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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Mabel Dunham: Librarianship as a Profession for Women, May 1921

    At the end of her year as president of the Ontario Library Association in March 1921, B. Mabel Dunham, the chief librarian of the Kitchener Public Library since 1908, selected a topic of major importance at the OLA’s twenty-first meeting: “Library Work as a Profession for Women.” For the most part, press reports shortened the topic by omitting “for Women” but briefly reported her main remarks. Library journals, such as Public Libraries, which covered the meeting in its May issue, had little to say about Dunham’s speech. It reported, “Miss Dunham’s paper was a very able plea for library work as a means of service to the community and development of one’s highest personality.” The Library Journal reported that “Miss Dunham ranks library work as one of the high callings for women, inasmuch as it presents an opportunity for service to the community and for building up one’s own character and personality.” The synopsis in the May issue of the Ontario Library Review observed that she “upheld the high ideals of our calling.” An experienced librarian, Marjorie Jarvis, from Toronto’s reference library, provided the most detail for the Review:

She spoke of the present lack of standards, of positions given to local applicants instead of trained workers, of the indifference of many library boards, who consider a board meeting a social event. Against this she set the opportunities library work afford both of self-education and then of wide influence, the openings for originality and initiative. These she pointed out were attractive to the college graduate who felt her responsibility for service and had the trained mind and wide mental outlook which were necessary for one who wished to do ‘pioneer work in a new educational field.’

If Mabel Dunham hoped to arouse vigorous discussion at the Association, she would not be entirely satisfied. There had been many articles on professionalism in libraries and women’s entry into librarianship for three decades, especially in the United States. However, she felt it necessary to address these issues in the current postwar era when new expectations were being formed about Canadian society in the 1920s.

Mabel Dunham introduced her topic by outlining women’s societal progress before linking professional work in libraries with young female university graduates. Her viewpoint took for granted whiteness and middle-class values in the field of library work for professionally minded women—the “few favored ones.” She did not address the position of library assistants or women, such as the Bishop Strachan School graduate Marjorie Jarvis, who relied on lesser educational qualifications and experience to gain a reputation in libraries. Excerpts from her speech, which resides at the Archives of Ontario in the Ontario Library Association fonds on microfilm holdings MS-907, follow.

    “These are days when women are filling a much great place in public life in Canada than ever before. Half a century ago it was a universally-accepted belief that women’s sphere was in the home, but now the most confirmed woman-hater is discreetly silent, though he sees women engaged in all manner of competitions once sacred to the lords of creation. Women work in our factories, our stores, our banks; they are to be found in medicine, in law and in the applied sciences. They serve on our municipal boards, on our provincial commissions and they have invaded the unholy realm of politics. They have, perhaps as a result of the nature of their work in the world war, come to realize that, as citizens, it is their native right and also their duty not to complete with men as rivals but to cooperate with them in the common task of making Canada a better place for men and women and little children to live in.

    “Unfortunately, the great majority of women of Canada are allowed to begin the battle of life with but very little training. When they have passed through the elementary schools at the age of fourteen or fifteen, they enter industrial or domestic, or commercial life. Naturally enough, they are fit for little else than manual labor. They give themselves up to the monotony of a life of routine and rarely rise above it. Some are fortunate enough to be able to attend the secondary schools and at eighteen or thereabouts they find themselves called upon to choose among the callings that are open to women of their training. A very few favored ones there are for whom the choice of a profession is postponed until after they have graduated from the university.

    “Canadian women are availing themselves of the advantage of higher education and year by year an increasing number of young women graduate from our universities. Eagerly they have been looking from their cloistered windows into the busy world and trying to find a place in it for themselves. Not one of them but hopes ‘to serve the present age,’ as to live and work among people of education and refinement, to be in a position to continue her own education, and, withal, to earn at least a competence. These are the requisites of a happy life.

