Reflections on Library Foundations

13 Jul
Bates Hall reading room at the Boston Public L...

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Since 3000 B.C.E., libraries have served functions ranging from the practical to the ideological.  Through all eras and dynasties, all libraries either provided information to those who couldn’t access it on their own, or actually made knowledge exclusive for only the most privileged members of society.  In either case, knowledge was power – either to be shared or to be withheld.

In Rubin’s essay about the foundations of librarianship, I learned that throughout history, libraries served specific groups of individuals until the middle of the nineteenth century, which marked a major shift in the philosophy of libraries.  Early iterations of libraries typically withheld the information from the public and reserved it for a select few wealthy and educated people or used library collections to project status or pay tribute to powerful rulers.

A major shift in this philosophy came about in the 1850s, when the first major public library was founded in Boston.  A major event that shaped the evolution of the public library was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  As a result, texts were more readily available and a wider range of citizens became literate.  Even with library services available to the public, there were still doubts that about the true intention of the public library – some argued that it was born out of the need for informed citizens to maintain a democratic society, which is quite altruistic.  Others believed it was a way to indoctrinate immigrants and create a more homogenized, more easily ruled society.  I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these extreme views.

Since the 1850s, it became imperative that library organizations set forth ethical standards to prevent the abuse of information and promote equitable access.  A gold standard can be found in Ranganathan’s five laws of librarianship, re-stated to encapsulate all types of information available today.  I have learned that these laws, when used as an ethical compass and foundation will serve to prevent irresponsible use and withholding of information toward the end of equitable access for all:

  1. Library resources are for use.
  2. Library resources are for all.
  3. Every resource its user.
  4. Save the time of the user.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

(Written in response to: “Chapter 1 – Stepping Back and Looking Forward: Reflections on the Foundations of Libraries and Librarianship” by Richard E. Rubin in The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts [2008].)

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