Considering Libraries in Their Historical Context

I would wager that most people, myself included, take a rather rosy view of public libraries. They are storehouses of knowledge, knowledge that is free for the people to access. More than that, they are community centers, places where all are welcome to bring their children, look for a job, or just find a quiet spot to read the newspaper. When Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs that the public library is “a model of what a community-run, not-for-profit, public service ought to and can look like,” I can’t help but nod in agreement. Of course, I say to myself—who doesn’t love libraries?

Before you get ahead of me: no, I am not about to argue that libraries are “bad, actually.” I probably wouldn’t even be writing this piece if I didn’t value their place in society. But I think it’s important that we consider that place in society critically, that we ask ourselves about the historical and material conditions that have made public libraries possible.

I recently finished reading Paul Krause’s book The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), an academic history of the 1892 Homestead lockout. A major event in United States labor history, the lockout is most famous for the events of July 6, which saw local steelworkers and agents of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency battle for control of the Homestead Steel Works. The ultimate defeat of the locked-out steelworkers signaled the decline of American trade unions, who would not come back to power until several decades later.

So what does labor conflict in western Pennsylvania have to do with libraries? Well, the Homestead Steel Works were the property of none other than Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in history and the benefactor of literally thousands of libraries the world over. It’s common to see Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts as separate from or contradictory to his role as a titan of the steel industry and an embodiment of wealth inequality. According to Krause, however, the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, libraries factor directly into the history of the Homestead lockout.

For Krause, the relationship between Carnegie the robber baron and Carnegie the philanthropist is complementary. It’s not just that the wealth he acquired made his generosity possible; Carnegie could also use the promise of his charitable efforts to justify business policies that were detrimental to workers. For example, as a precondition to building a library for a town, Carnegie required that the employees of the town’s steelworks agree to adopt a sliding scale that would tie their wages “to the fluctuating market price of steel,” instead of “an annual contract that was based on the consistently higher market price of iron” (p. 236). In other words, his plan to enrich the public’s access to knowledge rested on cutting his workers’ wages.

His 1889 dedication speech for the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock makes that plan explicit; Krause quotes at length from a section in which Carnegie addresses the question of whether he had plans to build a similar library in the union stronghold of Homestead:

“Do something for Homestead?” he retorted. “Well, we have expected for a long time, but so far in vain, that Homestead should do something for us.” If Homestead would only do something for him, he would be pleased to build a library there, too. “I am only too anxious to do for them what I have done for you, . . . I hope one day I may have the privilege of erecting at Homestead such a building as you have here; but . . . our works at Homestead are not to us as our works at Edgar Thompson [the steelworks in Braddock]. Our men there are not partners.” The AAISW [Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers], Carnegie continued, had strong lodges in Homestead that compelled him to pay exorbitant wages. “Of course . . . the firm may decide to give the men at Homestead the benefit of the sliding scale which you enjoy. I know that for the success of [the] Homestead works, regarded from the point of view of the capital invested, . . . the present system at Homestead must be changed.”

Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel, p. 237

Reading that part of the speech, I cannot help but picture Carnegie as a stereotypical mafioso, scratching his bearded throat as he offers to do a “favor” for the working class citizens of western Pennsylvania. Viewed in this light, it’s hard to see the libraries that Carnegie built in Homestead, Braddock, and elsewhere as charitable gifts at all. For a gift to be charitable, it must be freely given without the expectation of receiving something in return. At best, these libraries serve as monuments to Andrew Carnegie’s self-regard; at worst, they serve as tokens of economic extortion.

Lest one think this critique is simply a case of historical revisionism, Krause notes that there was significant skepticism and backlash towards Carnegie’s libraries in the late 19th century. First, steelworkers and local politicians understood his libraries as symbolic of his conflicts with labor, which explains why “in the thirty-three years during which Carnegie bestowed libraries, 225 communities turned down his offer,” including over 40% of towns he solicited in Pennsylvania (p. 238). Second, it’s not at all clear that libraries were all that beneficial to the towns where he built them—especially when compared to the wage cuts that accompanied them. Trade unions fought for higher wages, limits on working hours, and job security, all of which are necessary to even hope to enjoy a library. As one steelworker put it, “Carnegie builds libraries for the working men, but what good are libraries to me, working practically eighteen hours a day?” (qtd. in Krause, p. 239)

And all this doesn’t even touch on the shady way Carnegie acquired the land on which the library in Homestead was built. Krause details how Carnegie’s company colluded with the political machinery of western Pennsylvania to purchase the City Farm land for less than half of its market value (land that, perhaps coincidentally, overlooks the site of the Homestead Steel Works). Between the reduced wages of the town’s steelworkers and the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to municipal governments, one could plausibly argue that the Carnegie Library of Homestead represented a net loss for the region.

