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Contemporary Libraries: 1950s

Let's explore issues of libraries and the Cold War, desegregation, library public relations, medical libraries, academic libraries, Presidential libraries, state libraries and federal aid.

During the 1950, librarians continued to make strides toward standards for librarianship. In 1951, the ALA Council approved Standards of Accreditation that included a note that professional programs should lead to a master's degree.

However the surge in patriotism and calls to stop book burning during the 1930s and 1940s, shifted during the Cold War time period starting around 1946. Hostilities between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union spread beyond politics and into cultural institutions including libraries.

Adopted in 1952, the Universal Copyright Convention was promoted by the United Nations to provide multilaterial copyright protection. Although many countries joined this group, others like the United States participated in the Berne Convention.

Also during this time, computer use for information retrieval was just beginning. In 1954, Harley Tillet used a IBM 701 to conduct a search of a file of bibliographic records. Then in 1958, Hans Peter Luhn developed a document indexing program that would automate the production of literature abstracts.

Libraries and the Cold War

You Read Books, EhIndividual thinking was being scrutinized. People were worried that communists might subvert schools, libraries, and other institutions.

The image on the right shows a Herb Block cartoon on this topic titled "YOU READ BOOKS, EH?" - A 1949 Herblock Cartoon, copyright by The Herb Block Foundation. (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., [LC-USZ62-123456]; Used by permission)

"During the postwar anti-communist campaign hundreds of elementary and high school teachers were investigated and lost their jobs, sometimes as a result of being named by proliferating 'anti-subversive' groups and individuals. Some individuals compiled and circulated their own blacklists, which were accepted by frightened employers and casting directors who feared being blacklisted themselves if they sought facts and fair play. The motives of some self-serving or vindictive accusers were summed up by Herb Block in a phrase: 'If you can't crush the commies, you can nail a neighbor.' (Library of Congress, Herb Block Collection).

According to Pamela Spence Richards (2001, 193) in Cold war librarianship: Soviet and American library activities in support of national foreign policy, 1946-1991,

"the United States was limited in ways to influence library collections. However the Foreign Agents Registration Act enforced by the U.S. Congress was one way, through U.S. Customs, to stop the flow of Soviet materials into the United States."

Librarians continued to promote their mission of a "man's right to know" in both formal and informal ways. In her article, Man's Right to Knowledge: Libraries and Columbia University's 1954 Cold War Bicentennial, Jean Preer (2007) describes how "librarians strengthened their commitment to intellectual freedom... by using books, films, recordings, and discussion groups" to support the theme "Man's Right to Knowledge and the Free Use Thereof" at the height of the Cold War.

Preer (2007, 634) concluded that

"libraries celebrating Columbia's 200th anniversary affirmed their own commitment to intellectual freedom and promoted their own role in a dangerous time, that of providing refuge in which to consider and experience the right to free information."

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Read Preer, Jean L. (Winter 2007). Man's right to knowledge: libraries and Columbia University's 1954 Cold War Bicentennial. Library Trends, 55(3), 623-637.

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Read Robbins, Louise S. (Winter 2007). Publishing American values: The Franklin Book Programs as Cold War diplomacy. Library Trends, 55(3), 638-650.

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Read Luyt, Brendan (2009). Colonialism, ethnicity, and geopolitics in the development of the Singapore National Library. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 44(4), 418-433.

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Read Spencer, Brett (2014). From atomic shelters to arms control: Libraries, civil defense, and the American militarism during the Cold War. Information & Culture, 49(3), 351-385.

Desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement

At the same time that information was being suppressed by the government and other agencies, the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. People were questioning the practice of segregation and actively promoting change.

In 1948 National Plan for Public Library Service identified the lack of services to African Americans in the South as a serious problem facing librarianship.

Ruth Brown (1891-1975)
Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA

Ruth BrownRuth Brown is best known for her early Civil Rights actions in the late 1940s and early 1950s resulting in her dismissal as a public librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Brown was accused of providing subversive materials to the public. However, most felt her dismissal was associated with her promotion of rights for African Americans during at time when the community was not ready for change.

Groups including the Oklahoma Library Association, ALA, and the ACLU brought national attention to the incident bringing embarrassment to the community.

In 2007, a bronze bust of Brown was placed in the Bartlesville Library in her honor.

Skim Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship and the American Library by Louise Robbins (2000) to learn more about this interesting women and her role in library history.

Learn more about Ruth Brown at Wikipedia.

Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas

While issues of desegregation were hotly debated in some areas, other areas worked quietly toward access for all. According to Malone (2007, 665),

"Houston Public Library operated as a racially segregated system until 1953, when it quietly changed its policy to one of token integration. Occurring some seven years before the Houston Independent School District began to desegregate, the public library's policy change depended on a few key individuals."

The Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library opened in 1904 followed by the Colored Carnegie Library in 1913. In 1921, the Colored Carnegie Library became a branch of the Houston Public Library system. After a couple landmark decisions in Texas regarding desegregation of elections and law school, prominent black citizens of Houston turned their sights on the library.

Rather than starting a lawsuit, the group informed the library that they would like to work together on a desegregation solution. Coming from both the political equality and Christian brotherhood perspectives, a request was made for black residents to be allowed use of all the city's libraries. The mayor agreed and discussed the idea of desegregation with the library board. Over the next several months, the board worked out a plan for the mayor's desegregation policy.

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Read Malone, Cheryl Knott (Winter 2007). Unannounced and unexpected: the desegregation of Houston Public Library in the early 1950s. Library Trends, 55(3), 665-674.

Library Public Relations

During the 1950s, librarians began taking a more active role in promoting general public awareness in addition to library-specific interests.

For instance, the American Library Association joined other organizations to increase voter turnout in the 1952 Presidential election. Preer (2008, 1) pointed out that

"librarians demonstrated that libraries could serve as local information centers, working with nonprofit organizations, the commercial sector, and the broadcast media to reach out to the whole community to create an informed citizenry."

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Read Preer, Jean (2008). Promoting citizenship: how librarians helped get out the vote in the 1952 presidential election. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 43(1), 1-28.

During the 1950s, Americans were spending less on books as a result of alternative forms of entertainment including radio, television, films, and music.

Wake Up and Read, National Library Week, 1959, ALAConcerned about this trend, the National Book Committee was formed in 1954 by the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers. In addition, the ALA Public Relations Office was established in 1956 to further the promotion of libraries and librarianship.

In 1957, the National Book Committee developed a plan for National Library Week to promote reading and support for libraries.

With help from the Advertising Council, the first National Library Week was celebrated in April 1958 with the slogan "Wake Up and Read!" (see image on right). President Eisenhower proclaimed that all US citizens should participate.

The week was observed again in 1959 and the ALA Council voted to continue the annual celebration each April. Although the National Book Committee disbanded in 1974, the event has continued under ALA sponsorship.

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Read Preer, Jean (2010). Wake up and read. Book promotion and National Library Week, 1958. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(1), 92-106.

Medical and Hospital Libraries

Boston Public Library Hospital Library, PDIn the United States, growing interest in hospital libraries prompted the Division of Hospital Libraries and Institute Library Committees to merge and become the Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries in ALA in 1956.

The photo on the right shows the hospital librarian, Boston City Hospital superintendent, and director of the Boston Public Library examining a bookcart used for hospital library service in 1962. (Courtesy Boston Public Library, Flickr).

Computer Technology

The Welch Medical Library Indexing Project directed by Sanford Larkey sought to use the computer as a tool for data search. The project was one of the earliest efforts to apply computer technology to data information retrieval. A final report was issued in 1955 titled Final Report on Machine Methods for Information Searching.

The National Library of Medicine published the first Subject Heading Authority List in 1954. This controlled vocabulary list would become essential as computerization in medical librarianship grew during the next decade.

Paul Poindron (1912-1980)

Paul Poindron began his library career at the National Library in France. From 1942 to 1945, he served as the secretary general for the ABF (Association des Bibliothécaires de France).

In the 1950s, Paul Poindron and his committees developed a number of recommendations for patient libraries stating that libraries should play an integral role in hospitals, hospices, preventoriums, sanitarium, and recovery homes.

Poindron also believed in the power of bibliotherapy. This approach uses books and reading as in the healing process. His committee was successful in passing resolutions at the Third International Congress of Librarians in Brussels in 1955 including the following (LSN Report, 4-5)

"every mental hospital should have a library for its patients;
methods used in the US, UK, and the Scandinavian countries for library services to mental hospitals should be brought to the attention of doctors and administrators of such hospitals."

Poindron was also concerned about education for hospital librarianship. He made recommendations for professional development and advised involving non-librarians such as nurses and social workers in conferences to promote patient well-being.

Finally, Poindron also promoted a broader range of reading materials and aids for patients. The resolution states (LSN Report, 6)

microfilmed books in various languages should be created for severely handicapped readers; the size of those microfilms standardized preferably to 35mm;
member states of UNESCO should obtain from their governments a general exemption of a) of copyright for the reproduction of microfilmed books for the disabled, and b) of carriages and custom dues for the exchange from country to country of microfilmed books intended for the projectors reserved for the use of handicapped patients.

Skim Paul Poindron to learn more about this person in library history.

Academic Libraries

With servicemen returning from military service and an increased value placed on higher education, academic libraries grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s. For instance in 1947, Harvard opened the first library building designed specifically to meet the needs of undergraduates.

With a continued influx of students for World War I and the Korean War, academic libraries flourished. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 known as the G.I. Bill provided a range of benefits including cash payments for tuition and living experiences to attend high school, vocational school, or college. Although the program ended in 1956, the term G.I. Bill continued to be associated with veteran benefit programs.

