Themes Through The Ages

A group of children smiling and standing in front of books stacks.
Children at Drew Court Branch Library, Sylacauga, Alabama, August 1955.  Courtesy of American Library Association Archives

Intellectual freedom has been one of the key themes in the historiography of libraries, and there are many others to explore.  In fact, almost any theme in the broader flow of history shaped, and was shaped by, the work of libraries.  For example, the spread of literacy, development of publishing houses, civil rights movement, rise of the space program, wars, depressions, and almost all social reform efforts manifested themselves in library history, as an overview of works by library scholars will show.  Enjoy these notes about various themes in the history of libraries.

Note (May 12, 2023): 19th Century American Capitalism and the Public Library

Author Bio: Megan Shepherd is a student in IUPUI’s MLIS program, having previously obtained her BA in English from Indiana University Bloomington in 2021. She is set to graduate with her MLIS in the summer of 2023. Megan currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana where she works as a Public Services Associate at the West Indianapolis branch of the Indianapolis Public Library. She hopes to continue her work in the field of public librarianship with an emphasis on providing services to underserved communities.

Intro from the Editor: Ms. Shepherd has written a lucid and splendid analysis of the link between American capitalism and public libraries. Her paper starts by pointing out over half of America’s free public libraries were in New England prior to 1876 according to a study by Haynes McMullen—and New England was one of the seedbeds of the American Industrial Revolution. The wealth generated by the region’s new industries provided the funding for the creation of free public libraries.

Ms. Shepherd then traces several other ways the industrial economy and public libraries were connected. The interplay between the public library and capitalism was intricate:

“the public library became the factory that produced better people; the citizen became a product. Books were thus seen as a medium for creating this new product…The public library became the machinery that manufactured well-informed citizens, and in turn, these educated citizens were the ones working the machinery in factories to manufacture products to be sold. This belief came up constantly…” (p. 7).

Another way public libraries sustained the growth of capitalism was by offering a way that citizens could educate and train themselves to become more competitive workers and rise up through the corporate ranks. Libraries also helped wealthy factory owners varnish their reputations, making them appear benevolent to workers and channeling them away from unionism. Ms. Shepherd also reveals that the capitalist-library nexus exploited women and minority groups.

Ms. Shepherd’s paper demonstrates how library history can be empowering for social justice. Knowing this chapter of history can inspire today’s library workers “to examine their motives in providing library services, work to uplift the silenced voices of the past, and be the change in the system that is desperately needed” (pp. 18-19).

This is an excellent and eye-opening read! Trace more of the links between capitalism and public libraries in Ms. Shepherd’s paper:

Note (May 12, 2023): The History of American Censorship

Author Bio:  Jacob Shriner holds BA degrees in studio art and general studies and a MLIS degree from Indiana University. His academic research interests include American, art, and library history. He currently works as a free-lance artist and a public library cataloger in Warsaw, Indiana. He will be pursuing further graduate study in history and is interested in archives, academic library, or museum work.

Intro from the Editor: The blog would like to thank Jacob Shriner for submitting an eloquently-written paper on a very timely issue for libraries—censorship. Mr. Shriner notes that while debates over censorship have come to the fore in our time, the specter of censorship has haunted the American landscape from the beginning of the nation. He offers an excellent and interesting overview of the topic that will draw you in from the first paragraph, which recounts the story of the first case of book banning in the United States in Puritan New England. We also learn about attempts by the federal government to censor materials, as with the Alien and Sedition Acts or McCarthyism.

However, sadly enough, libraries also engaged in censorship. Mr. Shriner notes that censorship efforts were often directed against works expressing minority viewpoints. Many libraries were controlled by white males who focused on collecting books by and about fellow white males to the exclusion of books by members of minority groups. Shockingly, some Jim Crow-era Southern libraries went so far as to Carnegie grants so that they would not have to offer books by Black authors. Racism and prejudice even lead to censorship through the professional tools of librarianship, as for example when Periodicals for the Small Library (1928) advised librarians to avoid collecting materials by minority authors.

