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Thought Paper Second And Third Readings Buffy Hamilton September 12 2005 Reading Cultures And Libraries As Agencies Of Culture, Fall 2005
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Thought Paper Second And Third Readings Buffy Hamilton September 12 2005 Reading Cultures And Libraries As Agencies Of Culture, Fall 2005


Kelman, A. (2003). The sound of the civic: Reading noise at the New York Public Library. In T. Augst & W. Wiegand (Eds.), Libraries as agencies of culture (pp. 23 41). Madison, WI: University of …

Kelman, A. (2003). The sound of the civic: Reading noise at the New York Public Library. In T. Augst & W. Wiegand (Eds.), Libraries as agencies of culture (pp. 23 41). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. From American Studies, 2001, Fall, 42, [3], pp. 23 41 by A. Kelman.

Travis, M. A. (1998). Two cultures of reading in the Modernist period. In Reading cultures: The construction of readers in the twentieth century (pp. 18 43). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Zboray, R. J., & Zboray, M. S. (2003). Home libraries and the institutionalization of everyday practices among antebellum New Englanders. In T. Augst & W. Wiegand (Eds.), Libraries as agencies of culture (pp. 63 86). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. From American Studies, 2001, Fall, 42, [3], pp. 63 86 by R. J. Zboray & M. S. Zboray

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  • 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton Thought/Response Paper ELAN 8005 September 12, 2005 The three readings I completed during the last two weeks have opened up some new paths for exploration; however, these new readings echoed with ideas and principles central to my previous readings for ELAN 8005. My three readings came from two very different texts: Reading Cultures: The Construction of Readers in the Twentieth Century and Libraries as Agencies of Culture. Although none of the three readings turned out to embody the ideas I originally anticipated, all three were enlightening and thought provoking. The first reading, “Two cultures of reading in the Modernist period” from Reading Cultures, proved quite difficult as the style of writing was rather dense and verbose. However, after two readings of this particular chapter, I gleaned some significant and important ideas. The central focus of this chapter is on the construction of highbrow readers, middlebrow readers, and lowbrow readers. Travis suggests that the construction of these labels of readers was in response to anxiety about promiscuous reading, a term that refers to “maverick” readers who were “sampling” a diverse range of texts that resulted from a proliferation of secular texts on topics that fell outside the approval of the cultural elite (18-19). Between 1880 and 1925, technology facilitated the rise of the advertising industry and improved book distribution; consequently, the common public had greater access to a wider range of books, and the book industry engaged in fierce
  • 2. Hamilton 2 publicity campaigns to lure readers. The wars over highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow reading were a reflection of a larger cultural war in America as the cultural elite sought to maintain their power as arbiters of good taste and high culture (19-21). Members of the privileged highbrow class, or the cultural elite, endorsed the belief that institutions such as high modern texts, theater, museums, and symphonic halls were vehicles for transmitting the values and beliefs of high culture, and those outside this dominant class were to passively and obediently learn what was good taste and socially acceptable through these cultural institutions (21-23). Travis identifies this process as the “sacralizing of culture”, a movement that began in earnest 1880s and 1890s with Matthew Arnold’s assertion that culture was “the best that has been known and thought in the world” to be contemplated individually (21). Those outside the dominant high culture class were expected to learn from the superior class in quiet and “civilized” contemplation. However, much of the American masses scorned this pretentious effort to mandate was culturally elite (22). Travis asserts that the mission to “uplift the benighted masses” failed because of the “…emergence of the middlebrow as a transitional culture halfway between the nineteenth century genteel tradition and the mass market of the twentieth century”(22). The genteel tradition evolved from the transcendentalist movement that emphasized self-help and self-reliance and resulting institutions for learning such as the lyceum (22). Americans in this tradition sought knowledge and culture not to attain social status but to achieve self- improvement. However, as mass production of books ushered in the twentieth century, Travis asserts, “The emergence of the twentieth-century middlebrow book club signaled a transition from production to consumption in America”(22). In other words, middlebrow
