Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Books and brews, ingroups and outgroups

United Brewers Industrial Foundation ad,
Lebanon (PA) Daily News, August 25, 1941, pg. 3
I belong to a facebook group called ALATT, or the "Awesome Librarians Associated Think Tank." Most of its active members are MLS candidates and new professionals, and their comments provide me with substantial insight into the concerns and ideals of the rising generation of librarians. Some use the group for quick polls of professional practice (questions such as "who is responsible at your school for helping students cite correctly?). Others share news articles about censorship, copyright, and other relevant issues. Sometimes, recruiters post job ads -- especially for positions which trend young, like "emerging technologies librarian."

And about once a week -- usually on Friday -- large numbers of ALATTers post pictures of their beverages of choice.

I'm not talking about exotic coffees, teas, or even energy drinks. I'm talking about all flavors of martinis; craft beers from every corner of the world; any concoction one could mix in a glass. Given our reputation for primness, outsiders would be surprised to know that a group of *librarians* uses "partying" as one of its tags.

This week I was reminded of the differences between ingroup and outgroup perceptions when I was slogging through the Lebanon Daily News. In my search for articles relating to the Lebanon Community Library's history, I uncovered a fascinating advertisement from the 1940s. Paid for by the United Brewers Industrial Association, it depicted an irate woman complaining to a librarian about a trashy book found in the library. Her moral rectitude is underscored by outdated styling, including upswept hair, a dark dress, and peter pan collar, but the artist also suggests the extremeness of her viewpoints by portraying her with flushed cheeks and hand on hip, as a wide-eyed librarian leans back in shock. The ad argues that people who oppose beer because of occasional "black sheep" retailers are similar to purists who demand that public libraries be shuttered because of a small number of objectionable books they find on the shelves. Such people infringe on American freedoms, including "your right to drink good beer, and our right to make it." It also reminds readers that beer is a substantial industry in Pennsylvania, employing more than 7 million people and funneling millions of tax dollars into government coffers. Having nothing to hide, the reputable trade group encourages the public to report any illegal activity to "dualy constituted authorities." Given that the United States had recently repealed Prohibition, had been suffering under a decade of economic depression, and was becoming involved in a global conflict against fascism, such arguments probably had a special resonance to people of the early 1940s.

It's interesting to ponder alliances between libraries and beer. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, a prominent argument for establishing public libraries was that they offered wholesome recreation, especially for young men. Along with free kindergartens and high schools, public art museums and concerts, Christian revivalism, Chautauquas, public parks, team sports, and vocational education, the development of public libraries was part of a tripartite effort to mold the "head, heart, and hands" of Progressive-era  American society. Thus we might interpret the UBIA ad as an effort of the association's marketing team to identify a demographic that would be polar opposites of beer drinkers -- woman library users -- and argue the beer industry's case in terms that female bookworms might understand.

The mental association many people have between libraries and education remains, even today. For example, in the Pennsylvania Library Association's PA Forward initiative, libraries' role in public literacy continues to be the primary appeal we make to government officials, corporate funders, and other community power brokers. I don't doubt this image is an asset, but does it speak to everyone? What group would librarians now identify as polar opposites -- who today is analogous to beer drinkers of the 1940s -- and how do we reach out to them?

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