Friday, September 20, 2013

O.R. Howard Thompson on libraries and politics (1943)

Next month I am giving a presentation on the history of public libraries during World War II. So this morning I was in Mechanicsburg at the Pennsylvania Library Association's archives, hoping to find documentation of its activities at the time. Nestled among crinkly onionskin in the Executive Board files, I found several fascinating letters between O. R. Howard Thompson, head librarian of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport; Alfred Decker Keator, director of the State Library and Museum; Alice Sterling of New Castle Public Library, who was then president of PaLA; Richard E. Minnich of Easton Public Library, who was then PaLA's treasurer; and Joseph E. Wheeler, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, who was organizing a regional library conference on post-war planning.

At issue were the demise of PaLA's National Defense Committee, which had been established in 1940 to prepare booklists and assist federal and state governments in wartime services; the mission of PaLA's Planning Committee, which focused on the needs and future of public libraries in Pennsylvania; and the goals of the newly-created Public Libraries Section (which is now PaLA's Public Libraries Division). Thompson, who led one of the most respected public libraries in the state and was a PaLA past-president, had been asked to chair the Planning Committee, and then later the Public Libraries Section. Instead, he asked Sterling to offer the chair of PLS to Minnich, and allow Thompson himself to lead a "War Activities Committee." Unfortunately, by that time World War II had pervaded all aspects of library work and PaLA's Executive Board believed the conflict was "broader than any mere committee." State Librarian Keator determined that the Board and the State Library should lead cooperative efforts with the American Library Association, federal agencies, and other national organizations, and that individual libraries should assume responsibility for addressing local war and post-war agendas (letter from Sterling to Keator, March 27, 1943; letter from Keator to Thompson, March 31, 1943).

What appears on the surface as a spat over turf is actually a conversation that has professional significance, both then and today. As it turns out, Thompson's reason for declining to serve on the Planning Committee and the Public Library Section was a concern about libraries' appropriate role in a society that was undergoing great change. Writing to Wheeler to explain why he was not going to attend the regional institute on post-war concerns, he explained that "it gives the impression that the libraries are to decide what the new world shall be, including the place of the conquered nations, the solving of racial, color, and religious prejudices, the employment problem and practically everything else. This seems to me all wrong." Instead, Thompson advocated that libraries "secure material that will enable the people to decide these issues." In other words, he felt that "the library is a place for the making of choices," and that "to help people arrive at a conclusion is one thing, to provide them with a blue-print made by librarians another" (letter from Thompson to Wheeler, March 25, 1943). He equated PaLA's Planning Committee and Public Library Sections as proponents of certain political stances,  perhaps because related programs at the 1941 conference had been themed around "Preparedness for a New World Order" (Conference Files, 1941 conference program). As the state association received communiques from Carl Milam and other ALA leaders through PaLA's state chapter councilor, Thompson may also have been aware that the American Library Association was led by librarians who strongly supported United States intervention in the war and who advocated that libraries assume a variety of new roles in winning the peace (for an excellent analysis of ALA during this time, see Patti Clayton Becker's Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II).

Although Thompson was immensely respected, perhaps he seemed a member of the "old guard" to those whose careers were on the rise during the 1940s. He had headed the James V. Brown Library for more than 35 years and thus was part of a generation that tended to occupy itself with the practical/technical aspects of building libraries from the ground up, acquiring and organizing materials, and beginning community outreach programs. Younger professionals like Keator, Minnich, and Wheeler reaped the benefit of well-established institutions and were thus perhaps more open to an expanded role. I admit this bit is conjecture, though -- I will be visiting Williamsport this winter to learn more about Thompson, his library, and his professional and social views.

Still, I think his words remain very relevant today, particularly given the increasingly political stances taken by the American Library Association. Over the past decade, ALA's Council has passed resolutions on Civil Marriage Equality Regardless of Sexual Orientation (2009), Endorsing Universal Health Care (2009), and Support of Immigrant Rights (2007) which do not reference traditional "library" concerns such as information access. As sympathetic as I am personally to these positions, I have often wondered if it is the proper role of our professional organizations to be advocating them. Rory Litwin was writing in favor of librarians questioning the centrist bias of so-called "mainstream" information sources, but I think his classic article, "Neutrality, Objectivity and the Political Center" (Progressive Librarian no. 21, Winter 2002) encourages us to think about the left-of-center bias (or any bias) that may be developing in our profession. O. R. Thompson's words from 1943 remind us that the conundrum of libraries and political action is not at all new. He gives us a great springboard for thinking about the difference between enabling customers to learn about a way of life, versus compelling them to live it.

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