After learning about just how his libraries came into existence, I certainly take a more cynical view of Carnegie’s philanthropy; I see the man less as someone torn between noble and acquisitive impulses and more as someone who served the public good merely incidentally. (I say that as a beneficiary of his legacy: I earned my undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University.) Yet I cannot deny the fact that those libraries remain a benefit to the public. Last July, I wrote a short post about the theft of rare books from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The news that those books had been stolen and sold for profit enraged me, and I stand by that sentiment. Libraries belong to us—even when they’re imposed on us.

If there’s any takeaway I’d like to offer on this, it’s that no institution is pure, even an institution as noble as a public library. They are all subject to the social, political, and economic systems that produce them. Just be aware of that history, and maybe use the library’s resources to understand it better. Case in point: you can find a copy of The Battle for Homestead at the Carnegie Library of Homestead. What better use of a library card is there than to learn something critical about that library’s history?


I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. In particular, how do we properly engage with a public institution like a library when we’re aware of the troubling history of how it came to be? I certainly wish I had a definite answer for that!

If you’d like to read more of my musings on libraries in their broader context, I’ll point you to this piece I wrote on the OCLC Library 100 list, and what that list tells us about literature and society. And as always, thank you for reading!

Some Thoughts on The Library 100

A few days ago OCLC, the organization that operates the WorldCat library cataloging system, unveiled The Library 100, their version of a most-popular-novels list. Rather than tallying sales, OCLC decided to rank novels based on how many libraries that register information with WorldCat hold at least one copy of a given book.

Just glancing at The Library 100, something becomes apparent almost immediately. Rather than featuring contemporary bestsellers, the list is dominated by “classics,” the marketing category that covers older, timeless literature and usually carries prestigious connotations. Classics are also my wheelhouse, so on a personal taste level I don’t really have any complaints. I’m more interested in talking about what sort of classics ended up on this list, because I get the sense that libraries have a more narrow conception of the term than I do.

As an exercise, I recorded the publication date of every novel on The Library 100 and sorted them into one of eight broad eras: pre–17th century, 1601–1700, 1701–1800, 1800–1850, 1851–1900, 1901–1950, 1951–2001, and 2001–present. I then counted the number of novels that fell into each period, to get a sense of which points in time libraries were especially fond of. The results are presented in the chart below:

The Library 100 Books by Era.

2001–present: 1
1951–2000: 12
1901–1950: 30
1851–1900: 33
1801–1850: 18
1701–1800: 3
1601–1700: 2
pre–17th century: 1

Before going any further, I’ll note a few limitations to this approach. First, pinpointing exactly when some novels were published can take a bit of guesswork, especially for older works where the records may have been lost. Second, even if records are present and accurate, there may be multiple possible publication dates to choose from. For instance, many of the novels on The Library 100 were originally published in serial formats, and were subsequently compiled into a single book. In such cases, it’s not clear which date should be the “official” date of publication: when the first installment was published? the last installment? the completed and compiled book? It was because of such ambiguous cases that decided to just use broad periods rather than precise years.

Based on the above chart, we can see that the periods 1851–1900 and 1901–1950 make up a large portion of the list. Combined, this 100-year stretch accounts for 63 of the 100 novels. We then see a sharp drop off on either side of this combined stretch, with the periods on either extreme of the chart accounting for just 1 novel each. Why exactly is this the case?

A few reasons spring to mind immediately. First, a list that only includes novels, like The Library 100, will necessarily be biased towards the period of time when the novel was popular, i.e., from the 18th century onward. You can surely imagine that a list that included drama and poetry would at least feature the likes of Shakespeare and Homer. Second, a list based on library holdings will be biased towards works that have been around for long enough to end up in such collections, especially if the novel in question still has to be translated into other languages. And third, well, the classics are popular. It may not be reflected on the bestseller charts, but think of how many people read Pride and Prejudice or A Christmas Carol every year. Almost by definition, they have a proven, consistent fanbase, and that will convince libraries to keep those books on shelves.

