American Public School Librarianship: A History

By Wayne Weigand

Over the past 120 years, millions of American K-12 public school students have used their school libraries billions of times, yet we still know very little about the history of these ubiquitous educational institutions that over the decades were put together and managed by hundreds of thousands of school librarians. American Public School Librarianship:  A History is the first comprehensive evaluative history of the American public school library.

The book fills a huge void in the history of education by providing essential background information to members of the nation’s school library and educational communities who are charged with supervising and managing America’s 80,000 public school libraries.  It addresses issues of censorship, race, social class, gender, and sexual orientation as they affected American public school librarianship throughout its history, particularly during the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Era, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, and more recent legislation like No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

 Its contents:
  • Historically examine the perspective of the library as “the heart of the school;”
  • Identify the public school library’s historical jurisdictions and opportunities;
  • Clarify parameters in the historical role of the school librarian as an opponent of censorship and defender of intellectual freedom;
  • Analyze the politics of a female-dominated school library profession;
  • Identify and evaluate the profession’s major players and their battles
  • Challenge the priorities of the profession’s current agendas, particularly regarding the role of “reading” in the everyday lives of children and young adults


Since the early 20th-century public school library leaders have been driven by a belief that if they can convince enough people of the merits of school libraries (either through rhetoric or research or both), they will achieve a secure place for the school library in formal education.  American Public School Librarianship: A History shows that they have achieved much against tremendous indifference and inertia, but as of this writing they are convinced they still haven’t reached the Promised Land.  As the book’s author, however, I look at the situation differently.  Given the constraints historically imposed by formal education’s power relationships, the marvel is not that school librarianship has not arrived; the marvel is that it has managed to get as far as it has, especially in the testing and measurement climate of the last quarter-century.

To cite but one example of American Public School Librarianship’s potential to inform the current discourse of the nation’s library and education professions, on November 2, 2021, the nation’s media carried no less than five stories on efforts across the country to attack “pornography” in American public school library collections.  Because of the polarized politics that currently dominate our national discourse, this is an issue that will likely preoccupy American public school librarianship for the foreseeable future.  For the 85,000 American public school librarians working in the 80,000 American public school libraries, American Public School Librarianship can deepen their understanding of the issue and provide the kind of historical foundation essential to ground the debates over American public school library collections that will inevitably take place in the coming months and years.

Wayne Wiegand is the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of American Public School Librarianship: A History, Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey and Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library.

 
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