Age: 15, Grade: 8
School Name: Dalton School, New York, NY
Educator: Edwards Catherine
Category: Critical Essay
Morals, Management, & Machiavelli
There are over sixteen thousand public libraries in the United States. Nearly every city and town in America possesses a library of some sort: from the Boston Public Library, which boasts a collection of over ninety million books, to the Hillsboro Free Library in Iowa, which houses just 3,000. Yet, in each locality and municipality, the public library is cast in a similar, ideal role—it is a center of community action and a place of intellectual exploration and experimentation.
In fact, the popularity and ubiquity of the public library in the US has encouraged a narrative that aligns and equates the founding values of the library with the founding values of America. “The portals of our nations libraries” have been touted as agents of freedom and liberation, and credited with nurturing the informed population necessary to sustaining a democracy (Shelkrot). The current conception of a public library is as an institution of democracy—of educational freedom and civic engagement. However, the early twentieth century predecessors to these libraries had very different goals—goals that were oriented much less towards enlightenment and much more towards the social objectives of certain institutions and individuals. Religious women’s groups (such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)) created libraries as moral oases, industrial libraries developed as a form of corporate welfare, and, finally, benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie influenced a much more complex understanding of the modern public library.
Women’s groups were formed as a force for moral reform in the post Civil War era (Firor 41), and took their role as conservators of the nation’s values seriously. Almost always, these values coincided with and were rooted deeply in the Protestant religious belief; reforms were “based on applied Christianity” (Ian 2). Chief among these values was temperance. Women’s organizations were particularly convinced that alcohol was the direct cause of vice (K. Harris 1)—and, thus, every sin was the result of intemperance. Indeed, the message of social influence and control was strong in the motivations of such groups: “society depended on [women’s] ability to control the ‘baser appetites’ of m[e]n” (K. Harris 2).
To achieve their goals, women’s groups often lobbied government officials to secure their objectives in legislation. The most notable victory of this type was Prohibition, which passed in the 1920s, in part as a result of the efforts of the WCTU.
Concurrently, women’s groups sought another weapon in the ‘battle against sin’. In 1896, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs met to discuss the use of libraries to fill this role. If man must be “controlled,” then it was woman’s ‘responsibility’—not only to her beliefs, but to society—to provide a virtuous alternative “where men and boys of the town might congregate without going to saloons” (Stauffer, A Good Social Work 138). In other words, libraries provided a place for men to go to stop them from succumbing to their “baser appetites” in saloons. Through this, women’s groups believed public libraries were a way they could save their towns from the sins of intemperance. In fact, WCTU built their libraries with these objectives in mind, and libraries were most often placed in “dark spots” where “saloon owners controlled…the real estate” (Miner 107). For example, the Women’s Club of Sunrise, Wyoming, founded their library “to counteract the vicious influences of the saloons and other establishments” (Stauffer 138). During this period, and until the 1930s, women’s groups put libraries near the top of their agendas, with numerous regional clubs founded specifically to address this topic (Watson 235). By 1933, a presidential commission credited “women’s clubs… for initiating seventy-five percent of the public libraries now in existence in the United States” (Watson 235). For women’s groups, libraries were Prohibition by other means.
Some women’s groups went further than encouraging temperance, hoping that the library might also serve as a force for social reformation. More than simply steering people away from alcohol, the library could act itself as a force to shape the “morals and manners” (Stauffer, A Good Social Work 391) of an entire town—thus setting its patrons on the virtuous path.
This added mission required deeper intervention into library operations. For example, during the early twentieth century, there was significant concern about the distribution of fiction to young readers. Some women’s groups “omitted” works such as Red Badge of Courage, the “Jack Harkaway” series, and even classics like “Huckleberry Finn” from library collections. Women’s organizations labeled these works “pernicious” or “shoddy” (Donelson 5-12) and blamed them for degrading the moral character of the country. As Henry Stimson commented in the Library Journal (December 1898), there was “no greater evil…than…[such] literature in the hands of boys and girls.” Just as the library worked to conserve the virtues of the town, so the librarian and library boards that censored ‘pernicious’ materials played a crucial role in “elevating the moral tone [of their cities and towns]” (Stauffer, In Their Own Image 7). By eliminating the literature that might cause a boy to become “a disgrace to his progenitors” (Ogden Standard 3) or that might urge a girl to follow the “pleasures which…lead to a worthless life” (Ogden Standard 3), women’s groups sought to ensure youth were “indoctrinated in the proper social roles and behaviors” (Stauffer, A Good Social Work 144) necessary to the elimination of vice and sin in the community. Once again, social agendas featured prominently, but this time aimed at shaping the next generation.
A roughly analogous dual mission can also be found in the emergence of the industrial or corporate library. During the turn of the twentieth century, manufacturing methods were improved so employees could work longer hours for lower wages (Pope and Magnusson 682-684). Faced with growing worker dissatisfaction and increasingly active labor unions, corporations devised a new way to ensure loyalty and labor peace. Companies expanded non-monetary offerings (“welfare plans”) and began forming “company towns.” In these generally isolated municipalities, company management wielded a heavy hand in the lives of workers. Employees “lived in company homes, attended company schools, and worshiped in company churches” (Dredge 308). Company management even banned magazines considered ‘subversive’ and tried to bar employees from organizing in labor unions.