Mr. Shriner points out that understanding the history of censorship can help us fight it today:

“American society has frequently fallen far short of actualizing the democratic principles it seeks to promote. That is not to say that such noble aspirations are unachievable. On the contrary, it speaks to the urgency with which we must strive to better understand the nature and origins of our shortcomings so as to more fully and effectively set ourselves to the task of realizing in practice the ideals we aspire to.”

You can read his full paper here: 

Note (February 1, 2022): Political Campaign Comic Books in Alabama, 1958-1966

By S. Amanda Shelton

Author Bio: Amanda Shelton is a student in the MLIS program at the University of Missouri. Prior to starting the MLIS program, she worked in both political offices and a state archives. She holds a BA in International Studies from the University of Missouri and JD from Georgetown University Law Center. Shelton currently lives in Montgomery, Alabama.

Intro from the Editor: Many thanks to Ms. Shelton, a student in Dr. Jenny Bossaller’s IS_LT 9428: History of Books and Media course at the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies, University of Missouri, for this excellent analysis of an intriguing genre of books!  As we learn in her article, people have created comic books for entertainment; but they have also designed comic books to try to influence elections. Political campaign comic books of 20th century America are bursting with meaning.  Ms. Shelton notes that “history shows that the comic book medium can also be used by vastly different stakeholders to inform and persuade readers on important societal questions and ideas” (p. 2).  She traces how the power of comics played out in civil rights-era Alabama.  The result is a very interesting, thought-provoking essay about the history of books.  Enjoy her full article: Political Campaign Comic Books in Alabama, 1958-1966

And here is some bonus material from our author! Browse through these online exhibits of political comic books which Ms. Shelton used in her research and annotated for us below:

The Lowndes County comic books were created by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. All of these comic books are available online through the Civil Rights Movement Archive:
The George Wallace and John Patterson comic books referenced in the article were created by a for-profit company called Commercial Comics, Inc. Both of the comic books are available online through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries:
More generally, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a large collection of digitized political comic books available for view online at the following link:

Note (October 19, 2021): Classics Are Forever – Select Examples from the Salar Jung Museum Library, Hyderabad, India

By Soma Ghosh

Author Bio: Librarian and Media Officer at Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India with an M.Phil in Library Science and diplomas in Museology and Manuscriptology. Areas of academic interest are Library and Art history and has authored books. Curates exhibits on Google Arts and Culture, and is currently engaged with emerging technologies for libraries.

Intro from the Editor: In this latest installment from Soma Ghosh, we are able to savor some of the classic books held by Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India.  Again, beautifully illustrated and arranged.  You will find works of Indian, British, and American authors. Enjoy the full piece!: Classics Are Forever.

Note (August 5, 2021): Gifts from the Nawabs – Autographed Books from the ‘Asaf Jahi’ Times of Deccan History (1724 to1948 A.D) of India

By Soma Ghosh

Author Bio: Librarian and Media Officer at Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India with an M.Phil in Library Science and diplomas in Museology and Manuscriptology. Areas of academic interest are Library and Art history and has authored books. Curates exhibits on Google Arts and Culture, and is currently engaged with emerging technologies for libraries.

Intro from the Editor: Much appreciation to Soma Ghosh for another fascinating piece on a historic collection from her library!  In this article, we learn of the reading culture of the Nawabs, the nobility of the Indian state of Hyderabad.  We also find excerpts from Sarojini Naidu, a poet who helped inspire Mahatma Gandhi and became known as the “The Nightingale of India.” Her radiant lyrics help to galvanize the Indian independence movement.  Beautifully illustrated and arranged, this excellent article offers us a tour through rare books and other treasures from the library of the Salar Jung Museum: Gifts from the Nawabs

Magnificent white building set against a blue sky, several domes on the roof, flags out front.
Salar Jung Museum and Library, Hyderabad, India.

Note (July 2, 2021): Journeys to India – 17th and 18th-century Travelogues in the Salar Jung Museum Library, Hyderabad, India

By Soma Ghosh

Author Bio: Librarian and Media Officer at Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India with an M.Phil in Library Science and diplomas in Museology and Manuscriptology. Areas of academic interest are Library and Art history and has authored books. Curates exhibits on Google Arts and Culture, and is currently engaged with emerging technologies for libraries.