  • 3. Hamilton 3 readers differed from lowbrow readers because they were somewhat discerning in what they thought to be worthy reading, but middlebrow readers often relied on Book of the Month advance reviews as shortcuts for the acquisition of knowledge and culture--- middlebrow readers felt they after reading a critical review of the book of the month, they did not actually need to read the book to know enough about it to discuss it in social circles (22-23). What exactly defined “middlebrow” readers? The author Virginia Woolf was one of the first to regularly use the term middlebrow (38); she regarded the middlebrow reader as a man or woman who did not read purely “…for the pursuit of…neither art nor life itself”(38), but as a person who read as a means to attain “…money, fame, power, or prestige”(38). Her fear of the middlebrow class reflected, “…the recurring fears of artists and intellectual about the commodification, standardization, and massification of art in the early decades of the twentieth century”(39). Ironically, this fear is present in contemporary society today. While English professors in the academy and leaders of public schools proclaim “No child left behind” and that they want everyone to have equal access to literacy, non-school or non-academe means of acquiring literacy, such as the Oprah Book Club, are scorned and criticized even though these sponsors of literacy are achieving what the culturally elite cannot: motivating masses of Americans from all walks of life to read for self-enrichment and self-transformation. Just as many critics today dismiss the phenomenon of the Oprah Book Club, questioning the validity of the book club choices and whether the readers actually read the texts, so did critics like Henry Seidel Canby, an intellectual who vocally argued against the “maverick reader” of the middlebrow culture who made reading choices
  • 4. Hamilton 4 without the influence of those like Canby (40-41). Like Woolf, Canby viewed the lowbrow class as readers who were “common”; in other words, he idealized the mythical “common reader” as someone who possessed “…cultural memory and a sense of history” and exercised “a well-honed critical judgment”(40). Canby feared the mass production of literature had created a crisis of middlebrow readers who were “…reading (consuming) too much of the wrong thing”(40). He especially feared the “group influence” or “herd mentality” of book clubs that whetted the middlebrow reader’s appetite for reading. Canby felt that middlebrow readers were reading too much “slush, “hash,” and “trash”; Canby viewed the diet of middlebrow readers as “…standardization and mindless escapisms…leading most directly to cultural barbarism”(40). Travis concludes that Canby’s struggle to fight the influence of mass-market book publishing and reading on culture reflected “…how difficult it was in the early twentieth century to cope with the implications of mass education and literacy…he returned always…to the issue of cultural authority”(41). Travis shows that readers were regarded as “consumers” by both the cultural elite and by advertisers and the publishing industry. Just as the cultural elite required acquiescent Americans who submissively accepted what the elite deemed as high culture, advertisers and book publishing executives acted as sponsors of literacy who sought to achieve power by selling their books and using selling techniques that silenced individual taste in books and instead, urged readers to adopt the reading values of the Book of the Month Club group (42-43). The Book of the Month Club promoters seduced members by inviting them to “join the intellectual elite of the country” (43) and by using persuasive techniques that caused readers to doubt their own ability to choose quality books.
  • 5. Hamilton 5 This particular reading caused me to revisit Brandt’s concept of sponsors of literacy and the ways these sponsors of literacy have and continue to shape culture and in particular, readers and reading cultures, in American lives. While the concern in the early part of the century was that the commodification of literacy would undermine high culture, Brandt’s modern day concern is that the commodification of literacy will undercut literacy as a means for fully participating in a democratic society. Even though these concerns are different, the point of intersection is about literacy as a means of preservation and perpetuation of the class system in America. The early twentieth concerns of the masses reading and what counts as reading is eerily similar to today’s debate about what counts as legitimate reading. This reading caused me to wonder about who or what are the most powerful sponsors of literacy are in contemporary America, and why is this century old war of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture still raging? At the heart of this battle is power: those who want to maintain power in modern America, those who want to acquire that power, those who fear the loss of power, and the influences that shift the balance of power. The notion of reading as a vehicle for creating and distributing civilized culture is echoed in Ari Kelman’s 2001 essay, “The Sound of the Civic: Reading Noise at the New York Public Library.” In my readings from this summer and early fall, the library as a sponsor of literacy has been invisible. In this essay that traces the rise of the first public library in New York City, Kelman analyzes the concept of noise, defining it as “…either incomprehensible or unwanted sound”(23). Kelman surmises that noise, “…is consumed but never produced. You can’t make noise, you can only hear it. In this way, noise ends up sounding a lot like silence, as silence, too, can be heard but never emitted, consumed