     “Prominent among the professions that come up for consideration when a girl is choosing her vocation in life is Library work. She has learned to love the college library, its corridors, its books, its very silences. She has proved it to be a friend in need and a very present help in time of trouble. She remembers that it is more blessed to give than to receive and she pictures herself in a librarian’s chair, doing for others what others have done for her.  ... To be in a position to direct the reading and thinking of a whole community is a work that comes to her as a challenge. To be able at the same time to continue her own education amid the most pleasant surroundings she regards as a privilege.

    “It is a profession that is eminently suited to women. If numbers prove anything, it is, like teaching, a profession that men use as a stepping-stone to other professions but this cannot be said of the men engaged in library work in Canada. They have drifted into the profession from many other walks in life and they hold their positions, like our judges, for life and good conduct. They are for the most part managers of large libraries and are surrounded by a corps of assistants who are either trained or experienced workers in the various departments of library service. There are a few women who have shown themselves not only capable managers of large libraries but also conversant with the work of every department, and through the country the majority of workers holding important library posts are women.

B. Mabel Dunham, c.1920
Mabel Dunham, n.d. (c. 1920)

    “But, although there are good positions in library work in Canada, there are few openings and advancement in the profession is slow and uncertain. There are too many instances of University women who have taken library courses but who have failed to get a footing in the library world. When vacancies occur, preference is usually given to local applicants without any special regard for educational or professional qualifications. That there are pecuniary considerations back of these conditions I will not deny. Library appointments, when once made, are more or less permanent. Year after year goes by and no questions are raised as to the competency of the person appointed, no inquiry is made into the measure of her development intellectually and professionally, an no interest is shown in the reputation of the Library either locally or provincially. Too many librarians, whether they realize it or not, are merely marking time. The tragedy of it is that nobody seems to care so long as they keep off other people’s corns. This fact cannot be gainsaid, the majority of women engaged in library work in Canada began in their own home town and have not departed from it.

    The result of this practice has been that library work, in Ontario at least, is called a profession by courtesy only. To state that a woman is a librarian means nothing at all. It means something to be called a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, or a lawyer. Everyone knows without being told that these persons have successfully passed certain examinations, both academic and professional. There are certain standards to which they must have attained. ... But in library work there are no such standards set. For years the bars have been down to all comers and, naturally enough, a number of untrained people have wandered in. These have unintentionally though non the less effectively, kept low the status of library work as a profession.

    “The librarian has so much to do with her Library Board that she is wise if she considers well, before accepting an appointment, whether or not she can work with them. It is not always an easy task to please nine men with nine different minds, and the presence of women on the Board may accentual the difficulty.

    “But along with the limitations and weaknesses of library work as a profession there are many compensations. It has, indeed, very much to commend it as a profession for earnest, trained women.

    “Certainly it is educational work and it is only for the ignorant who despise education. Every thoughtful man and woman knows that all true education has for its object the formation of character, and, after all, character is the one thing in all that really matters. The Public Library is or should be an integral part of public education. By all the rules of logic it is evident that library work is a holy service.

    “Leisure is not only a test of character but, and this means more to the educationalists, it furnishes a life-long opportunity to develop and mould character. For this reason it is sacred.

    “The Public Library is the one institution that has in view the education and culture of the people by their own volition during their periods of leisure. ... People come and read because they love to read or because they are in need of help which the Library can afford. ... The librarian meets, under the most pleasant conditions, people whom she would never meet through any school, or club, or office, or church, people of all ages, all races, and all creeds. She creates a municipal home where all may meet as equals by the common right of citizenship. ... She becomes a friend and co-worker with the teachers, the preachers and all others who have at heart the public weal and the library under her management becomes a mighty social factor in the community.

    “Another boon library work has to offer, namely the priceless privilege of showing initiative and originality. ... The librarian who would be worthy of the profession she has chosen must be awake and resourceful. There is no room for automatons in library work, for it is a pioneer effort in a relatively new educational field and only those can follow the plough and dig well the furrows who know the rules and are willing to use both hands.

   “It is to equip boys and girls with the keys that will open the doors to great storehouses of literature that their father knew not of. It is to create within them such interests and ambitions as will help them to avoid many of the pitfalls of life into which boys and girls of an earlier generation have fallen. It is, in short, to raise the type of men and women of the Canada of to-morrow.

