Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century

K.C. Harrison (Past President, The Library Association)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Harrison, K.C. (2000), "Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 1, pp. 40-48. https://doi.org/10.1108/lr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

With the new millennium we must expect to be confronted with a plethora of histories of the progress of life in the twentieth century. Here is one of the first of them to appear. Within the compass of 200 pages, Lowell Martin has contrived to relate the story of the American public library in the last 100 years, and the first question to be asked is whether or not he has succeeded in his task. With some reservations, which will be made later in this review, the answer must be in the positive. After a very brief preliminary article, in which he sketches the legacy of the nineteenth century, Martin manages to plot American public library progress in six chapters more or less equal in length.

World history helps him to divide these into recognisable periods. He describes 1900‐1917 as the foundation years. This is followed by a chapter on the innovative years which cover 1918‐1929. The years 1930‐1945 are described in a section called depression and war, and following that come three chapters describing respectively the developments in the periods 1946‐1959, 1960‐1979, and 1980 to the end of the century. The author ends his first two chapters with notes on influential American librarians of the periods under review. Featured among these names are those of John Cotton Dana, Arthur E. Bostwick, Effie L. Power and Jennie M. Flexner: shades of textbooks long ago!Disappointingly, Martin does not continue with these biographical snippets in his later chapters. Perhaps the names would be too numerous to select from, or perhaps he would have found it invidious to do so. But he does offer overviews of public library development during the decades he covers, and these will be of special interest to readers.

In this brief survey Lowell Martin touches upon most aspects of public library work through the century. Classification and cataloguing; circulation work and reference services; work with children and the ageing population; the governing and financing of public libraries; intellectual freedom and standards for public libraries; the accreditation of library schools and their programmes for producing public librarians – all these and more appear in his pages. But the relevant phrase is “touches upon”, because the author cannot do much more than that within the compass of this short survey. There are, too, obvious gaps in his coverage. Apart from a few pages given over to library architecture, design and planning in the middle of the book, this theme does not re‐emerge later, thus disappointing the many admirers of American library buildings of the later years of the century. Another topic which is hardly mentioned is the provision made for the various ethnic communities in the USA.

There is a bibliography for further reading, and every chapter is equipped with notes and references. It also has to be said that Martin’s pages are dotted with facts which will surely interest librarians all over the world. We learn, for example, that the American Library Association now has over 55,000 members and that it has adopted a Goals 2000 program to meet oncoming change and to guide the organisation into the twenty‐first century. Lowell Martin is confident that the public library will continue to provide enrichment well into that century, and he quotes Bill Gates as a supporter of that view.

As an introduction to the history of the American public library from 1900‐1999, this book could hardly be bettered. But it is only an introduction. The full story would occupy many more pages, perhaps even volumes, and it still remains to be written.

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