The American Public School Library: A History

People love school libraries for a bunch of reasons. Some are obvious. In her autobiography Speaking Truth to Power (1997), Anita Hill remembers a seating system her grade-school teachers crafted to reward achievement—gradually move high-achieving students who finished their assignments early from seats located on an inner schoolroom wall to seats located on an outer wall where, under the windows, teachers had placed the school-room library. After finishing her assignments ahead of her fourth-grade classmates, Hill recalled, she loved the freedom to “simply reach out and pull whatever I wanted from the shelf without leaving my seat or drawing attention to my idleness.” She specifically mentions geography and history books and Nancy Drew mysteries she and her friends frequently shared. Her recollection reflects a thirst for information, a love of libraries and the voluntary reading they enable.

Some reasons people love school libraries are not so obvious, however. In response to an exam question about “library as place” for a course I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison years ago, one student wrote that in the mid-1980s his high school librarian was being pressured to remove titles about homosexuality from the shelves. At the time, he was a sophomore struggling with his own sexual identity, and he needed those books. Then something unusual happened. Title by title the librarian reported the books “lost”—thus satisfying parents and school superiors protesting their presence in the collection–but, my student reported, somehow he and his gay friends soon discovered these “lost” books had actually been “misshelved” behind others in a remote part of the library. There they could access the books freely, and all understood that any book taken from the collection (which need not be checked out since it was officially “lost”) had to be returned to the same place. The collection was still there—intact and including a few newer donated titles—the day he graduated.

As of this writing, more than 94,000 school library/media centers exist in the United States, 80,000 of which are public school libraries. For the 20th century alone the American public school library can boast a rich history of service to tens of thousands of school teachers and administrators and millions of K-12 users of both sexes, all creeds, races, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and social classes.  Despite the fact that the American public school library is ubiquitous, however, no one from the education or the library and information science (LIS) research communities has yet written a comprehensive history of the institution to help identify and deepen understanding of its multiple roles and to provide perspective to leaders now creating policy, planning its future, and fighting for its funding.

In recent years school libraries have fallen on hard times. In an environment where teachers are compelled to teach to the test, where emphasis is on learning for success, and where, in the mix, a diminishing amount of state support forces local school systems to cancel programs in subjects like foreign languages and literatures, school systems are reducing expenditures for school libraries. Some lay off school librarians, others buy fewer books, still others do both. “Why do we need school libraries when we have public libraries?” many superintendents and school board members ask. “Why do we need libraries when students can get all that information on the Internet?” argue many taxpayers.

I intend to write a history of the American public school library that will ask a vital but simple question: “What does the historical record tell us about the value of the American public school library?” The book will cover the basic facts of school library history that are easy to discover in the printed record, including the role of professional associations and the impact of new technologies. What I find lacking in the historical record, however, is testimony about the kinds of things Anita Hill and my former student found so valuable about reading and library as place. And that is why I turn to you.

Linked here are two questionnaires–one for school librarians, the other for the public–specifically designed to address the historical value of school library reading and the school library as a place. My hope is that large numbers of school librarians and former school library users will help me make my history of the American public school library even more comprehensive by filling out these questionnaires by November 1, 2017, the date on which I hope to begin writing a history of the American public school library.


Author: Wayne Wiegand

Often called “the Dean of American library historians,” Wayne A. Wiegand is F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies Emeritus at Florida State University. From January to May, 2017, he was Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center to research a history of the American public school library. This summer he will use a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend and a Gale Cengage History Research and Innovation Award administered by the History Section of ALA’s RUSA to fund two month’s research in the ALA and AASL archives at the University of Illinois.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

1 reply

  1. Nice

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