   “But no woman, however brilliant and earnest, should undertake library work without some measure of professional training.  ... A librarian must learn to know books by their index and contents pages, to use them not only as sources of information but as tools to guide her to information in other books. She must know how to select books wisely and how to buy them economically. She must familiarize herself with systems of classification and methods of cataloguing. She should know what equipment is necessary and where to procure it most advantageously. She must understand methods in staff and budget management and she must be able to think of things so automatically that she will not waste her energies on the mere machinery of library work and run the risk of losing sight of the real meaning and object behind all her work.

    “The pity of it is that so many of us librarians of experience seem to be people of circumscribed vision. ... There is a verse somewhere in the Bible which reads: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ I trust that I may not some day be found guilty of distorting or misapplying scripture if I suggest that it may have some bearing on the library situation in the Province of Ontario in this our day of grace.”

Mabel Dunham’s comments speak to an emerging profession in Ontario after the Great War. She was wholeheartedly in favour of providing advanced library training for young women seeking a professional career. At the same time, she cautioned that librarianship was circumscribed by few openings, beset by uncertain advancement, and impeded by some male directors who regarded their board tenure as a right. Library work is a “holy service,” Dunham declared when she sought to encourage the young female university graduate to better her career opportunities and develop her character. The 1920s would witness the establishment of graduate library education at the University of Toronto and McGill University and the increase of women as administrators in public libraries in Ontario.

Further reading:

Mabel Dunham’s biography is at Wikipedia and the Ex Libris Association biography website.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Presidential speech by Mary J.L. Black to the Ontario Library Association, Easter 1918

    On April 10, 1917, Mary J.L. Black was elected president of the Ontario Library Association (OLA). She was the first female to hold this position. In the first part of the twentieth century, presidential positions for women in Anglo-American library associations were unusual. Theresa Elmendorf was elected president of the American Library Association in 1911, followed by Mary Wright Plummer in 1915. It was not until half a century later, in 1966, that the Library Association (UK) elected Lorna Paulin president. Mary Black and Helen Gordon Stewart, who was elected president of the British Columbia Library Association in September 1917, were the first women to break the presidential gender barrier in Canadian librarianship. Their executive offices came in the same year that women over the age of 21 who were born or naturalized British subjects became legally eligible to vote in provincial elections. Black mentioned this in passing when she accepted her position:

“I recognize also that the selection is not an entirely personal one. I realize, in the first place as the first woman President of this Association, that the Association is making a very great innovation. I would not like to say a step in advance but a wonderful innovation that I think could only have been introduced in this great democratic country of Ontario. Here we have obtained the suffrage without working or even asking for it. We did not have to go out and create strife and disorder in order to gain this great privilege.”

Her brief remarks were well received in general, but one wonders whether some in her audience felt she had neglected to praise the strenuous effort made by the suffragette movement to achieve this right. Attaining the right to vote was no easy task, for it was not until the following year, on May 24, 1918, that women who were citizens (nominally British subjects) became eligible to vote federally on the same terms as men. Although Black was actively engaged with women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Canadian Club and Girl Guides, she was satisfied with the position that women were on an equal standing with men. She did not emphasize any feminine skills that may have advantaged women in providing library service.

    Mary Black was a captivating speaker and a progressive librarian who championed the idea of public service during her lengthy career as chief librarian of the Fort William Public Library from 1909 to 1937. Her brief talks at the OLA annual meetings in Toronto and her performance as a librarian had rapidly gained her the respect of her colleagues. By 1917, she was invited to give a lecture on libraries to students at the Department of Education’s library school. Black was eager to rectify the conventional conservative, bookish images of the library and librarians when the Association met at the Public Reference Library on College Street in Toronto. This purpose formed the core of her Easter presidential speech on April 1, 1918, when Black used a humorous theme to demolish what she termed “popular fallacies” held about libraries and librarians. She began in a serious tone because the war in Europe was still raging—its conclusion was still an unknown. She asked a series of questions: “Our Motto for our convention this year is ‘Service.’ It is perhaps a rather hackneyed one, but how could we get away from the choice? What else is there for us to think about, in this year of Grace, 1918, when all the rest of the civilized world is thinking of nothing else? What explanation have we for being where we are? … What can we as librarians do to show that we too are serving? Is the task in which we are engaged, be it great or small, an essential one?”