But of course, there are other, more socially systemic reasons why one would expect classics to dominate this particular list, reasons that OCLC actually acknowledges in the FAQ section. They note that classics “are the novels most often translated, retold in different editions, taught and widely distributed in library collections,” and that as a result, “the list tends to reflect more dominant cultural views.” (They go on mention various efforts to diversify their holdings and encourage the reader to lend a hand in the effort.) It’s no surprise that white men are overly represented here, but something that did surprise me was how Anglophone the list was as well. You can see just how much English-language works dominate the list in the chart below:

The Library 100 Books by Language

English: 75
French: 12
Russian: 5
German: 4
Italian: 2
Spanish: 2

Even though I tend to think of French and Russian as especially literary languages, combined they only account for 17 of the 100 books on the list. And that’s to say nothing of languages that are completely absent: no Arabic, no Japanese, no Mandarin, etc. English is especially over-represented in the top slots. While the #1 novel on the list was written in Spanish (Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes), the rest of the top 20 was all written in English. This might not be too shocking if WorldCat was only used in, say, the United States, where publishers have been historically reluctant to publish works in translation. But OCLC boasts that WorldCat is used in over 120 countries, so what gives?

My best hypothesis is based around the fact that the rise of the novel coincided with the height of the British Empire and the emergence of the United States as a world power. In addition to imposing economic, political, and social systems onto the rest of the world, both British and American empires could impose their cultural products onto it as well. This cultural imperialism could take a softer form, such as associating Anglophone literature with high class and prestige, or a harder form, such forcing Anglophone literature into classroom curricula at the expense of literature in the local language. Even in our slightly more conscious postcolonial world, the effects of that imperialism may still linger in the collective taste of libraries.

Combine the context of world and literary history and the dominance of Anglophone literature in general on the list, and it’s almost natural that Charles Dickens is the most-represented author here. Six of his novels made The Library 100, with 4 of them in the top 20. Dickens is the epitome of Victorian novelists, which in the somewhat conception of classics this list presents, makes him the epitome of literature. Which, hey, maybe he is, at least to some people! He’s never been to my taste, exactly, but what’s wonderful about libraries (in theory, at least) is that they don’t pander to any one group’s preferences. They’re not marketplaces that conflate popularity with quality, but repositories and archives that treat all entries as worthy of respect. (Libraries are in fact run by fallible humans who do face economic realities, but can’t we live the dream for a few more minutes?)

Libraries are a hodge-podge—meticulously organized, but a hodge-podge nonetheless. That’s what I love about them, and that’s what I tried to capture in my Classics Club reading list. As I wrote in December, I wanted “kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama.” But I also wanted works from people of different backgrounds, from different languages and vastly different time periods. I’m not trying to disparage the list per se, which seems like a perfectly fine piece of descriptive analysis of library holdings. I’ve just been trying to figure out why I, of all people, found it all just a little bit boring.

Not too boring, though. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered futzing with Excel to write about it.


Thank you for reading! If you share my love of the classics but want something a little less obvious that The Library 100 catalog, you might enjoy my own list of books that should be taught in high school, which if nothing else includes some really good poetry collections.

A Ramble on Used Book Sale Clutter

Used book sales, at least in my estimation, are bit like prospecting: you have to pan through an ungodly amount of silt before you find the faintest flakes of gold. I’ve uncovered some gems in my searches, sure: my first collection of E. E. Cummings’s poetry, a copy of David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, etc. And there must be something especially satisfying about finding such a book amidst all the otherwise uninteresting selections.

For the most part, though, browsing through the bins is mostly an exercise in idle curiosity. I start wondering, for example, how long the library has held onto this how-to guide for using the Internet from 1997, and how many times they’ve considered just recycling it already. I start wondering where exactly all these John Grisham and Jodi Picoult novels are manufactured and distributed, because there’s a ton of unsold inventory to contend with. (And don’t even get me started on all the Bibleman VHS tapes just lying on the floor.) I’m sure someone buys these books every once in a while, if only to qualify for a bulk purchase discount, but not enough that these books finally to disappear.

Margaret Kingsbury, a writer for Book Riot who works at a used bookstore, recently published a list of books that tend to flood her shelves. Some of these items are hardly surprising: old airport fiction, political tell-alls, Chicken Soup for the Soul. People tend to approach these books less as artworks than as content: something to be consumed quickly, and then disposed of. These titles may certainly be successes from the point of view of their publishers, as they sold quite a few copies when they first came out, but no one is surprised by their brief periods of relevance.

