#citylis Student Perspectives: library history, part i / my independent study by Mariana Ou

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Mariana Ou, and is the first part of a series of three reflections on her Independent Study about Library History.

part ii

part iii


i.i On the value of library history

In an article of 1952, the American librarian and scholar Jesse H. Shera reflected On the value of library history. His purpose was ‘to examine the contribution which history can make to an understanding of the role of the library in society’. First, he thought it was important to establish what is the social utility of history itself; for that he borrowed from English philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History that:

What is history for? … My answer is that history is “for” human self-knowledge. It is generally thought to be of importance to man that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing … his nature as man … Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.

Shera agrees with this notion, and also with Collingwood’s pretty definition of history as a ‘science, or an answering of questions; concerned with human actions in the past; pursued by interpretation of evidence; for the sake of human self-knowledge’.

And then what for library history?

Shera characterises the beginning of the writing of the history of libraries as ‘long, tedious, and often uninspiring narration of the events, personalities, and circumstances surrounding the formation, growth, and development of individual institutions’. (Anyone who has ever researched a bit of library history certainly came across one or two of these ‘narratives’.) Thankfully, as Shera noticed, the scenario was changing, and historical studies which considered the library as a social institution embedded in a broader social milieu, not as a ‘isolated and independent agency existing in social vaccums’, were emerging.

A fine example, according to Shera, of a work that defied its time by arguing for history as essential to ‘an understanding of library in relation to its coeval culture’ is professor Lee Pierce Butler’s 1933 An Introduction to Library Science, in which ‘not only did he reveal that a knowledge of history is essential to the librarian’s complete intellectual equipment, but he showed history itself to be the logical starting point for almost every inquiry into the nature and function of the library as a social agency’.


And from Butler’s later tripartite definition of culture as ‘an organic intergration of a scholarship, a physical equipment, and a social organisation’, Shera then concluded in his article that:

Valid library history, then, can be written only when the library is regarded in relation to this tripartite division of culture, a phenomenon which not only has physical being, is formed in response to social determinants, but finds its justification as a segment of the totality of the intellectual processes of society. The library is an agency of the entirety of the culture; more specifically, it is one portion of the system of graphic communication through which that culture operates, and its historic origins are to be sought in an understanding of the production, flow, and consumption of graphic communication through all parts of the social pattern.

i.ii But should ‘library history’ even exist?

Six decades and the World Wide Web on, Shera’s “graphic communication” does sound a bit like history—but everything else seems not only right but timely, even. His article gets refreshed relevancy and is shed new light on when read along a paper presented in the 2015 Library History Conference by Kristian Jensen from the British Library, Should we write library history?

The paper is a provocation for debate, as the author described. He points out how there seems to be ‘a real uncertainty about what library history is’, as the many studies on ‘library history’ cover a too wide variety of themes and periods, suggesting a lack of cohesion in the field. Can a study on ‘the role of public libraries in the twentieth-century Scandinavian models of democracy’ and another on ‘the role of libraries in the life of a Cistercian monastery’ be recognised as doing the same kind of historical investigation?, asks Jensen:

An illustration of the Library of Alexandria (Public Domain), and The New York Public Library (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License- CC-BY-SA 3.0): Can it be that the activities performed in these diverse places are actually related?

Can one meaningfully ask questions of such a diverse set of institutions? Are these phenomena—these libraries—really in the same category, or is Library History one big error of classification?

And even though Jensen is sceptical about library history being able to stand up as a discipline, he is also ‘very optimistic about the opportunities which libraries offer to those who want to write about them from historical perspectives’ and recognises that ‘there is space for historiography on libraries, the writing of the histories of libraries rooted within disciplines, be they political, economic, cultural history, art historical, the study of vernacular literatures, the classics, politics or sociology’.

Both these precious articles go far beyond what I cited here, but when it comes to the author’s decades-apart perspectives on library history, it seems clear that they agree that:

1. the study of history is very much valuable to librarianship and others;
2. the social context and cultural milieu in which the library is embedded is essential to its historical enquiry.

In a next post, I will present the ways in which some historians have widened the antiquarian perspective on libraries to include cultural and political aspects in their approach to ‘library history’.


Butler, P. 1933. An Introduction to Library Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Butler, P. 1951. Librarianship as a Profession. Library Quarterly, XXI (October), 240.
Collingwood, R. G. 1946. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jensen, K. 2016. Should we write library history? Quaerendo, Volume 46, Issue 2-3, pp. 116-128. DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341349
Shera, J. 1952. On the value of library history. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 22, No. 3, Jul, pp. 240-251.


You can follow Mariana on Twitter.

This post is an edited version of the original which was published on the author’s blog on 23rd March 2017.

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About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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