Many companies created libraries to serve the captive community. In this context, and roughly parallel to the broader public library movement, the company library played two roles: first to provide an alternative to bars and saloons (judged as a place for union organizing), and second to control the flow of literature (including magazines, books, and newspapers) to the workers.
Bars were a popular place for workers to gather on company grounds, and the congregation of workers led managers to fear they might become places for labor organizing. In fact, many saloons offered discount rental prices to labor unions, and unions often met in saloon back rooms (Kingsdale 482). Management did everything they could to stop the proliferation of labor organizations, and often directly evicted these saloons and fired workers who joined unions (Dredge 313). As management’s fears grew, libraries were refocused to include “programs to supplant the popularity of saloons” (Miner 107). When viewed in context, it is logical that industrial libraries were important agents in management’s campaign against labor organization—they provided a distraction to the worker. Libraries permitted workers to meet in a “congenial atmosphere” (Dredge 311). In a more friendly back environment, management could be viewed as “less threatening” by their subordinates, and make workers feel more comfortable meeting on company grounds rather than in saloons. The atmosphere of congeniality also helped further the myth of the “benevolent” manager, which would help to put workers at ease, and make them less likely to join a union in the first place.
Some companies saw industrial libraries not simply as a less threatening alternative to saloons, but also sought to use libraries to inculcate certain values in workers. In fact, the corporation’s role as curator of literature was crucial to creating a compliant work force. Librarians were charged with creating an industrial library “desirable from the standpoint of the goals of the corporation and its officers” (Dredge 312). In practice, this often meant selecting—and, in many cases, directly censoring—the literature available to workers. Newspapers that discussed conditions in nearby towns were almost always censored as management feared they might threaten the company’s stability by fostering “more employee grievances than the difficult industrial…living conditions already created” (Dredge 312). Anything deemed “too liberal” was removed from circulation: in North Carolina, Raleigh’s News and Observer was omitted for the same reason. Any material which related to or mentioned socialism—such as Harper’s Weekly (Dredge 312-313)—threatened the carefully maintained social order, and was banned.
Thus, industrial libraries were much less a “benevolent enrichment” of worker’s lives and much more a form of social control aimed towards the broader goal of welfare plans: labor peace and worker compliance.
The impulses that motivated groups and corporations to form libraries also shaped the largest philanthropic library project during the twentieth century.
Andrew Carnegie was the epitome of wealth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite his impoverished background, Carnegie came to build the world’s largest steel and iron company, and possess a breathtaking fortune of over $400 million (Bushman 30). Yet, what made him an example for other wealthy members of society was his remarkable philanthropic agenda. Over the course of his life, he used over 90% of that fortune to build hospitals, churches, museums, and, most notably, libraries (Stamberg). In fact, he invested in libraries much more than any of his wealthy colleagues, and by his death in 1917 he had given “$40,000,000…for the erection of 1679 public library buildings in 1412 communities of the United States” (Bobinski 1361).
Carnegie’s motives for such large donations to libraries are sometimes simplified and romanticized. Often, the reasons behind his massive donation to public libraries have been described simply as: “to educate the poor” for the “betterment of humanity” (M. Harris 84). A more critical view of Carnegie’s public library program finds two main motivations: using public libraries to control the public and creating a lasting legacy.
The rapid pace of technological development during the nineteenth century fueled the massive economic inequality of the early twentieth century. While some families struggled to get by, the top “one-percent” of the country led lives of extravagance. At that time, collectively, the 4,000 most affluent families in America were worth as much as the other 11.6 million families (Rothman).
With increasing inequality, however, came increasing frustration with the upper class. As the majority of Americans grew poorer, workers became increasingly upset with low wages and poor workplace treatment. This sentiment came to a head in numerous clashes between unions and corporations during the late nineteenth century, such as the Homestead strike in 1892. Soon, it became readily apparent that the “gentry” needed a mechanism not only to ensure labor peace, but to stop the working class from organizing. In this light, the public library could become a “conservator of order”: in Carnegie’s own words, an organization “to make men not violent revolutionaries, but cautious evolutionists” (Stielow 39).
Similar to industrial libraries, public libraries were viewed as an “alternative to street corners.” As economic inequality worsened, Carnegie’s fear of class “revolutionists” (in his own words) intensified, and so did the library’s role in controlling the working class. During the Long Depression, for example, “when the nation was deep in one of its worst financial crises, librarians across the land were emphasizing the public library’s role as a conservator of order” (Stielow 39).
This was not a new invention, but rather the continuation of one which dated back to Melville Dewey (father of the Dewey Decimal System), who once wrote: “to teach the masses to read…with…no guiding influence…invite[s] catastrophe.” (Stielow 41). This idea—that the working class cannot be trusted with knowledge—is highly paternalistic. In essence, the “masses” do not know what is good for themselves or for society without “guiding influence.” Such an untrustworthy and ignorant class will surely fashion the key to knowledge into a weapon used to disrupt the social order and dethrone the “gentry class.” Carnegie and his fellow benefactors perpetuated this idea, and their public libraries carried on the century-old rigidly paternalistic tradition in which “the librarian…was entrusted with the duty of ensuring the flow of ‘correct’ materials to the proletariat; indeed, this task helped define his or her duties as a professional” (Stielow 41).
