Jesse Shera on academic librarians’ professional values

Here is an excerpt from Jesse Shera’s 1936 article in The Bulletin of the American Library Association, “The College Library and its Future.” (Vol. 30, pp. 495-501.)


Having seen that technologically librarianship has made significant progress, and that investigatory activities have already achieved impressive beginnings, we now turn our attention to a field of which the past can ill be proud. As Pierce Butler has shown, librarians have been singularly uninterested in the theoretical aspects of their profession. (Pierce Butler, An Introduction to Library Science. University of Chicago Press, 1933.) Satisfied with simple pragmatism, they are content with a rationalization of each immediate technical process, without any intellectual interest in attempting to generalize these rationalizations into a professional philosophy. From this indictment of the library profession as a whole the college librarian is not exempt. He has been as indifferent as the rest toward the development of any professional credo which might guide and direct his several processes, and give meaning to their results. J. Periam Danton has cut squarely to the heart of the matter when he asserts that:

When the library profession becomes thoroughly conscious of precisely what it is trying to do and why it is doing it, we may hope to see a very significant change affectingn only only libraries and librarians but also the society in which they serve. The bewildered groping which characterizes so much of our activity is largely the result of lack of a definite conception of our purposes. (J. Periam Danton, “A Plea for a Philosophy of Librarianship.” Library Quarterly 4:545, October 1934.)

[…] Lacking this guiding power of a valid philosophy, how, may it be asked, are the college librarians prepared to answer the host of questions that beset the academic world today? We boast of tolerance, but can we afford to be tolerant of intolerance? With academic freedom threatened on every hand, dares the profession to maintain a detached point of view? “There are times when silence is not neutrality but assent.” In a day when a drugstore demagogue can command a legislative investitation into alleged “subversive activities” in one of our great institutions of learning, it is not absurd to fear that some power crazed dictator of the future could repeat the holocaust of Alexandria.

Assuredly, there has been much glib talk among librarians concerning the ideals of the profession, its tolerance, its detachment, its objective point of view with regard to the problems that beset mankind – ideals which have seen their fullest realization in the building up of the respective book collections. College librarians cannot justly be accused of deficient idealism; in many ways they have exemplified the scholastic virtues of tolerance, objectivity, and breadth even more fully than their colleagues in the classroom. Their fault lies in their failure to organize for the defense of these ideals in some future crucial hour. They would do well to remember William James’ pragmatic judgment:

The more ideals a man has, the more contemptible, on the whole, do you continue to deem him, if the matter ends there for him, and if none of the laboring man’s virtues are called into action on his part – no courage shown, no privations undergone, no dirt or scars contracted in the attempt to get them realized. It is quite obvious that something more than the mere possession of ideals is required to make a life significant in any sense that claims the spectator’s admiration.

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