In recent weeks, the State Historical Society of Iowa has been faced with reorganization and funding cuts, which threaten to reduce access to its irreplaceable collections and to displace staff who have dedicated their careers to helping Iowans learn about their past. Plenty of folks have written about the specifics of the situation (the petition link includes links to many helpful sources to educate yourself), but what I want to focus on is my experience with SHSI, and why that experience makes me believe absolutely in the importance of keeping this organization funded and its records accessible .
I was lucky enough to work at SHSI at the start of my Master’s program, and it was one of the most valuable and enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I started volunteering there when I decided I would apply to the Library and Information Studies program, and later came on as a work-study employee after I was accepted. I bounced around to do a few different things at the Iowa City branch, including some cataloging, preservation/conservation, and special collections (one of my first assignments was working with Civil War and World War I diaries from Iowa veterans, which was challenging and lots of fun). I got to learn about some awesome Iowans through the records they left behind, and their stories are the ones I turn to again and again when I talk with others about the value of preserving history.
I’ve been talking a lot about my dissertation lately (surprise), and wanted to go ahead and stick a quick run down of what I’m doing here too. I’m very excited about the work I’m doing, and I would love to hear your feedback! I’m also happy to share my documentation and talk more about my process with anyone who is interested.
What is this project about?
I started thinking about this topic after being encouraged to look at Ernestine Rose by one of my mentors. The project has evolved over time, and while her career is still the jumping off point, I’m now focusing on her work at the Harlem Public Library in particular. She was at this library from 1920-1942. There are a handful of articles in our field that argue that Rose helped make the library into an innovative community space and an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). While she initially worked to integrate the library by hiring people of color, there are some indications that she dampened her support for the advancement and inclusion of these same folks later on in their careers (Whitmire 2007, 2014).
I’m using the documents held in several New York City repositories (New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch and Schomburg Center, Columbia University archives, and New York Municipal Archives) that relate to the library to describe the library, and also to test two theories (more on why that matters later). There are a couple challenges/considerations that I want to mention right off the bat. My research is very context-heavy, so it’s vital for me to describe that context and how the library fits within it, rather than describing the library as though it exists in a vacuum. Equally as important is discussing the role of other people besides Rose within the library. While my focus is on her career, I don’t want to risk overshadowing the contributions of others by only talking about her.
Why does it matter?
There are several big reasons (in my opinion) why this project is important. First of all, most of what’s out there focuses on the library’s role in the Harlem Renaissance, where became a well-known center for events and a place where authors often went to write (Anderson, 2003; Jenkins, 1990). There is not a lot of information currently about the library during the Great Depression and the beginning years of World Way II, both of which would have presumably had a big impact on the library. In addition, no one has thoroughly discussed her work and the library within the broader context of New York City, the New York Public Library system, or society as a whole throughout this 22 year period.
Additionally, no one has applied the two theoretical frameworks I’m using to historical research. The first of these is a framework I’m developing to analyze change (called, appropriately, Change in Historic Institutions). I’ve made a model of this, and plan to share the model in a more detailed post later on, but for now I’ll just focus on the broad concepts. This model focuses on identifying change, discussing whether that change is innovative or adaptive, and its impact and perceptions. Second, I’m looking at Information Worlds, which envisions actors within the variety of contexts they navigate, and uses five concepts (Information value, information behavior, social norms, social types, and boundaries) to describe those worlds and the interaction between them. Both theories are very broad and adaptable, and very context-focused, making them appropriate for this study. These are drastically oversimplified discussions of both theories, so if you have questions, I’m happy to go into further detail!
Finally, I think this work has the potential to be used by professionals in public library settings. When she was working in Harlem, Ernestine Rose had already had some experience in her career (she was about 40 when she took the job), and would have needed to draw on this experience while remaining adaptable and flexible to meet the needs of a quickly changing neighborhood. Her employees also faced discrimination from the library system, and used their own experiences to make the library a dynamic and community-oriented place. The story of Rose and the library as a whole might offer some useful ideas for modern librarians on what to do (and perhaps what not to do) in their own institutions.
References for your reading pleasure:
Anderson, S. A. (2003). “The Place to Go”: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem Renaissance. Library Quarterly, 73(4): 383–421.
Jenkins, B. L. (1990). A White Librarian in Black Harlem: Study to Chronicle and Assess Ernestine Rose’s Work during the Renaissance in Harlem. Library Quarterly60, 216–231.
Whitmire, E. (2007). Breaking the Color Barrier: Regina Andrews and the New York Public Library. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(4), 409–421.
Whitmire, E. (2014). Regina Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Today I went to the morning portion of a symposium about The Woman’s Building Library at the 1893 World’s Fair. There was so much incredible work shared, and I tweeted it on my feed. Hopefully the afternoon portion will be tweeted by other attendees too! Here is the link to the Twitter search I did for it (I don’t think I can build Twapper Keeper archives any more without upgrading my Hootsuite account), and I’m still searching for comparable alternatives (suggestions welcome!)
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the talks or any resources you would like to share about the World’s Fair. For those still at the symposium, I’ve been using #WorldsFair12 to mark my tweets on the subject.
>I’m working on creating some pretty exciting appendices for my book manuscript at the moment, and the joy of this is getting to review the documents I based my research on so that I can share some of them with readers. In the process, I found this snippet from Grace D. Rose, librarian of Davenport Public Library:
Opening upon a world at war and our country devoting every effort to a vigorous prosecution of her part in the conflict, and closing with the guns at rest and a hopeful looking forward to permanent peace, 1918 was a most eventful year. (Source: Davenport PL 1918 Annual Report, pg 7).
What a way to open the Report of the Librarian! Some of you might remember my post on Helen McRaith of Iowa City, and her beautiful, flowery language when discussing the role of the library in modern life. I love that this sort of beautiful language was being employed in something as seemingly mundane as an annual report–Rose’s writing sounds almost like the opening of a tense piece of homefront fiction. I haven’t spent as much time with more recent annual reports, but it definitely makes me wonder if we’re using equally compelling language to tell our libraries’ stories today.
>For those who read my blog posts a few months ago, you might remember this post where I celebrated the completion of my manuscript on Iowa libraries during World War I. Recently, I heard from a publisher I sent a proposal and sample chapter to, and they made some great suggestions for improvements that they wanted to see before the manuscript was sent through peer review. I wanted to share some thoughts here, but more importantly I wanted to solicit some input from folks who have read my research (or listened to me talk about it). I want my manuscript to be as awesome as possible, and I bet there are some great suggestions out there!
>Being a student of history is a lot of fun because you get to “meet” many interesting characters. Not only do you get to learn a lot about these folks, but sometimes I’ve found that I relate to them and this helps me better understand what it was like to live in the time period(s) I’m looking at. Relating to a historical figure also helps me look at current events differently by placing what happens now in the context of what happened then (and how that individual and the folks around them reacted).
>My awesome friend and colleague, Rachel, might be known to some of you as Librarian in a Banana Suit. She’s been a huge inspiration to me as someone who fights for information access and civil liberties (and was one of the founders of B Sides Journal!) I feel honored that she asked me to be the first guest blogger on her blog (which you should check out regularly, if you haven’t been already). Go to the link below to check it out! Crowdsourcing and Collaboration: 20th Century Style!