How Libraries Adapt

American public libraries and the aura of collective interface

by Miles Guggenheim

Illustration by Eve O'Shea

published February 14, 2019

In its 2018 and 2019 budget proposals, the Trump administration attempted to cut government funding for the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Although it is easy to rationalize this gesture to financially hinder the only federal program supporting our public library system as another ignorant, Trumpian assault on the humanities, the reckless logic of this maneuver is more fundamentally dangerous to the conception of what libraries actually are. In a four sentence-long justification that reads with the rhythm and eloquence of a high-school lab report, the White House concluded, “given that IMLS primarily supports discrete, short-term projects as opposed to operation-sustaining funds, it is unlikely the elimination of IMLS would result in the closure of a significant number of libraries and museum [sic].”

To understand contemporary public libraries as stagnant databases of information that simply require  bare “operation-sustaining funds” to stay open is to project a false image onto their nature as dynamic, adaptable institutions. While libraries certainly provide and offer information, they are not Google search engines or stagnant hard drives. Stripping the funding that allows them to do anything but simply exist—the flexible budgets that allow them to conduct special projects and community services—reveals a major misconception of what, in reality, libraries do today and what they have done for our country in the past. Although it is easy to perceive libraries as obsolete in the context of computers and virtual databases, history shows that their more tangible social interface is adaptable and perhaps more vital to the American commons.




By 1900 libraries in the United States were overwhelmingly staffed by women. Faced with a cultural hegemony that whittled career opportunities down to a select few pathways, women filed into the ranks of the American library system. Beyond the desire for self-sufficiency, the rapid democratization of text and page imbued the librarian’s role with newfound social significance. Melvil Dewey, a principal founder of the American public library, specifically targeted middle class women to form the ranks of his vision. Selling his newly established School of Library Economy in New York, he linked the modern librarian to an agent of cultural enlightenment, a gatekeeper to untapped constellations of knowledge and information.

Starting in 1881, library schools like The School of Library Economy began turning out the first professional workforce of American librarians. Trained to operationalize the Dewey Decimal System—what was then a groundbreaking interface for accessing a vast reservoir of text, media, and image—graduates learned to revolutionize the various collections and databases in the already established libraries up and down the American East Coast. Over the turn of the century, as Dewey’s model succeeded, more and more women enrolled in library school. By 1924, they would make up 94 percent of library school graduates.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the climate of this movement was changing. As the profession grew more and more popular, library establishments on the East Coast filled up. Suddenly hundreds of the women graduating from library school could not find the work they had been trained to do. In response to the problem, women graduates turned to the western half of the United States. Aside from a few cities like San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Los Angeles, settlements and towns situated in the more rugged and rural areas of the West were dramatically underdeveloped. This was especially the case in terms of educational resource and literacy. A census taken in 1871 found only 6 percent of America’s entire libraries existed on in the Western part of the country. New universities and small “reading clubs” had built a foundation to access, but the work of organizing, connecting, and solidifying these fledgling institutions required professionals from the East.

When women librarians first arrived at these destinations, however, they found a situation alien to what they had been trained to handle. Collections were small, random, and disorganized, while the populations they expected to provide for were separated by poor infrastructure and harsh geographical climates. With small underfunded libraries, sometimes a single room tacked onto a university classroom or government building, it was hard to provide a welcoming comfortable environment for new readers. Under such environmental and financial restrains many incoming  professional librarians had to adapt their practice and ideals.

At a long established university on the East Coast, or an in an urban setting like New York, merely maintaining accessible and up-to-date nexuses of information provided a public service. Out west, however, where communities were decentralized and the actual facilities themselves poor and uninviting, simply optimizing the old interface to access these books did nothing to help the community. In  a culture that valued individuality over cultural education, homestead over community space, the public service provided by libraries was not apparent. Women working as pioneers in the West would thus have to emphasize the service a library could provide. Staying true to the service of making information accessible, they stepped outside the procedures and methods they had been taught.

In many cases, librarians either organized or participated in traveling libraries. At their grandest scale, traveling libraries were a sequence of horse drawn carts carrying a variety of reading material. In somes cases, a mule or packhorse with a single rider was the “traveling library.”  Librarians who had spent their education walking up and down the halls of a single building now found themselves adventuring through the outdoors as they loaned books to far-flung rural settlements and worked to establish new branches. Concluding her history of these literary pioneers in her book Cultural Crusaders, Joeanne E. Passat writes, “Contrary to the pervasive twentieth-century stereotype of the librarian as an introverted, bookish spinster, western women librarians had to be socially adept in order to secure widespread support for a library movement in its infancy. They  also needed to be articulate, comfortable with diverse audiences, and prepared to mount a horse, as well as a public podium, with confidence.”

In this way, just as their expectation of how a librarian worked shifted, the goals of the institution itself changed. In the case of traveling libraries providing a substantial database of information fell second to spreading and teaching literacy. Adapting to the needs of their community, they ignored the precedent to establish the traditionally quiet, introverted environment more concerned with its information than the social background of its clientele.  Touring on horseback or asserting themselves outside the university or building they had established, librarians acted like politicians. They gave guest lectures at churches, taught literacy at schools, and lobbied their cause to local governments as beacons of social mobility and cultural heritage. As the American West developed, losing the charming American ideology once tethered to its seemingly infinite horizon, librarians were building the next frontier of the American dream. A space where accessibility to knowledge and information sought to level the social playing field for communities, urban and rural.




