describe.

The next day I presented my paper during a panel on “Libraries in the warring 20th century.” Mary Mooney’s work, a developing chapter of her larger dissertation, looked at how bibliotherapy developed in the interwar period out of the hospitals of WWI in concert with a host of other modern “therapies” particularly oriented to mental health conditions.

The panel following was a mix of papers considering contemporary efforts to document and safeguard the histories of diverse communities. All of these papers prioritized the role of the relevant communities in the process of creating and their own archive and developing its narrative. The first paper by Jennifer Jenkins used “tribesourcing” in the American Indian Film Gallery to allow American Indians to respond to the “voice of God” narratives that long characterized documentaries about their cultures. Rudolph Clay’s work at Washington University of Saint Louis has provided infrastructure for participants in the events following the Michael Brown shooting to share their digital media for archiving and preservation.

The last panel I attended before the closing keynote was rather fittingly on “digital innovation.” At it, I became absolutely enamored with the work being done by the UVA law library to digitally reconstruct the entirety of the 1828 catalog of law texts “purchased under the direction of Thomas Jefferson.” This unique way of building up a collection and making it digitally available will allow questions and analysis that would not otherwise have been possible. This is the type of project I would love to see replicated in other institutions with similarly important historical collections that may no longer be physically extant. Relatedly, the other individual presenting during this panel, Zack Linder-Katz, reminded us that digitization has a socially situated history, which it behooves us to consider as we watch digitally available materials grow in our libraries and archives.

While there were multiple sessions that I wish I had been able to attend, but was unable to due to scheduling conflicts, the one paper that nonetheless stuck with me was Eric Williams’s “Automating the Community: MARC Community Information Format and Changing Libraries in the 1990s.”  In it, Williams discussed a little known MARC standard from the 1990s which would allow libraries to catalog things like community groups during the time before the internet came into its own and made this format more or less obsolete. I spoke with Eric and found myself fascinated by this bizarre bit of trivia that reflected libraries at the cusp of the enormous changes that the past 20 years have brought and wishing I had been able to hear the full of his paper.

As Ann Blair situated the library in some of its traditions, David Weinberger’s closing keynote looked to the role of innovation in creating its future. “Culture is a network,” he posited, of connected people with connected ideas and meaning are the connections which matter. As such, meaning shall always be local. In his keynote he argued that while libraries may have been separated from this meaning in the past, the Internet has made it both possible and necessary for libraries to become an integral part of that meaning-making.

Megan Browndorf

Advertisements