Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876‐1920

Bob Duckett (Vice Chair, CILIP Library and Information History Group)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Duckett, B. (2004), "Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876‐1920", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 7, pp. 381-381. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530410552340



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

When first published in 1979, Dee Garrison's Apostles of Culture provoked a reaction which contributed mightily to a renaissance of library history. An “outsider”, a non‐librarian, Garrison attacked the “received” tradition of the public library being regarded as part of the general movement for social reform and moral uplift in the late nineteenth century. Bringing together the class‐ and gender‐based ideologies of the early library leaders, the scientific management of Melvil Dewey, the contradictory and ambivalent policies of libraries towards popular mass‐produced fiction, and, above all, the feminisation of the profession, Garrison set in train a revolution in library historiography. Since so much subsequent work is contingent of Apostles of Culture, and as no book‐length work has appeared to replace it (at least in the US), the reissue of this “modern classic” “allows its historiographical and political – as well as its historical – significance to be more fully appreciated” (foreword).

Part 1 of Garrison's book presents a profile of selected senior librarians: Justin Winsor, W.F. Poole and C.A. Cutter, and their peers (“New England Brahmins”). These gentlemen patricians were replaced by the educational and political “missionaries”, but Garrison forcefully de‐bunks the standard social reforming orthodoxy, replacing it with class self‐interest. Part 2 describes how the library's attempt to dilute the influence of “immoral” literature was slowly replaced by a less paternalistic approach. Part 3 looks at the psychology, career and influence of Melvil Dewey, a representative of the “new professional”. The final section, Part 4, assesses the feminisation of both the public library and the profession of librarianship.

Of special value to this 2003 edition is the 18‐page foreword by Christine Pawley. This sets Apostles of Culture in context and provides an informative and challenging review of modern library history. The work of the critics of Garrison's work is well represented, as is that of other library history pioneers such as Michael Harris, Wayne Wiegand and Don Davis. I am sorry that the pioneering work done in the UK by, for example, Bryan Luckham (Luckham, 1971) and Alistair Black (Black, 1996), get no mention. Perhaps Garrison's claim in her introduction that the public library is a “uniquely American institution” (!) set the tone. And are altruism and high‐mindedness “traditional female concerns”?

Anyone interested, nay, worried, about public libraries will find much of value in Apostles of Culture. I was disconcerted to find my own fuzzy philosophy of librarianship to be characterised as a wish to impose my own cultural mores, but maybe we are all guilty of unrecognised self‐interest. By exposing such motives, Garrison does us a service. I wondered if, apart from the gender difference, Garrison's US librarian as “society queen” has a resonance with the UK Edwardian “librarian as romantic hero” of Michelle Johansen's talk at the CILIP Umbrella conference in July 2003! Library history‐wise, we live in exciting times. This is a timely re‐issue of an original and thought‐provoking book.


Black, A. (1996), A New History of the English Public Library: Social and Intellectual Contexts, 1850‐1914, Leicester University Press, Leicester.

Luckham, B. (1971), The Library in Society, Library Association, London.

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