With wealth inequality and homelessness on the rise in urban areas across the United States, libraries in more desperate cases have once again begun the process of adapting to their environment. As free, comfortable, heated spaces with access to internet and computers, public libraries have learned to adaptively confront the realities other American institutions have failed to address. In Los Angeles, where approximately 50,000 people live on the street, public libraries often provide the shelter and basic social services the city has failed provide. Joining a nationwide trend, many branches have since hired social workers to be on staff. As physical book loaning has decreased over the years, library staff have found themselves more and more occupied helping people find jobs or filling out government forms online. Although the age of computers has in some ways challenged the tangible database of information libraries supposedly offer, it has also asserted the need for a free space which bridges the digital gap between private and public access to opportunity. Many homeless people seeking shelter in libraries actually use the internet and computers to work their way out of the situation they’ve found themselves in.

But in spite of the potential to uplift and reinvigorate many underserved populations, you can “Yelp” any branch in the city of Los Angeles and find a host of complaints accusing the building for deteriorating into a homeless shelter. “Such a crying shame,” writes Gavin E., who apparently has 157 other reviews we can read, “An important Frank Gehry building housing very important Hollywood and entertainment collections….The homeless/mentally ill people who practically live here,  have made this space a place you just don’t want to visit. Patrons have warned me about bed bugs and lice being present, and transmittable here.”

There is something pathetic and disturbing about an online enclave of self-proclaimed critics condemning one of the last community spaces for opening their doors to homeless. In some ways, these critics gets to the heart of the problem. Public libraries are not Facebook groups or coffee shops. They do not exist in tandem with the web of cavernous, introverted spaces of our virtual world. While libraries and computers are both platforms to access knowledge, their respective interfaces differ on a wide scale.

Researching or simply perusing information on a computer is a deeply reflective and introverted experience. With hyperlinks and search bars that channel our specific and impulsive needs and profiles that curate and filter or interests, we interact with reality which is shaped according to our self-image and thoughts. With total control over our perception of the world, we are rarely surprised. Disturbances and disruptions of the continuities and connection we form to design-specific ideas of the world are almost always tethered to our whim to switch from the New York Times to Youtube, or our shared within the gated communities of our friends and family.

Although we perceive the space of library as a silent, impersonal world, the way we interact with its database is far more worldly, random, and community based.  Normally we engage the library with a specific book or desire in mind. Still, it does not reach us instantly the way a hyperlink delivers information. In libraries we wander through architecture. We confuse one row of books and numbers for the other, we are exposed to new and sometimes distantly connected information. The book next to the one you need may involuntarily offer a new perspective. The book ten paces away may offer an connection between two ideas previously unmade. In the same way this physical interface exposes us to the randomness of perspectives and ideas, it also subjects us to randomness of a community space.  In the public sphere our identities are challenged, placed in question, and sometimes forced realize the world in new ways. This collision of realities is rare and often resisted by the interface of the computer. Outside the digital world, the pursuit of knowledge conflicts and intersects with the feeling of something more tangible and immediate. Although the quiet atmosphere of a library restricts arguments or fist fights from breaking out, simply the presence of a diverse population of physical people can changes the affective quality of a silent room.




In his “Short History of Photography,” the German theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin defines aura as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance of semblance or distance, no matter how close it may be.” For Benjamin, the word aura invokes the feeling of an external reality intersecting with our internal reality—the fluid, amorphous moments of orientation and alienation that occur as we perceive things and objects outside our conscious.  A city square full of people, for example,  has a stronger aura then a private room. Although Benjamin stresses the importance of this idea in terms of perceiving art, perhaps we can frame his idea of the aura in how we perceive information as we collect it. Opposed to the digital world, in libraries this auratic quality is immanent. The unstable randomness, the air of liminal uncertainty we experience navigating through public architecture, amongst other identities and bodies, marks every moments through which the information we access is understood. Inside the public sphere libraries foster, an auratic tone shapes the very foundation of how knowledge is conceptualized and provided.

Whether they like it or not, public libraries and the resources they offer are bound to this unstable, shifting feeling of collective existence. As the aura of a particular social climate shifts, the relative quality and nature of knowledge libraries provide moves in tandem. For early libraries in the American West, both social and interfacial norms shifted according to the physical and cultural topography of the regions they faced. The means and ends through which knowledge was conceptualized and brought to serve the community changed. Today, libraries once again face a new new social geography. With a growing force of social workers and a new generation of librarians working to support patrons negatively affected by the digital divide, they have once again proved their adaptability. While the old American library aimed to spread a basic literacy, the new American library is providing a much needed social literacy. A nuanced, human interface of community knowledge and support even the most sophisticated computer would fail to render. American public libraries should not be fighting to keep the little government funding they have, they should be demanding more.


MILES GUGGENHEIM B’20 did, however, at one point, search “the history of libraries” on Google.