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Library Historiography

Historiography involves the study of history and methodology of history as a discipline. It can also be the study of a body of historical work such as the study of the history of libraries such as the historiography of libraries. According to Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (1988, 2010) historiography is

"the study of the way history has been and is written — the history of historical writing... When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians."

Library historiography is the writing of the history of librarianship. Krzys (2003, 1621) defines it

"as the writing of the history of agencies, people, and movements within or contributing to the development of librarianship; written history of those agencies, people, or movement... library history is that branch of history that investigates the actions of the people, the activities of agencies, or the effects of social movements within or contributing to the development of librarianship for the sake of professional awareness."

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Read Buchanan, Anne L. & Herubel, Jean-Pierre (2011). Subject and historiographic characteristics of library history. Journal of Scholarly Publishing. 42(4).

The Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg Wikimedia Commons PDLet's review the idea of history and historiography.

Let's say library historian Mary Randall examines diaries and journals of women (1837-1901) to determine their use of public libraries. These diaries were used as primary resources in her research. Her book "Public Libraries and Women of the Victorian Age" is a secondary source produced through the analysis of primary sources.

If George Campbell argues that Randall's history fails to consider the availability of public libraries in particular regions, then this historian is using Randall's book as a primary source or artifact of study (even though it was produced as a secondary source). Campbell's criticism of this secondary source in the form of an article titled "Geographic Considerations in Women's Use of Public Libraries in the Victorian Age" would be a work of historiography (1).

In what areas of library history should we focus our attention?

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Read Goedeken, Edward A. (2010). Our historiographical enterprise: shifting emphases and directions. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(3), 350-355.

The History of Library History

A library historian is a "social science detective who investigates past events related to the development of librarianship" (Krzys, 2003).

In 1607, Justus Lipsius published the first known history of libraries titled A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries. This text marked the beginning of library historiography.

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Browse Lipsius, Justus (1607). A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries.
Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=QYoDAAAAYAAJ

Edward Edwards (1812-1886) is widely regarded as writing some of the first history of library books. His Memoirs of Libraries (1859) investigate library history of the western world to the 1850s and a supplement titled Libraries and Founders of Libraries.

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Browse Edwards, Edwards (1859). Memoirs of Libraries.
Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=FgmsfVR5UFkC
Available: http://archive.org/details/librariesfounder00edwa

Josiah Quincy wrote History of the Boston Athenaeum in 1851. In the books' preface, Quincy explains his process of synthesizing and presenting information:

"I commenced this History in the autumn of 1847, and, by means of the records of the institution, traced its progress to that stage of prosperity which in the course of years it has attained. In this part of the work, my chief object has been, by abstracting and condensing, to enable the Athenaeum to narrate its own history." (Quincy, 1951, v)

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Browse Quincy, Josiah (1851). History of the Boston Athenaeum.
Available: http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924029531542

In 1909 Ernest A Savage published The Story of Libraries and Book-collecting available at Archive.org.

In the 1925, Alfred Hessel, a librarian in Germany published A History of Libraries that was later translated into English. In 1965, Elmer Johnson wrote A History of Libraries in the Western World.

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Browse Goedeken, Edward A. (2013). The literature of American library history, 2010-2011. Information & Culture: A Journal of History, 48(4), 508-536.

To learn more, explore a bibliography of library historiography.

Three Types of Library History

Rather than studying library history in isolation, it's essential to conduct an investigation within the larger scope of civilization looking at the economic, political, religious, and cultural climate of the times.

Go to the British Library Timeline to examine library materials associated with history.

Richard Krzyer (2003) describes three categories of library history.

Battles Library the Unquiet HistoryFirst, library history written with a general purpose. The intent may be simply to report key events in history. However, in another case the goal may be to explore events within their historical context.

Battles, Matthew, Battles (2004). Library: An Unquiet History. W.W. Norton & Company. - Explores the history of libraries.

Lerner, Fred (1999). Libraries through the Ages. Contiuum. - Provides a chronology.

Murray, Stuart A.P. (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. Skyhorse Publishing. - Explores the history of libraries.

Second, library history can be written in terms of specific subjects such as a biography, movement, or agency.

Wiegand, Wayne A. (1996). Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey. ALA Editions. - Studies a person in library history.

Bolze, Thomas A. (2010). From private passion to public virtue: Thomas B. Lockwood and the making of a cultural philanthropist, 1895-1935. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(4), 414-441. - Explores a person in library history.

Read Roper, Geoffrey (1998). Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and the libraries of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Libraries & Culture, 33(3), 234-248. - Explores a person in literary history.

Moran, Barbara B, Leonard, Elisabeth & Zellers, Jessica (Fall 2009). Women administrators in academic libraries: three decades of change. Library Trends, 58(2), 215-228. - Explores a category of women.

McDowell, Kathleen (2007). The Cultural Origins of Youth Services Librarianship, 1876-1900. UMI Microform. - Examines the youth services movement.

Bobinski, George (1969). Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development. American Library Association. - Examines a particular type of library.

Peoples, Brock (Summer 2011). A great library on the prairies: the history, design, and growth of the University of Illinois library. Library Trends, 60(1), 134-151.