Mary J.L. Black, c.1918
Mary J.L. Black, c. 1918

Her answer followed the wartime public mood that the post-war would be the time for new beginnings. “Now, however, times have changed. The psychological moment for aggressive construction has arrived, and one of the first difficulties that present itself is the accumulation of false impressions of the library and its aims, to be found both among the general public, and many actual library workers, which stands as a barrier to our progress. As is often the case with popular fallacies, many of these have a shade of truth in them, but not a sufficient amount to make their influence other than prejudicial to the library.” 

    What were these popular misconceptions that Mary Black sought to negate? She gave an energetic address about several major fallacies held by the public, by library workers, and by both that she felt needed to be thoughtfully considered and remedied.

• — “anyone who works in a library is a librarian.” She denied getting a salary or passing examinations qualified one to be a librarian. Instead, she felt individuals needed to possess the “spirit of librarianship,” a characteristic that she developed in stages in her talk. Black believed librarianship was in a maturation stage; its spirit consisted of the service ethic, knowledge of people, book expertise, library training, and business acumen.

• — the “librarian is almost omniscient, and if she is not, then she should be.” She responded by saying everyone had intellectual limitations and that it was the librarian’s duty to know where to find information, not to be a walking encyclopedia. To be successful, the librarian had to have the “personal touch” and demonstrate “heart and soul” rather than the impressive intellectual strength which Black humorously associated with the era of “bluestockings.”

• — “Many people view the desirability of the library being in the town, in much the same way as that the church which is never entered is considered. Its general influence is good, and it is a very desirable ornament ....” She said creating public awareness about the library as a community resource was an important step in promoting service. Libraries had to cater to all tastes: “If a library is not an embodiment of democracy and universal in its service, it is not fulfilling its functions. Another function was to show people that they own the library and that “if they do not see what they want, it is their right to ask for it.” Unfortunately, she felt too few librarians could explain to readers the arrangement of books and their connection with a catalogue.

• — the librarians “failure to understand, that they are only employees of the public.” A supercilious tone and standing over readers to protect books was not a proper way to cultivate the public’s trust. Understanding the range of citizens’ needs and engaging people directly was a primary quality.

• — the tendency for “librarians take their work too seriously; that the library is only a business concern, in which they are engaged to give a definite service, for a wage.” Wrong, of course! “The library employee who does not experience the pleasure of wanting to do work for which she knows she will never be paid, is very foolish to remain in it. Librarianship is undoubtedly a profession, even though a very immature one, and the person who thinks differently is holding a fallacy, the dissemination of which will do great harm.” She recommended terminating library workers who could not grasp this essential attribute.

• — “it does not do us any injury for them [librarians] to write humorous articles for general publication taking as their topic, the foibles and limitations of librarians, and the absurdity of many of our beliefs.” Wrong, again. There is a fine line to humour:  she asked if library workers did not take their work seriously, who would?

• — “Is there not, however, a very general fallacy held by us, that in having defined our work, we have accomplished it?” She believed carrying the right book to the right reader was the fundamental mission of the public library. Yet, more could be done: “our library unit is too confined, and we must have it changed from the municipality to the township, county, or district, in order to really reach the people of the province.” She realized Ontario’s public library system in 1918 had a narrow reach. “When are we going to get to work and show the people of Ontario that the mistakes and errors of the past have not been in vain, but having learned our lesson, we are able now to go ahead, with a willing and cheery heart, confident that ways and means will be found for the library's fullest development?” It was a call to action.