Intro from the Editor:  By collecting travelogues, a library opens up portals to other times and places.  Travelogues preserve the themes of a period and region, and often capture cultural interactions between the travelers and the people of an area.  Learn about the history of the Salar Jung Museum and Library, and then take some journeys through India via the travelogues showcased in this essay.  It is accompanied by beautiful illustrations and scans of selections from the sources.  Many thanks to Soma Ghosh for sharing from her library’s rich history and collection!  Find her essay here: Journeys to India.

Note (December 23, 2020): The Role and Reception of Slaves in Ancient Roman Libraries

By Emily Banach

Author Bio: Emily Banach is currently a student in the MLIS Program at Syracuse University. She received her BA in English and Classical Languages from Binghamton University, SUNY in 2019. Her career goals are to work in either an archive or an academic library.

Intro from the Editor: Ms. Banach traces the role of an overlooked group of library workers–the slaves who served in ancient Roman libraries.  These workers carried out tasks ranging from copying scrolls and retrieving items for patrons, to serving as department heads and directors, depending on their skill sets and experience.  For some, library work provided a pathway out of slavery as they were rewarded for their diligence with freedom.

a white marble statute of Cicero
Cicero. Image by Dezalb from Pixabay.

Ms. Banach discusses several specific slaves, including Tiro, the slave who stewarded Cicero’s library.  Their stories help us realize that these little-known librarians likely supplied a great deal of the behind-the-scenes work that made the classical speeches and literature we have today possible.

This is a very interesting read, an eye-opening essay that brings much-needed recognition to the information work of an oppressed library staff group.  Brilliantly combining her background in classics and library science, Ms. Banach has done an excellent job in translating Latin phrases, scouring the historiography for references  to library slaves, and painting the background of ancient Roman society.  Enjoy her  full essay here: The Role and Reception of Slaves in Ancient Roman Libraries.

Note (May 20, 2020): Librarianship and Neutrality: Thoughts on the Core Values of Diversity and Social Responsibility

By Tara Peace

Author Bio: Tara Peace is currently working on her MLIS from the University of Alabama, having obtained her Bachelor’s in History from James Madison University in 2008 and her Master’s in History from California State University, East Bay in 2017. She is pursuing a career in academic libraries, with the desire to be a liaison librarian for the humanities.

Intro from the Editor: One of the central themes in the history of librarianship is the pursuit of neutrality.  Librarians, it was said, should build their collections without regard to their own religious, political, or social views.  In this thought-provoking, well-written, and passionate essay, Ms. Peace challenges the notion of neutrality as the core value of the profession, contending that library workers have never been able to be truly neutral, and that we should take diversity and social responsibility as our professional ideals instead.  She makes a cogent point–half of the core values of the American Library Association already deal with social justice.  She notes that “libraries can be pillars of social justice within their communities. By developing collections and showcasing displays that offer representation of marginalized groups, libraries will be able to highlight the rich diversity of their communities” (p. 4).  And, it is possible to be socially responsible without being partisan.  Find out more in Librarianship and Neutrality: Thoughts on the Core Values of  Diversity and Social Responsibility.

Note (May 20, 2020): Female Librarians and the Civil Rights Movement

By Aspasia Luster 

Author Bio: Aspasia Luster currently works as a Senior Library Assistant in the Access Services Department at Reese Library, Augusta University, Augusta, GA. She received her BA degree in Anthropology from Augusta University and is currently enrolled in the MLIS program at Valdosta State University. She enjoys learning about all aspects of library science and her current research interests include access services, information behavior, and the intersection of library history and women’s history.

Intro from the Editor: Ms. Luster offers a great tribute to the African-American female librarians who helped make libraries equal for all in this post.  In this engaging essay, she begins by recounting just how segregated library services were in the American South– with separate facilities in many Southern towns, and, where there were no separate facilities, African-Americans had to receive service through back doors of white libraries.  Outrageously, segregated black and white libraries were not even permitted to interlibrary loan materials to each other, as patrons of one race were not allowed to handle books from the other race’s libraries!  Many African-American libraries received hand-me-down books and meager funding.