The GI Bill altered the face of higher education. Rather than elite white males straight out of high school, the influx of new students were represented a diversity of socio-economic classes, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. These demographics changed even more with civil rights legislation of the 1960s opening the doors for new groups including African Americans and women.

Other countries experienced a similar expansion of the student population. A storage of seating and collection space lead to many library buildings being expanded.

For instance during the early 1960s, five new universities were established in Ontario Canada. Academic libraries were assisted by grants through the Canada Council and the Social Students and Humanities Research Council.

Higher education attendance doubled in the United Kingdom after World War II, but an even more dramatic increase didn't occur until the 1960s and 1970s. The photo below shows an academic library in London in the 1950s.

Haldane Room Old Library 1950s LIS Library PD

Presidential Libraries

According to the National Archives website,

"Presidential Libraries promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. We preserve and provide access to historical materials, support research, and create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire."

The tradition of Presidential Libraries began with Franklin D. Roosevelt and was continued in 1950 when Harry S. Truman built a library to house his papers.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidental Library and Museum
Hyde Park, New York, USA

FDR Library, PDIn 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Presidential Library system when he donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal government. A non-profit corporation was established to raise funds for the construction of the library and museum building.

The photo on the right shows FDR Library in 1941. (Courtesy FDR Presidential Library).

The Franklin Roosevelt Presidental Library was dedicated on June 30, 1941. Roosevelt stated that

"To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. 

It must believe in the past. 
It must believe in the future.

It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement in creating their own future."

To learn more, visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidental Library and Museum online.

To learn more about the history of the library, go to the History page.

Presidental Library Act
United States

The Presidental Library Act of 1955 "established a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries. The Act encouraged other Presidents to donate their historical materials to the government and ensured the preservation of Presidential papers and their availability to the American people" (National Archives website).

The Presidental Library Act of 1986 "made significant changes to Presidential Libraries, requiring private endowments linked to the size of the facility. The National Archives uses these endowments to offset a portion of the maintenance costs for the library." (National Archives website).

To read the act, go to the Presidental Libraries Act of 1955 at the National Archives.

Learn more at Presidential Libraries at the National Archives.

State and Provincial Libraries

Around the world, state and provincial library systems have existed since the early 1800s and possibly earlier. These systems provide services to the citizens of their particular region. They are particularly important in addressing needs that aren't part of a national program.

A 1966 report titled The Library Functions of the States noted the importance of state library agencies in acting as a go-between for local libraries and federal programs. The report recommended strengthing state agencies to promote this intermediary role.

Illinois State Library
Springfield, Illinois, USA

According to its mission statement, the Illinois State Library

"promotes excellence in information access and innovative services for government, libraries and people."

In addition to being the information resource for state government, it services as a regional federal documents depository, maintains historic and contemporary Illinois documents, and houses maps. The library provides services for special needs along with providing support to thousands of libraries state-wide.

Founded in 1839, the library began in the office of the Secretary of State. The State Library Act of 1939 established the mission for the library.

During the 1950s, rural residents could request books for free delivery through the postal service. Larry Johnson recalls his mother ordering books from the Illinois State Library. A box would be delivered to their home. Larry and his siblings would take turns reading the books. When the box was returned, a new request would be made.

Federal Aid

During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States government increased financial support for libraries.

Library Services Act (LSA)
United States

The Library Services Act of 1956 was designed to assist the development of library services in unserved areas. This act was particularly important for rural areas.

The LSA became the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) in 1964 expanding to include urban libraries and construction projects. Services to those with special needs, outreach programs, and interlibrary resource sharing were also included.

Counter Culture

The counterculture movement in the United States explored values and norms outside mainstream society. The Bohemian communities of Greenwich Village in New York City at the turn of the century is an example. Many writers and small presses were drawn to these nontraditional areas.

The Beat Generation of the 1940s and 1950s melded with hippie subculture of the 1960s and 1970s to create three decades of counterculture in America during the middle part of of the century. Many small groups would use libraries as a place to gather as a community.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Preer, Jean (2013). Counter culture: The world as viewed from inside the Indianapolis Public Library, 1944-1956. In, C. Pawley & L.S. Robbins, Print Culture History in Modern America: Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America. University of Wisconsin, 129-147.



Bleton, John (1980). Paul Poindron. Newsletter of the ABF, 106, 26. Available: http://www.enssib.fr/bibliotheque-numerique/revues/afficher-55729

Larkey, Sanford (1952). The Welch Medical Library Indexing Project. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 41(1), 32-40. Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC199596/

Monypenny, Phillip (1966). The Library Functions of the States. American Library Association.

Roberts, Pamela Spence (Winter 2001). Cold war librarianship: Soviet and American library activities in support of national foreign policy, 1946-1991. Libraries & Culture, 36(1), 193-203.

Robbins, Louise S. (2000). Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship and the American Library. University of Oklahoma Press.

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