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Public Library Directors of the Past and Present Running head: PUBLIC LIBRARY DIRECTORS OF THE PAST AND



Public Library Directors of the Past and Present: An Overview of the Historical Contributions of Ralph A. Ulveling and the Present Contributions of Nancy Colpaert to the Library Profession

Wayne State University Schroeder/LIS 6010 July 17, 2006

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present Abstract Ralph A. Ulveling, director of the Detroit Public Library system was a prominent and active leader in the role of the public library during the McCarthy Era. Ulveling’s controversial views on intellectual freedom were a catalyst to the modern views held by the leaders of the library profession


today. Nancy Colpaert, director of the Monroe County Library System, relates to the same library objectives of the of the library of the 1940s and 1950s but the community values have shifted and her focus is different than that of libraries before.

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present


Public Library Directors of the Past and Present: An Overview of the Historical Contributions of Ralph A. Ulveling and the Present Contributions of Nancy Colpaert to the Library Profession If you were to take the word of two very different library leaders, the objectives of the American library have not changed much in over sixty years. Ralph A. Ulveling, director of the Detroit Public Library (DPL) from the years of 1941 to 1967, quotes the objectives of the library during his time as encompassing education, information, aesthetic appreciation, research, and recreation (Ulveling, 1944, p. 24). Similarly, Nancy Colpaert, current library director of the Monroe County Library System (MCLS) in Monroe, Michigan, wholeheartedly directs her library system under the library’s mission statement by serving “all residents of the county by providing free access to information, education, and recreation” (MCLS Website). However, despite the similarities in objectives sought by these two library directors, there is very little in common with them. Ulveling was a prolific figure in the public library during his time; he spent most of his career surrounded in national controversy and intellectual freedom discussions that greatly shaped the future of the profession. On the other hand, Colpaert prefers to be more involved on a community level and less politically charged as Ulveling, her contributions to the profession, however, are equally notable. Ralph A. Ulveling, Detroit Public Library Ralph Adrian Ulveling was an immediate success in librarianship upon entering the profession. Soon after graduation from Columbia University

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present with his library degree in 1928, he was given the position of Chief of


Branches at the Detroit Public Library, a remarkably high position for a recent graduate. Shortly thereafter, Ulveling was promoted to Associate Director in 1934 where he had the opportunity to “hone his political skills” (Ring, 1990, p. 139). It did not take Ulveling much longer to be appointed to the Director position of the Detroit Public Library; he was awarded the position in 1941 with no internal competition (Ring, 1990, p. 140). Daniel Ring describes Ulveling’s accomplishments on two levels: “his achievements for the library profession and his accomplishments for the DPL.” (1990, p. 140) While Ulveling was often viewed as impatient, aloof, distant, or stiff by his staff, he also had a certain charm about him that many people admired. “Ulveling sought the advice of the staff, but did not believe that a large organization could be run on the basis of staff resolutions lest the library become ‘headless’.” (Ring, 1990, p. 143) Ring also describes Ulveling as having “one of the most successful careers of any twentiethcentury public librarian.” (1990, p. 140) As a leader on social issues, Ulveling was viewed both liberally and conservatively by his peers and library historians. Ulveling “had a social vision of what a public library should be.” One of his greatest accomplishments in the Detroit Public Library was his visions of the library as an adult educator; “Ulveling believed that the chief purpose of the public library was to serve the educational needs of individuals, and to lead them to a higher level of education attainment.” On the liberal side of his

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present accomplishments he strongly felt that the library should take a positive role in race relations, a very important issue in the wake of the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. “He believed that intolerance was the result of misunderstanding and must be combated.” (Ring, 1990, p. 140)


Ulveling brought positive change to the library system and many other libraries across the country, by redesigning the library to suit the adult user’s educational needs. “Physically, the reorganization entailed a novel cataloging scheme that would ‘bring together in one place all material which links itself together to form one subject interest for readers’.” This classification restructuring, called Readers’ Interest Classification, replaced the Dewey Decimal Classification beginning in 1949 (Ring, 1990, p. 141). Readers’ Interest Classification is still used in many different forms today, however less so in the Detroit Public Library. “Common to all who reorganize their collection using a reader-interest classification plan is a desire to improve service for their patrons. By placing the reader at the center, reader-interest classification encourages self-service and promotes accessibility to the collection.” (Spine, 1995, p. 143) While Ulveling had a tremendous amount of accomplishments in regards to the services of the Detroit Public Library, his involvement with the library profession on the national level is what he is most noted for. Ulveling’s controversial stance on intellectual freedom and a response to a statement on labeling from the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) in 1951 was a catalyst to improvements that were forced through the committee for

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present many years to come. Louise Robbins describes the mood of the country during the time of Ulveling’s directorship: As World War II ended, the United States found itself facing a world in which the Soviet Union had expanded its sphere of influence and over which the mushroom cloud of atomic weaponry hung ominously. The Cold War, with all its fears and suspicions, had begun. (Segregating, 1993, p. 144) In a time when censorship was increasing, librarians and libraries were constantly being scrutinized for carrying materials that could potentially be seen as communist propaganda, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association (ALA) was forced to make some hard decisions concerning the Library Bill of Rights and the sanctity of intellectual freedom in the profession and the country. One such decision was to publish a statement to support the Library Bill of Rights that the practice of labeling during this time was considered censorship. Given Ulveling’s belief that librarians were meant to guide their patron’s into “right thinking,” he came out with his own policy on book selection entitled, “Book Selection Policies in This Time of Crisis,” which revealed that he was felt that it was appropriate to favor a more rigid policy


on book selection, a policy that did keep certain materials out of the hands of the general public (Censorship, 1996, p. 52.). Ulveling was publicly critical of the Library Bill of Rights, stating that “in an ‘ideological war’ in which propaganda ‘is second only to military strategy,’ librarians’ ‘usual interpretation’ of the Library Bill of rights kept channels for enemy propaganda open.” (Censorship, 1996, p. 54) While Ulveling did not ban