  • 6. Hamilton 6 but never produced. Noise…must accompany information. It is necessarily social. Noise is produced in and by communication”(25). Kelman asserts that noise is productive and asks, “How does noise produce the city?”(25). In particular, Kelman wants to know what noise is produced or not produced in the main branch of the New York Public Library, a place that is a public space which is, “…powerful and deeply productive of a civic, if eternally noisy city. The main branch speaks because, as a library, it has to. How and what the building speaks---and whom it permits to speak---is part of an ongoing struggle between noise and information, books and people, civility and the city”(25-26). In other words, how does this symbol of power produce culture and literacy in New York City? This library space is a paradox: a library depends on silence to run smoothly and successfully, yet the success of a civic and democratic society depends on noise and dialogue (28). How and why did the library, an institution seen as the gateway to equality and access to information for all, come to be a place of silence? What do the practices and policies of public libraries such as the New York City Public Library imply about culture and civilized readers? How do libraries explicitly and implicitly transmit culture? Kelman believes that library space produces knowledge, a “civilized citizenry” who can read quietly, and the production of a community “…through public discourse that had to happen elsewhere”(29). While readers may come to a public library to acquire information, the conversations about that information that create culture take place outside the library. Kelman believes that the sponsors of literacy who helped build and consolidate the New York Public Library system consciously created libraries as silent places of information access and public reading to civilize the masses (29-31).
  • 7. Hamilton 7 It was not until 1895 that New York City had a city wide public library system. New York’s wealthiest families, the Astors and the Lenoxs, owned the city’s two elite research libraries (32); these branches were open only to the academic elite or members of the upper echelons of New York society. Other public branches were known as free circulating libraries, which served diverse populations across the city. When the trustees of the Astor and Lenox libraries decided to consolidate their resources, they proposed the establishment of a public library system to the leaders of New York City, citing that “…a popular public library, bringing sound literature within the reach of every man’s home, is in a very real sense a part of the educational system of the State. Education ought not to stop with the public school, nor even with the high school. It is necessary to provide the higher school which a well-equipped popular library can alone afford. Moreover, the State has a profound interest in aiding the circulation of ideas that are not ephemeral”(33). In essence, the trustees argued that a library would help breed good citizens; consequently, good citizens would lead to the flourishing a literate city that would command the respect of the world (33). The proposed library would provide access to the ideals, values, and information necessary for shaping and creating a civilized society of New York’s burgeoning immigrant culture. This belief reflected a larger movement of the time known as “city beautiful,” a philosophy that believed noble and great public spaces and institutions would cure the woes of urban areas and inspire the lower classes to a greater standard of living and personal conduct (34-35). Once the library was approved and constructed, the trustees then turned their attention to instituting library policies and practices that could mold and shape uncultured immigrants and patrons into subservient consumers of information who would take that
  • 8. Hamilton 8 information and produce a great city outside the silent walls of the public library (36). One important hallmark of this first public library branch was that patrons were allowed to read library texts and access information, but books were not permitted to be loaned out to patrons. Patrons were expected to be quiet and industrious so that patrons could read, write, and research efficiently; those who did not conform to this code of silence and productivity were removed. Patrons learned quickly that access to the library meant obeying the code of civility and decorum of the library (36-37). Kelman contends that, “Similar to the noise of the city that keeps us awake at night or calls our attention in the street, the noise of the civic invades the private consumption of information. The free circulation of information would produce disciplined citizens who could efficiently contribute to the moral and economic fabric of the city. The noise of reading overwhelms what is being read; it is consumed but never produced. Only in its consumption is it able to be productive…But both silent civility and a civility of a perfect communication are both impossibilities”(37-39). In short, the library sanctioned silence as a critical practice because silence taught readers how to behave in a civilized manner; however, Kelman believes that this practice taught patrons that it did not matter what one read but how one read, a skill necessary to those who belonged to a cultured society. After re-reading Kelman’s essay, I have mixed responses to her claims. While I certainly can envision the creation of a public library in that time period as an institution designed to produce a certain kind of culture, I can also see the policy and practice of silence as a necessary evil for a productive library. As a librarian in elementary and high school, I can attest to the fact that a quiet and civilized decorum is critical in order for all patrons to achieve their pursuits in the library, whether they are there to read for pleasure
