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The Study of History

Developing a plan to save a public library involves an examination of the historical relationship among government agencies, library advocates, and local citizens.

Understanding the recent destruction of libraries in the Middle East requires insights into patterns that took shape centuries ago.

Dealing with a group of parents who wish to remove a book from the shelves of a school library requires an understanding of the history of censorship in society.

Stars Photos.comIn his article Why Study History, Peter Stearns (1998) states that "there is a fundamental tension in teaching and learning history between covering facts and developing historical habits of mind".

This course can't possibly address every event in library history. Instead, it attempts to provide examples that reflect key people, places, and events that helped shape the libraries we know today.

In providing these examples, you will learn to identify the key forces for change that arose in the past and the important issues and patterns that continue to drive change in the library profession today.

By the end of the course, it's hoped that you will have developed "historical habits of minds" that can be applied in the future.

Stearns states that

"The key to developing historical habits of mind... is having repeated experience in historical inquiry. Such experience should involve a variety of materials and a diversity of analytical problems. Facts are essential in this process, for historical analysis depends on data, but it does not matter whether these facts come from local, national, or world history - although it's most useful to study a range of settings. What matters is learning how to assess different magnitudes of historical change, different examples of conflicting interpretations, and multiple kinds of evidence. Developing the ability to repeat fundamental thinking habits through increasingly complex exercises is essential."

Why Study History?

librarian and boyHistorians investigate change over time by analyzing events and evaluating evidence from the past. They look for patterns and develop possible explanations for why and how events took place.

In his article Why Study History, Peter Stearns (1998) states that

"people live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? ... History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines...

History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty... All definitions of history's utility, however, rely on two fundamental facts.

History Helps Us Understand People and Societies
In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave... history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives.

History Helps Us Understand Change and How the Society We Live in Came to Be
The past causes the present, and so the future. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change."

Historical revisionism involves reinterpretation of standard thinking about a topic based on new evidence, perspectives, and thoughts about a historical event. Regardless of the time period, people are influenced by the zeitgeist or "spirit of the times." In addition, additional information can provide new insights into history. From carbon dating to DNA analysis, developments in related disciplines can impact our understanding of history. Access to information from other cultures expands our knowledge and changes in language provide new insights.

For instance, you may have grown up using the term "Dark Ages" to refer to part of the Middle Ages. This term implied that the world was devoid of culture. A change in terminology has changed the negative connotations associated with the period. In the past, people referred to Christopher Columbus as having "discovered" America. Today, the focus has shifted to the the interaction of Europeans with indigenous peoples.

Why Study Library History?

LibraryLet's apply Stearn's fundamental facts about history to our study of libraries. First, history helps us understand how libraries function in society. How and why do people and societies behave in relationships with libraries? How and why do libraries exist? Second, to understand the factors that cause changes in libraries, we must look to the past. While aspects of libraries change over time, other elements continue unchanged. Why do some things change and others remain the same?

Understanding how people in the past constructed their lives helps us understand why and how libraries came to be and have continued to persist for thousands of years. The challenges and triumphs of library advocates from the past provide inspiration and guidance for the future.

According to Stearns (1998), historical data include evidence about how institutions like libraries "were formed and how they have evolved while retaining cohesion." For librarians, studying library history is like exploring one's own family history. It helps form a cultural identify. When told honestly, it explores both the light and dark side of the profession by helping librarians see both the selfishness and nobility of the profession.

The History of Libraries

The history of libraries is really the story of individual people seeking ways to store, organize, and share knowledge. In some cases, these collections are built for personal pleasure while in others they are created as part of a focus on learning, law, or religion. Regardless of their purpose, these libraries are much more than books and building. They represent the passions of those who created them.

How do we know what we know about libraries from the past? What types of evidence exist? What topics could we explore?

Wordle Library

From Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy and influence to the role of women in librarianship, John Colson (1976, 8-11) identified works in American library history from 1876-1976 and notes that history may involve the search for patterns, but it may also open "opportunities for expanding one's knowledge of any subject. Rather than a search for patterns, the historical study of a subject may be a demonstration of variation from patterns."


Colson, John C. (1976). The writing of American library history, 1876-1976. Library Trends, 25(1), 7-22.

Holliday, R. C. (1919). Broome Street Straws. New York: George H. Doran. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=wQ1FAAAAIAAJ

Krzyr, Richard (2003). Library historiography. In Miriam A. Drake (ed), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Second Edition, CRC Press, 1621-1641. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=Sqr-_3FBYiYC&pg=PA1621

Olle, James G. (1971). Library History: An Examination Guidebook. Second Edition. Archon Books & Clive Bingley.

Stearns, Peter N. (1998). Why Study History? American Historical Association. Available: http://www.historians.org/pubs/free/WhyStudyHistory.htm

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