Nowhere was this agenda more evident than in the selection of library Trustees, who oversaw all library operations. The selection of these Trustees was “rarely an exercise in democracy. The Trustee was generally male, ‘past his prime’; white; Protestant; well educated; wealthy; a member of the social elite; and usually…a business executive” (M. Harris 19). Thus, the Trustee near always agreed with Carnegie’s fear that the organization of the working class proved an existential threat to the upper class, and had a vested interest in ensuring the interests of the “gentry”—for he himself was one. For example, when Enoch Pratt established a library in Baltimore, he appointed conservative trustees to run the library, including many of his wealthy friends (M. Harris 34), who shared his goals. This ensured that the “correct” materials selected would be those which protected only the interest of the upper class.
With such rigidly paternalistic, and, in the case of Carnegie’s public statements, obvious goals, numerous objections arose to his public library campaign. Labor organizers in Detroit pointed out the hypocrisy in Carnegie’s “benevolence”: “Carnegie ought to have distributed his money among his employees while he was making it” (Bridge 233). The St. Louis Dispatch printed: “ten thousand ‘Carnegie Public Libraries’ would not compensate the country for the direct and indirect evils resulting from the Homestead lockout” (Bridge 234). Here, the labor stronghold of St. Louis angrily rebutted Carnegie’s intention for public libraries to serve as a means of distracting and placating workers after years of violent labor confrontations. Socialist Eugene Debs took this one step further, arguing that to make an example of years of subjugation by Carnegie, the revolt by workers at New Castle “is a splendid example [for] wherever a Carnegie library is suggested” (Debs 2).
However, as noted above, it is overly simplistic to assert that such a complicated figure might have one reason for his actions. In fact, Carnegie’s motivations extended far beyond simple Machiavellian control. The motivation behind his public library campaign may have been in part due to the death of his joint-venture partner, George Pullman. Pullman, who staked his reputation on his “utopian” company town, including the Pullman Industrial Library, was disgraced (and, subsequently, died) after the town was disbanded following a “bitter and bloody” strike against his plant in Chicago (“Company Towns: 1880s to 1935”).
Thus, it is not a leap to suggest that, having witnessed the disgrace of Pullman, Carnegie—known to be somewhat of an “egotist”—sought to craft a national legacy that could not be broken up, and that would immediately be recognizable: the Carnegie libraries. This is represented in the design of his libraries across the country. In fact, the general layout of the Carnegie library is that of a Neo-Classical grandiose monument to its benefactor. In the Allegheny public library (one of the first to be built), for instance, the patron entered immediately in front of a massive fireplace. A dignified portrait of Carnegie hung above the marble mantle, inviting “library users to pause and ponder their debt to Carnegie’s liberality” (Van Slyck 17). If Carnegie sought to leave a legacy for himself, his portrait alone would fill that position nicely, perpetually reminding patrons to “ponder their debt” to the man. Only after gazing at the portrait could the reader enter the room which housed the book stacks—which conveyed a feeling of “solidity” (Van Slyck 17). This sense of “solidity” was imbedded in the whole building—and the exterior and the interior of many Carnegie libraries look similar to “castles or Greek temples” made of entirely brick and bulky masonry. This design makes sense in light of Carnegie’s objective: to enshrine his legacy the architecture of his libraries; thus, just as Carnegie wanted his legacy to be “solid” and unchangeable, he built his buildings to convey heavy “solidity” and resemble Greek temples to convey timelessness.
At the same time, Carnegie also conveyed a sense of “homeyness” in his libraries with “cozy touches [such as] comfortable chairs, the electrical and gas fittings, the sanitary conditions” (Van Slyck 18). These elements encouraged the library user to become comfortable enough in the library to imagine Carnegie as rich uncle, whose power was not sustained by his economic power but by “mutual love and respect” (Van Slyck 18). Thus, Carnegie ensured that his legacy was not that of a brute or a violent strike-breaker at Homestead, but as a benevolent benefactor giving to a willing and grateful public.
In short, three forces interacted to shape the modern American library. Women’s groups and company towns created libraries as alternatives to saloons, the former to steer men away from alcohol and the latter to steer them away unionization. Both institutions also sought to have libraries shape their patrons: companies seeking pliable workers and the WCTU seeking better souls. Carnegie’s unprecedented gifts reflected similar motives, but also more. His libraries reflected not just the corporate and redemptive motives but also his own desire to crease a lasting legacy. From the scale of his gift to its geographic distribution, from the architectural design to the constitution of its leadership and collection, Carnegie’s agenda (both personal and professional) is evident.
Over the past decades, the public library has evolved into an organization of greater educational freedom and civic engagement. When one recalls that an institution that today stands for freedom had its origins in the quest for social control, the contemporary values and functions of the public library seem all the more dear.