  • 9. Hamilton 9 or to research and access information. While some modern public libraries provide spaces for audible discourse, most public schools do not enjoy the privilege of having adequate funding or advance input in the design of a library that would include the creation of a space that would permit dialogue and conversation above a whisper or outside of small group instruction. While the practice of silence may have originated from the desire to “teach” patrons how civilized behaviors, today’s silence is to ensure a decorum of concentration and contemplation. However, if libraries are indeed the preservers and transmitters of culture, is it time to expand the traditional mission and concept of libraries, particularly school libraries, which are often the only literacy site outside of the classroom that many American schoolchildren can access? The American Association of School Librarians embraces the concept of a public school library as a place of inquiry, yet inquiry requires “noise” and dialogue. How can public school libraries balance their mission as sites of access to information and places of literacy as inquiry? Is it possible for libraries to reinvent themselves as places of dialogue around books, texts, ideas, and information rather than merely a point of entry to literacy? What messages about culture and literacy do current library practices (school libraries, public libraries, academic libraries) impart to their patrons and to society? How have libraries across America functioned as sponsors of literacy in the past, and how do contemporary libraries now function as sponsors of literacy? What are the possibilities for libraries as sponsors of literacy, particularly in a climate where libraries are facing cutbacks in funding and personnel? These are questions that I would like to explore this semester and in the future.
  • 10. Hamilton 10 As I sought to envision non-traditional possibilities for libraries as sponsors of literacy, I discovered some exciting possibilities in my final reading from Libraries as Agencies of Culture. In the fascinating and revealing chapter entitled, “Home Libraries and the Institutionalization of Everyday Practices Among Antebellum New Englanders,” the focus of this scholarly article is on the role of personal libraries as agents of culture in pre-Civil War New England. Zboray and Zboray ask the reader to conceptualize the cultural history of the library, “…not as a thing but as a process consisting of a cluster of discrete-though-related activities requiring neither institutional support nor even specialized rooms serving the information needs of community member or strangers. The institutional history of libraries thus becomes a subset of society-wide practices of collection (and preservation), arrangement, cataloging, retrieval, and circulation of cultural artifacts”(66). The authors studied nearly 4,000 manuscript diaries and letters written by a diverse group of New Englanders between 1830 and 1861; they chose to study antebellum New England because the region pioneered tax based public libraries, the region was a site of rich literary culture, and the region had the nation’s highest literary rates by 1850 for both black and white adults, 93 and 98 percent (66-67). Through their study of these manuscripts and practices in the private lives of these Americans, Zboray and Zboray concluded that “…books and reading became instrumental in forging and maintaining social ties; literariness infused everyday social encounters and literature was given meaning through social expression”(66). In contrast to the experiences and literacy histories of the participants in Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives, the possession of a personal library, no matter how small, was essential in the lives of antebellum New Englanders. Zboray and Zboray
  • 11. Hamilton 11 discovered that “…having a good collection was an ideal toward which even the lowliest New England reader strived”(67), and even the poorest families managed to create small collections. While the size of one’s collection could reflect one’s financial status, selectivity was more important to these home librarians (68-69). In addition, these New Englanders purchased books specifically for reading and studying; they did not collect books to merely sit on the shelves as home décor. The most valuable books, though, were not the most expensive ones. Instead, the most prized books were those, “…imbued with personal meaning…out of date almanacs inscribed by deceased relatives, gift volumes presented during courtship, personal journals filled with memories, or old textbooks worn and torn by years of schooling”(69). Selectivity and personal meaning were the guiding principles for home library building. Not only did these citizens collect books, but the manuscripts also revealed personal ways of cataloging and organizing books. While the systems of organization were diverse, ranging from classification of the books in relation to personal memories to lexicons, the organizational systems usually revealed the relationship of the owners to their books (70). What I found most interesting about this research was that the books did not sit idly in the owners’ homes. Books were regularly and frequently exchanged between friends and family; Zboray and Zboray concluded that, “Library circulation played into rhythms of everyday life---from visiting to enlivening working hours---just about everywhere people congregated…. nearly every act of circulation ultimately expressed personal relationships”(71). While the rules of lending and borrowing were not written down as formal policy, the implied understanding that books were to be well cared for and returned in a timely manner was well understood and respected by New Englanders (72-