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present everything that was considered communist propaganda from the Detroit Public Library, he did restrict their use to the reference section of the library and out of the hands of general patrons. The IFC had determined that this was also considered censorship, and the debate between the IFC and Ulveling continued; the IFC finally stood their ground on many of the issues


discussed and formed what is now the strong intellectual freedom policy that has since been adopted by the ALA. Ulveling’s desired outcome was not met in the end, however his persistence on the issue made the committee look very hard at the Library Bill of Rights and how intellectual freedom was carried out through the profession. (Censorship, 1996) Nancy Colpaert, Monroe County Library System The Cold War and the McCarthy Era now have their place in history and the modern public library has a new appearance. An interview with Nancy Colpaert of the Monroe County Library System reveals that librarians of today have different concerns than those during the Cold War. Compared to Ulveling, Colpaert is more engaged in her community and less engaged in the committees of the ALA or the profession. Technology has changed the face of the profession and concerns have shifted to the sustainability of libraries in a world that is more equipped to get information without the help of the local library. The modern library is a more recreational place than Ulveling’s library was, and patrons are engaged in more programs considered fun, as well as educational.

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present The objectives of the public library have not changed much in sixty


years; Colpaert still feels that a library is a place where people of many ages and abilities can come to get the information they need. A general public perception that recreation aids in learning has found refuge in the modern library. Many libraries, including Monroe County, are engaging their younger populations through teen programs and story times for young kids to foster an everlasting relationship through those patrons through the library. Colpaert has been working MCLS for over thirty years and has been the library director for about seven of those years. She worked for MCLS while going to library school, then progressively worked up to the position of library director with the library system. Colpaert recalls how technology has shaped the career of librarianship and is eager to embrace that technology in her library system and with her staff. Unlike Ulveling’s time, the internet has given the general public access to a wealth of information without ever having to visit a library or talk to a librarian. Colpaert is less concerned with guiding patrons into “right thinking” like Ulveling, but does understand the need for the library to be a quality information source, whether through programming, library staff, or the library website. Her concern is that the library can be there as a community leader and an information source, no matter what information they are seeking. Colpaert feels that the library should be available for patrons to gather information that is unbiased and balanced so that patrons can make their own qualified decisions on the issues they face in their lives.

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present While the public library is a quieter place that the one of the 1940 and 1950s, the library, especially the Monroe County Library System, is not completely free of controversy. The Library Bill of Rights and the IFC have


survived as tools and guidelines for librarians, even today, to use when faced with challenging issues. The Monroe County Library System was involved in a controversy involving the selection of the sex book published by Madonna. The community did not feel that this book offered much to the community and lashed out at the library system. Colpaert admits that the impression that this controversy left on the community may have left a scar, but it did not change how she felt about the importance of intellectual freedom, if anything it supported her belief that the public library needs to be a place where the community should be able to go to get the information they need and want. Conclusion The modern public library is still a place where patrons can gain access to information, education, and recreation. The focus of each of these objectives has shifted, however. Information is more free-flowing in the modern society than during the Cold War Era, many patrons today view the library as just another place to gain information, not the only place. The value of a library as an educational source has not changed, but the focus on education and technology has made the modern library a vital part of many communities, especially for computer resources. A shift in views of the place of recreation in society has given the modern library an opportunity to

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present


attract a much younger patron base. We are much more open to recreation as a learning tool than before and libraries have embraced that through games and programming that cater to a younger crowd than before. Today’s library is still vital to protecting the civil liberties and intellectual freedom of the American society, however our more globalized society has changed how many people obtain information in their daily lives. The library of today is concerned more with offering a balanced collection, making sure that every point of view is accessible without barriers. The same tools are still in place to protect libraries from barriers, including the Library Bill of Rights, and the efforts of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. The guidelines provided by the IFC have survived a very rigorous history, has aided librarians of today in their decisions, and will continue to guide the thoughts of future librarians as well.

Public Library Directors of the Past and Present References Monroe County Library System. Retrieved July 17, 2006, from


Ring, D. (1990). Ulveling, Ralph Adrian (1902-1980). In W. A. Wiegand (Ed.), Supplement to the Dictionary of American library biography (pp. 138144). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited. Robbins, L. S. (1993). Segregating Propaganda in American Libraries: Ralph Ulveling Confronts the Intellectual Freedom Committee. The Library Quarterly, 63(2), 143-165. Robbins, L. S. (1996). Censorship and the American library the American Library Association's response to threats to intellectual freedom, 19391969. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. Spine, J. (1995). Reader interest classification: the user friendly schemes. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 19(3/4), 143-155. Ulveling, R. A. (1944). The public library in the large community. In L. Carnovsky, & L. A. Martin (Eds.), The library in the community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.