However, courageous, resourceful African-American librarians offered collections and services to their patrons by such means as raising money for African-American-authored books through community events like plays,  and by creating “deposit stations” that widened African-American access to materials (these intriguing stations were similar to small reading rooms).  Leaders such as Juliette Hampton Morgan and Mollie Huston Lee helped win the war against bigotry and broke down the rigid rules of separateness through relentless letter-writing campaigns and vigorous advocacy.  Find more inspiration from these leaders in Ms. Luster’s paper: Female Librarians and the Civil Rights Movement

Note (May 15, 2018): The Evolution of Feminine Sexuality in Print Culture: A Look at Print Culture from the 18th Century to the 21st Century

By Samantha J. Huff, University of Alabama

Author Bio: Samantha Huff is a Book Arts graduate student studying at the University of Alabama. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Alabama in December 2017. She is currently in the process of applying to the School of Library and Information Studies master’s program. Her career goal is to work in academic libraries as a librarian and also specialize in conservation work. 

Intro from the Editor: I’m delighted to share an excellent paper composed from a book arts perspective!  In her study, Ms. Huff traces changes in the portrayal of women in print culture over centuries, and how these changes both reflected and shaped cultural beliefs about women.  Her paper features several advertisements from various time periods accompanied by analysis, as well as extracts from a variety of print artifacts. Ms. Huff has done a splendid job connecting book history with the broader culture.  I hope the blog can publish more essays that use her approach.  Most significantly, her essay accentuates the need for greater justice for women, which will entail using print culture as a platform for social change and advocacy. Check out her full paper: The Evolution of Feminine Sexuality in Print Culture

Note (June 28, 2017): A History of Christian Publishing in Grand Rapids: How Four Families Shaped an Industry

By Erinn Huebner, Wayne State University

Author Bio: Erinn Huebner is a student in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at Wayne State University. She received her BA in Spanish Literature and History from Grand Valley State University. She currently works as a para-professional in the Bultema Memorial Library at Grace Bible College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Intro from the Editor: “Beginning from humble origins in a small Dutch immigrant kolonie in Grand Rapids, Michigan, two families diverged into four Evangelical publishing houses that have, through shrewd business practices, financial frugality, and the sheer forces of faith and will, impacted the globe over the course a little more than a century” (p. 19).   Ms. Huebner thus summarizes the historical significance of the four great publishing houses of Grand Rapids–Kregel, Baker, Eerdmans, and Zondervan.  I found this paper fascinating because the story draws from original interviews conducted by the author with descendants of the first publishers; it chronicles a little known part of book history; and it sets the story against the backdrop of Dutch Calvinist immigration to the United States.  Note in her paper the ingenuity and faith of the publishers: they utilized typewriters and mimeographs for their early production, clever mail ordering systems for distribution, partnerships with local colleges to recruit labor, and a chicken coop for a book storage warehouse!  Ms. Huebner concludes that “authors and publishers alike deal in ideas—those which inspire, incite debate, educate and call for action. That’s what these four firms have done for a little over a century, and hopefully, with God’s blessing, will continue to do for another” (p. 20).  Originally presented as a poster session at the Association of Christian Librarians’ 2017 Conference.  Wonderfully done, Ms. Huebner!  Read Ms. Huebner’s full paper here: A History of Christian Publishing in Grand Rapids


Note (August 22, 2016): Literacy and Libraries in Sixteenth Century England

By Christine A. Egger

Author Bio: Ms. Egger recently finished her Master’s degree in Library Science from Emporia State University’s School of Library and Information Management.

Author’s Introduction: The library is an important part of the community. People visit the library for a variety of reasons – to check out materials like books and movies. Moms bring their tots to story time to partake of a book and activities that relate to the book. Teens come and hang out with their friends. It wasn’t always like that. In sixteenth century England, libraries were not common and the literacy rate was low. In this paper, it is my intention to explore literacy and the libraries in sixteenth century England. For the purposes of this paper, “literacy” is defined as a person’s ability to read and write and “libraries” are generally defined as institutions, whether private or public, where literary resources like books, maps, scientific papers and historical records, are purposely collected and stored for protection and use. This paper will place the heaviest weight on studying literacy in sixteenth century England, and then spend some time describing the types of libraries that were prevalent in the sixteenth century.  Click this link to read Ms. Egger’s full essay: Literacy and Libraries in Sixteenth Century England.