  • 12. Hamilton 12 76). It was not uncommon for lenders to share keys with neighbors, family, or friends so that others could have unlimited access to one’s personal library (76). Most importantly, outsiders had free access to personal libraries because, “…reading itself was a social activity---one associated with family life, visiting, and entertaining guests---rather than a recluse’s pastime”(76). Reading was the fiber that held together the society of this time, and reading was an essential part of daily and social life. Those who had enough space in their home for a room devoted to their libraries used the room as part of their daily life routines; sewing, napping, smoking, receiving guests, and conversing with friends were activities people practiced regularly in their libraries. Consequently, libraries “…housed not only books, but cherished memories”(78). Even those who could not devote a room to their books kept their prized possessions in safe places in their home, or more commonly, in a spot where the books would be handy for reading and sharing with neighbors and guests who might drop in to visit (78). In short, books and reading were practices that were an essential part of daily life. Ironically, with the establishment of public tax-supported libraries in the mid 1800s, “…in the transfer of responsibility {for enriching and maintaining literary experience for citizens}, reading lost some of its social meaning, for the locus of book exchange---an institution rather than neighbor---became abstract”(81). The very institution designed to continue and expand the literacy practices already in existence in the region somewhat eroded the “vibrancy of every day literacy experience among antebellum New Englanders”(81). While an increasingly industrial society and the explosion of information weakened the social bonds of the once agrarian society necessitated the establishment of a public library system to meet the needs of all citizens. However, as
  • 13. Hamilton 13 much as the establishment of the public library helped to legitimize a community’s commitment to knowledge (81), the public library could never establish the sharing of books and reading as a social practice in the way that the personal home library networks did. As I read this chapter, I could not help but marvel with a sense of wonder and awe at this remarkable private library system that reinforced and enriched the literacy experiences of these citizens. In some ways, we practice these same behaviors today as we share books with family and friends and maintain our own persona libraries. However, I seriously doubt there is any community in contemporary America where reading and personal libraries are an essential part of daily life as they were during this time period and region of antebellum New England. The questions that now linger after reading this chapter include: Is it possible for this kind of literate community to be revived on a larger scale today? How, if even possible, could public, school, and academic libraries create similar literacy experiences as these for today’s readers? Reading was valued during this time for personal enrichment and knowledge, not as an economic commodity. Are there any pockets of American society that still value literacy experiences for their intrinsic merit rather than as a required tool for survival in modern American society and our contemporary economy? Did other communities like these exist elsewhere in the United States during the same time period? Why or why not?
  • 14. Hamilton 14 Can reading ever regain its status as an essential and pleasurable aspect of daily life in the lives of modern Americans? If so, how might this change our conception and uses of public libraries? How did these literary communities affect the future literacy acquisition and experiences of future generations in the region? Do local or chain bookstores embody any of the functions as these personal libraries did over 150 years ago? In conclusion, these readings were challenging in terms of content and style. However, I found these three readings to be thought provoking and a source of new research questions for my current and future studies. I feel these potential lines of inquiry are important because they all address the dynamic relationship between reading, books, culture, libraries, and other sponsors of literacy in America. I look forward to further exploring the history of libraries in my next reading and to see if I find any answers to the questions I have posed in these readings.
  • 15. Hamilton 15 References Kelman, A. (2003). The sound of the civic: Reading noise at the New York Public Library. In T. Augst & W. Wiegand (Eds.), Libraries as agencies of culture (pp. 23-41). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. From American Studies, 2001, Fall, 42, [3], pp. 23-41 by A. Kelman. Travis, M. A. (1998). Two cultures of reading in the Modernist period. In Reading cultures: The construction of readers in the twentieth century (pp. 18-43). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Zboray, R. J., & Zboray, M. S. (2003). Home libraries and the institutionalization of everyday practices among antebellum New Englanders. In T. Augst & W. Wiegand (Eds.), Libraries as agencies of culture (pp. 63-86). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. From American Studies, 2001, Fall, 42, [3], pp. 63-86 by R. J. Zboray & M. S. Zboray.