    Mary Black briefly mentioned, but did not elaborate, on other popular public fallacies such as the failure to see that library was a non-sectarian institution, that the library catered to “the supposed ignorance and innocence of the high school girl,” or that the library censored items or had no right to exclude anything in its collection. She said these false impressions would take her an entire evening to discuss, not a short half-hour speech. The President was more concerned about emphasizing the importance of public service. “We too do serve!” should be a rallying cry for library workers across the province, especially during wartime. During her presidential year, she spoke at  small gatherings to promote libraries.

    During her lengthy career, Mary Black tirelessly promoted the service ethic and work with immigrants in public libraries. The reputation of the Fort William Public Library grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s. At the outset of the 1930, she served as one of the three Canadian commissioners for the American Library Association’s survey, Libraries in Canada: A Study of Library Conditions and Needs, published in 1933. She retired, in 1937, due to ill health and died in Vancouver on 4 January 1939.

Further reading:

Mary Black’s entire speech can be viewed on the Internet Archive of books for the Ontario Library Association Proceedings and also in the May 1918 issue of Public Libraries.

Read Mary Black’s biography in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography authored by Brent Scollie.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Alexander Calhoun defends The Grapes of Wrath in Calgary, 1940

“The problem of obscenity in books is undoubtedly a very thorny one for librarians. Possibly the only confident statement one dare make on the subject is that there has been in the last generation a marked increase of tolerance on the part of the public toward obscenity in literature. In the main, I think, this is a sign of progress.” — Alexander Calhoun, March 16, 1940, Calgary Herald.

    When the Viking Press published John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, it was generally greeted with critical acclaim in North America. Steinbeck’s masterful story followed the fictional Joad family’s trek to the promised land of California and their struggles once heartbreaking reality shattered their hopeful vision. The novel quickly reached the top of bestseller lists. Its renown gained Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize for Novels and a National Book Award for Fiction within a year. The 1940 movie version starring Henry Fonda was equally successful at box offices.

    Canadian customs officials did not prohibit the importation of the novel into Canada. It was legally published and available for sale. But the novel was also greeted by many opponents who felt Steinbeck employed obscene/foul language, described overt sexual affairs, indulged in religious profanity, and sympathized with dangerous socialist/communist ideas. Some libraries in the United States, such as Buffalo, refused to purchase it; there were a few book burning as well. In Toronto, there were complaints from library patrons that The Grapes of Wrath was not available even a year later, in early 1940. The Chief Librarian, Charles Sanderson, told the Toronto Star that it was one of the books that the library would not buy. Higher literary standards—the highbrow culture of exclusion—often prevailed among library selectors and cautious library administrators.

    However, one library director in Canada, Alexander Calhoun at Calgary Public Library, defended Steinbeck’s work and made a case for its selection and retention in libraries. Calhoun had tentatively decided not to order it when the first reviews came out in early 1939. The American Library Association’s review publication, Booklist, had called attention to Steinbeck’s use of “natural language” and recommended the book be read prior to purchase. Later in the year, Booklist published Helen E. Haines’ article “Values of Fiction” which praised Steinbeck’s novel. She was a reputable American library educator whose judgements were noteworthy. Calhoun decided to read the novel; then he placed an order for the Calgary library.

    Faced in early March 1940 with a complaint by a Calgary city alderman, Hedley C. Chauncey, Calhoun explained his rationale in an opinion piece in Calgary Herald: “My own opinion is that it is so significant as a social document that no library worth of the name should be without a copy.”  He said that a few libraries had banned Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen, although it contained passages of a pornographic nature more shocking than anything in Grapes. He pointed to an American judge’s decision in 1933 to lift the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses. This important ruling clarified a few matters about what could be judged pornographic:

1939 book cover
1939 book cover

(1) what was the author’s intention: to write a pornographic book?
(2) a book should be judged as a whole, not by any of its parts or excerpts;
(3) the standard of reference for obscenity should be for a typical adult, not minors;
(4) “dirty,” realistic language is not necessarily pornographic or obscene when taken in a broader context of the book.

This landmark decision eventually opened the door for the publication of serious works of literature that used coarse language or depicted sexual subjects.