Lyons, Chris (Winter 2007). "Children who read good books usually behave better, and have good manners": The founding of the Notre Dame de Grace Library for Boys and Girls, Montreal, 1943. Library Trends, 55(3), 597-608.

Third, library history can focus the method a historian has chosen to employ. For instance, a writer might focus on statistical survey, case studies, interviews, or historical travelogues as a way to describe library history.

Jewett, Charles C. (1971). Notices of Public Libraries in the United States. Smithsonian Institution. - Describes the resources of public libraries statistically.

Weigand, Wayne A. (2011). Main Street Public: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956. University of Iowa Press. - Takes a case study approach analyzing the collections of four libraries.

McDowell, Kate (2011). Children's voices in librarians' words, 1890-1930. Libraries & Cultural Record, 46(1), 73-101.

Historical Investigation

Bodleian Library Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA Kaihsu TaiHistory can be used to understand the past, present, and future of libraries.

Often, a historical investigations begins with a simple question.

The entrance of the Bodleian Library (shown right) contains the coat of arms of several Oxford colleges.

How can examining this door provided insights into the library's history?

Who decided what emblems should be placed on the door? Is there a particular order? What does it say about the library? Why is this door still here after so many centuries?


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Read Pawley, Christine (2005). History in the library and information science curriculum: outline of a debate. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 40(3), 223-238.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read 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

Bookplate Wikimedia Commons PDThe library historian must use evidence from the past to formulate theoretical knowledge. Indirect methods of evidence collection are paired with reasoning to create arguments addressing a research problem.

The discovery of a bookplate of an old book in your library may lead to an exploration of the origin of the bookplate inside.

A discussion with a bookmobile driver might spur an investigation of book access in rural areas.

Richard Krzyr suggests a seven-step process for library historians:

Problem. Identify a need, difficulty, enigma, puzzle, mystery, or something that simply baffles the researcher of library history. Then ask:

This focus on a problem leads to questions that must be addressed to identify solutions.

Questions. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How? What are is the essential question(s)?

Hypotheses. For each question, the researcher must create and test the validity of the hypothesis.

Logical Consequences. We must define terms, identify examples and non-examples, and search for evidence.

Graphic Records. Primary and secondary sources would be used to gather evidence and build arguments.

Conclusions. Based on the evidence, inferences would be made and conclusions drawn.

Theory. To form a theory, the researcher would organize all of the evidence, arguments, and inferences into a single narrative statement .

Approaches to Historical Investigation

Let Petit Journal 1907 PDRichard Krzyr is only one of many historians to suggest an approach to historical investigation. Consider combining approaches to develop your own style of inquiry.

When conducting an historical investigation, historians must apply skills related to using evidence, assessing interpretations, and analyzing change and continuities (Stearns, 1998).

Examine the cover of Le Petit Journal from November 3, 1907 on the right. It features a prison library. The article is titled "How to deal with the apaches (gangs) in France."

Let's explore Stern's three skills related to historical investigation:

Use Evidence. Historians use evidence in their attempt to produce accurate pictures of the past. Whether interpreting the statements of leaders or assessing the value of an article, historians must distinguish fact from opinion and understand the contexts of the time when documents were produced. Arguments are made by combining different kinds of evidence from both primary and secondary sources.

Assess Interpretations. Historians must sort through diverse and often conflicting interpretations of the past. Understanding how libraries work within the context of a particular society and time period is imprecise. The historian must identify multiple perspectives, evaluate conflicting views, and also examine personal loyalties and biases.

Analyze Change. Historians must be able to determine the magnitude and significance of change. Comparing specific changes using relevant examples helps determine causes of change. Often many factors combine to generate change.

Take some time to explore library history articles. Think about the evidence that's used and what arguments lead to interpretations and inferences.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Parada, Alejandro E. (2006). Towards a new history of books and libraries in Argentina: background, history, and periods. Library History, 22(1), 55-60.

Use the following questions to jumpstart your thinking about library historiography (1):


Barzun, Jacques & Graff, Henry (2004). The Modern Researcher. Thomson/Wadsworth.

Bloch, Marc (1954, 1992). The Historian's Craft. Manchester University Press. Preview Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=YZdCcT_1Z8YC

Butler, Pierce (1933). Introduction to Library Science. University of Chicago Press. Available: http://archive.org/stream/introductiontoli011501mbp

Floud, R. (1973). An Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Historians. Methuen.

Harris, Michael H. (1972). The Purpose of the American Public Library in Historical Perspective: Revisionist Interpretation. ERIC. Available: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED071668.pdf

Inayatullah, Shaikh (1938). Bibliophilism in medieval Islam. Islamic Culture, 12(2), 154-69.

Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946). A Guide to Historical Method. Fordham University Press.

Gottschalk, Louis. A Primer for Historical Method.

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

Mackensen, R.S. (1935-36). Arabic books and libraries in the Umaiyad period. American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, (52), 245-253.

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

Tillotson, Dianne (2005-2007). Medieval Writing. Available: http://medievalwriting.50megs.com/


  1. Idea adapted from Historiography by New World Encyclopedia - http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Historiography

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