One might call this category of books “anti-classics,” not in the sense that they’re necessarily bad, but in the the sense that they follow the reverse trajectory in popularity we often imagine for classics. Whereas a book like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie struggled to sell even 500 copies on initial release but is today regarded as a seminal work of American realism, the books mentioned above reach far more readers in the months immediately after publication but fade out in the long run. (We’ll ignore the fact that cases like Sister Carrie are the exception rather than rule; most classics were at least moderately successful from the start, albeit rarely hugely so.)

More interesting, I find, are the books that Kingsbury names which are/were genuine cultural phenomena: young adult series like Twilight and The Hunger Games, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, even (to Kingsbury’s own surprise) George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. These are books that people care about specifically (as opposed to  “the newest James Patterson novel”), so perhaps they’re more likely to see a resurgence in popularity at some point in the future. But just as likely, they’ll end up as pieces of historical trivia, as semi-obscure markers of their respective eras.

I can easily envision, for instance, The Hunger Games getting a mention in a future U.S. history textbook as a way of demonstrating the political distress of the early 21st century, in the same way that textbooks currently use Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward as an example of late-19th-century utopianism or Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar for post-Civil War spirituality. (And let’s not forget Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which must be the Ulysses of this peculiar category.) Surely a passing reference on page 837 is not exactly Suzanne Collins’s ideal in terms posterity, but I can think of worse legacies for books.

I think what used book sales and textbooks and Kingsbury’s lists remind us is that “popularity” is a rather nebulous concept. To quote a Lincoln Michel piece from Electric Literature, “[I]s popularity only measured in the short-term? Is a book that sells 100,000 copies in a year, but is quickly forgotten, more ‘popular’ than a book that sells 10,000 copies a year for 50 years?” And at any rate, are those questions relevant to anyone who doesn’t obsessively check BookScan figures?

What are your thoughts on, well, any of this? What books do you keep coming across in the used sections? Are there any works that you think will wind up as textbook fodder? Let me know in the comments!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got more Mary Higgins Clark novels to unceremoniously sift through. There’s got to be a decent poetry collection in here somewhere.

Stealing from the Public: On the Carnegie Library’s Rare Books Theft

Back in April 2017, news broke that someone had stolen over 300 items from the rare books room at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, ranging from a 17th century map of New York and New England to a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The rare books room has been closed ever since the disclosure of the thefts, and the people responsible have not been identified—until, possibly, this past week.

As Paula Reed Ward reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two people have emerged as prime suspects in the case:

The former archivist of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare book collection told investigators he conspired with the owner of an Oakland [a neighborhood in Pittsburgh] bookseller since the 1990s to steal and resell items taken from there.

Gregory Priore, who was terminated from the library on June 28, 2017, and John Schulman, who co-owns Caliban Book Shop, are under investigation for theft, receiving stolen property and criminal mischief, according to hundreds of pages of documents unsealed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Recent estimates place the monetary value of the stolen items at over 8,000,000 USD. The cultural cost of the theft is, of course, incalculable.

As someone who spent about four years living in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh while an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, this was a surprising and disheartening turn. I didn’t go to Caliban very often, even though it was about a five minute walk from my dorm—I am, shall we say, a tightwad—but I do have some fond book-related memories of the place: finding a cheapo paperback of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, for instance, or discovering the work of Quebecois poet of Gatien Lapointe. And I’d get a faint feeling of civic pride whenever John Schulman would appear as an appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Well, there goes that aura of positivity.

I suppose one might hope that a rare and used bookseller, while motivated by the bottom line, might share the library’s interest in making the literary past available to the public. Price is a significant barrier to access, certainly, but shops such as Caliban do provide the service of keeping what’s out-of-print and long-forgotten in circulation, something the likes of Barnes & Noble are less likely to do. But as this case would suggest, the books are merely the means to the end of profit, raw materials for the machine to churn through. How else to explain the allegations that Priore and Schulman cut maps and plates out of several books to sell separately? It’s the logic of the operation, it’s less like vandalism and more like processing.

I know attaching positive feelings to a profit-driven entity is somewhat foolish, as this case well illustrates, but to hear that this beloved institution was involved in some serious cultural theft—and that’s exactly what it is—has rather dampened my mood (and judging from the reaction of my friends from the Steel City, I’m not alone in this). Priore and Schulman took these items of historical and cultural significance, which belonged, however symbolically, to the people as a collective entity, and sold them off for purely private gain. More than the theft itself, it’s the public nature of the stolen goods that bothers me so.

I don’t really have a grander point beyond this. I’m just miffed.

If you’d like a thorough list of the items stolen from the Carnegie Library’s rare books room over the years, this earlier article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will have you covered.