    Calhoun explained that his own judgement was only one part that formed his decision. He asked his staff to read the book, and he also looked into the opinion of Calgary library readers. All eleven staff reported they favoured the book’s retention. Calhoun mentioned there had been no demands from readers to have the book removed from library shelves by its many readers. And he had listened to the NBC Network’s radio talk show, America’s Town Meeting of the Air program, “What should America do for the Joads?” Calgary’s library director, along with millions, had tuned in to hear this program on March 7th. He felt the show likely would lead to further investigation of social problems raised in the book by Steinbeck. He closed his opinion piece by commenting that “no minor will be given the book to read without the clear approval of his parents.” His assessment countered the argument that Grapes posed a threat to taint younger teenage minds. Nonetheless, it was a conservative view. Just a few years later, at the end of WW 2, an Ontario teacher, Mary Campbell at Harbord Collegiate Institute, Toronto, expressed her view at a librarians’ discussion group that, “The Grapes of Wrath is a realistic book for senior students. I recommend it for the validity of period and social situation. The profanity is incidental. We should have confidence in our standards. We shouldn’t consider narrow-minded opinions.”

    The controversy over The Grapes of Wrath raised the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom for public librarians and trustees at a time authoritarian regimes threatened democratic nations. In June 1939, at San Francisco, the American Library Association issued a brief three-point “Library’s Bill of Rights.” It stated libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view. Library selections should not be subject to the influence of race, nationality, or the writers’ political or religious views. Further, library meeting space should be made available to all community groups on equal terms regardless of their beliefs or affiliation. In Canada, the short ALA statement was published in the British Columbia Library Association Bulletin in November 1939 without comment. Indeed, intellectual freedom would remain an subterranean issue in Canadian libraries until the Cold War commenced.

Further Reading:

“Calgary Librarian’s Case for the Joads.” Calgary Herald, Saturday, March 16, 1940, p. 30.

Listen to archive recording of the Town Meeting of the Air panel discussion on the social issues raised by Steinbeck that Calhoun referenced [approx. one hour].

Alexander Calhoun’s biography at Ex Libris Association.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Marshall McLuhan speaks to Ontario librarians about books and reading, 1954–56

Marshall McLuhan, 1945
Herbert Marshall McLuhan, 1945

By the mid–1950s, prominent speakers had become a fixture at Ontario Library Association (OLA) annual conferences. Such was the case in mid-May 1956 when the OLA met at Oshawa’s new McLaughlin Library, which had opened in 1954. This OLA conference was shortened to two days because the Canadian Library Association would meet at Niagara Falls in June. Nevertheless, four hundred and twenty-five persons registered; it was one of the best attended conferences to date. A notable attraction was an emerging University of Toronto professor at St. Michael’s College, Marshall McLuhan. He addressed delegates about “The Future of the Book” at a luncheon on May 16th at the St. Andrew’s United Church in downtown Oshawa.

McLuhan had found an American firm, Vanguard Press, to publish The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man in 1951. In The Bride, he analyzed popular printed resources (e.g., comic strips or visual images in magazine/newspaper advertisements) as agents of social communication and public persuasion rather than transmitters of content. He theorized that readers typically perceived messaging so casually that they failed to notice how it influenced their thinking about lifestyles and social norms. McLuhan believed the form of communication was a very significant force that shaped public awareness because it merged technology and sexual themes in persuasive way, hence the title of his book. The Bride’s short chapters could be read in any order—a method that allowed McLuhan’s readers to concentrate on one topic or skip to another section, much like dialing a radio to find a good program.

The St. Michael’s college professor spoke to librarians about his interpretations of the effect of movies and radio on books. Now television had become another challenge. These electronic media engaged the public in new, different ways; for example, the outcome of elections was less predictable now. But McLuhan felt the future of the book was assured; in fact, every type of media enriched books. All media, including books, are the means of translating one kind of experience into another. Books were an early stage of the mechanization of the written word. Now, television and radio were adopting an electronic mode of operation or production of words. Books allowed readers, in a linear fashion, to delve deeper into knowledge and presented a greater diversity of subjects. Nonetheless, McLuhan believed the public’s perception of the electronification of information was becoming as important in transmitting knowledge through printed media.

