Voices From The Past Reflecting On The Future (Number 5): Status & The Inferiority Complex

February 21, 2014, 2:14 pm

Continuing the Voices Series:

There was an interesting discussion by the College Library Advisory Board at the 1937 annual meeting of the American Library Association. This one isn’t a prediction on the future, but it definitely touches on a conversation that we’re still having today:

“Do you think it is intellectually possible for the average professor ever to come to the belief that a librarian is his educational equal?”

There was conversation about differences in salary and educational background. And one librarian offers this insight:

“We have tried having the librarian teach a course and have found that it works excellently. He teaches freshman English. In that way the librarian is looked upon more as a teacher than as a person who puts labels on books. If our librarians are not the intellectual equal of the rest of the faculty, they are not going to have equal standing.”

And then Mr. Burrus, a professor from Rutgers University, has this to say:

“I have not wanted to say anything because I am a professor. I am visiting an A.L.A. conference for the first time, and I am very much interested in libraries. I have been interested in what seems to me a sort of inferiority complex cropping up on all sides, and I cannot help thinking this plea for money is a sort of rationalization on the part of many a librarian. The reason we do not do this, the reason we do not do that is because we do not have money. It is the president’s fault or the professor’s fault, or what-not.”

“If I were a university librarian, I think I would be the fighter that one of the speakers talked about. I would fight university presidents, I would fight professors, and I would fight to make students love to read. I would be much more interested in trying to develop life-long reading interests and skill in the use of books and libraries than just helping students get an education. Often the librarian takes a challenging attitude when the professor comes around with a list of books: ‘We have analyzed your last list and find that many books have not been withdrawn [checked out] from the library.’ This places professors on the spot. We hesitate to come around with a recommendation again. Instead the librarian ought to meet us with: ‘So many of these books have not been used. Is there anything you and I can do together to develop an interest in these books, to get more of them read?’”

“Frankly, I like librarians, and I love libraries. I think that as a class you are custodians of books, and until you become something different, you will not have that respect of your faculty colleagues which you want. It is your place to educate the presidents and professors of our colleges and universities as to the important part the library should play. The librarian tends to be a somewhat timid soul. I often wish I had as strong a case to fight for as you people have in library work.”


You are custodians of books. Until you become something different you will not have the respect of your faculty colleagues that you want. A professor, 1937.

I’m curious what Mr. Burrus would think of librarians today. We’ve embraced many new roles, from software developers, data scientists, and publishers, to makers, ethnographers, and designers. I wonder if he would consider us as having “become something different” or still view us as custodians of the stacks?

This series has been fun. I have a few more of these historical voices that I’d like to share further down the road. I’ll let the blog analytics guide me and see if there appears to be any interest.

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