R.H. King Collegiate library, 1954

McLuhan’s message was well received at a time when libraries and educators were grappling with the growth of mass media, primarily television and radio, which reached into homes across the nation. In their own right, libraries were important sources of print medium that conveyed detailed information. Indeed, it was the second time the theorist spoke to Ontario librarians in less than two years. The School and Intermediate Libraries Section of OLA invited him to its meeting at the R.H. King Collegiate Institute in Scarborough on Saturday afternoon October 30th, 1954. Margaret Scott was the head librarian at the R.H. King’s library, which was considered a comfortable, modern setting for students. She would later become an associate professor of school librarianship at the University of Toronto Library School. Scott was an active member of the School and Intermediate Libraries section, which dated back to the 1920s to annual OLA ‘round tables’ of librarians and teachers interested in the reading and use of books by young adults. The OLA had formalized this section in 1935 to represent librarians in secondary schools and public librarians interested in young adult reading. Librarians believed libraries to be places where ‘good’ books could be found to counter the effect of mass-produced ‘bad’ books that teens could purchase at local retailers or exchange among themselves.

“The Hazards of Reading” formed the theme of McLuhan’s afternoon session at R.H. King. Despite the spread of electronic mass media in the 20th century, he remained an advocate for book culture. When he asked, “What is the essential core of Book-Culture that is worth preserving?” he was suggesting that a ‘core library’ could be assembled to preserve and make accessible humankind’s knowledge. An informed personal perspective was necessary to remedy the ill effects of standardized advertising and messaging presented in various mass media. Book reading had an effect quite different from the competing media. He made the interesting observation that students come to the classroom “loaded with facts.” The need was not to supply more facts but to help them articulate what they already knew—to help them orient themselves in the midst of the conflicting cultural media surrounding them. McLuhan emphasized the need to study the impact of the new media of communication on the older book culture. His post-presentation comments raised many interesting points; however, questions had to be cut short before the closing school hour.

McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride did not reach the bestseller lists or sweep through the halls of academia. Nor did libraries undertake to assemble ‘core’ collections to represent humankind’s knowledge for their clientele. Later, especially in the 1960s, McLuhan achieved celebrity status with a series of popular books: his phrase “the medium is the message” became the source for many programs, discussions, and articles. Television was a ‘cool’ medium requiring attentive listeners/viewers. He claimed electronic media were supplanting print culture, that the book as a package might become ‘obsolete’ unless it adapted to the new media. His communication theories often seemed to be at odds with the promotion of library service through books. Many, such as Canada’s National Librarian, W.K. Lamb, refused to believe that the book was obsolete. Yet, McLuhan’s use of this hot-button word pointed more to an outmoded technology rather than decay and non-usage. Public librarians especially wondered whether the media prophet’s proclamation that books were ‘hot’—i.e., there was less engagement by the viewer/reader than ‘cool’ TV—helped promote the community services they were offering. Being regarded as a book provider was not so hot to many librarians who pointed to the importance of other library formats, e.g., films and recordings.

All the same, McLuhan was never a foe of public libraries or print culture. The library was a primary print resource, and librarians were reliable mediators in selecting, organizing, and storing information. In fact, he composed a manuscript with co-author Robert Logan in the late 1970s, which eventually was published in 2016 many years after his untimely death at age 69: Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan, The Future of the Library. Before the virtual or digital library existed, McLuhan hoped libraries would better engage their clientele with new electronic media. His message was hopeful because he believed the book would become an information service rather than a mere package on library shelves. Library resources and the range of services also could change in the same fashion. With the establishment of the ‘digital library’ by the first decades of the 2000s, McLuhan’s optimism about books and libraries expressed many years before beforehand at his two OLA sessions appears well-founded.

Further Reading:

Logan, R., K., McLuhan, M. (2016). The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media. New York: Peter Lang.

Neill, Samuel D. “Books and Marshall McLuhan.” Library Quarterly; Information, Community, Polity vol. 41, no. 4 (October 1971): 311–319.