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Walsh Management History 1


Highlights in the History of Library Management

Features for the Future

Maura Walsh

Emporia State University


By retracing some of the past management practices, both planned and

more inadvertent, in the world of libraries I hope to establish a foundation to

explore what some of the most important concerns of modern libraries are

and how they can be addressed using this prism from the past. The most

important are that libraries provide access to as wide a public as possible,

that librarians are professionals and that libraries adapt to their changing

societies. An emphasis on both the library from within and the library as it
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appears to its users will be explored in order to try to establish a basis for

judging where the library may go in the future and how our choices today will

affect that direction and the role that libraries will continue to play.

Highlights in the History of Library Management
Ancient History

One can only dimly imagine the type of management that existed in

the earliest libraries that we have evidence of. There is verification in the

clay tablets stored in a temple as early as the third millennium BCE in

Babylon, constituting the first known library or archive in history. We have

some evidence about the great Bibliotheca Alexandrina. We know of Greek

and Roman libraries. There is evidence from the nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls

in the Villa dei Papiri near Naples that were buried by the eruption of Mt

Vesuvius in 79 BC. Because we know there were organizations that held

information, we know that some type of management must have been

practiced. But of these earliest places we really have more conjecture than


We know that many were primarily staffed by slaves, albeit highly

trained slaves. We know that although they were sometimes denoted as
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“public” the word did not carry the same significance that we give it today.

The curses found on scrolls, clay tablets and codices lead us to believe that

some people tended to help themselves to the libraries’ possessions, or not

to return them in a timely manner. Thus we surmise that the libraries in

question may have had a practice of lending articles.

Ruins in various places and artwork help us deduce something about

the organization of the earliest libraries. In the case of Greek and Roman

libraries we actually have written descriptions and know that there was a

system in place that dictated the organization of the materials. The Muslims

also protected and organized works, including writing what is widely credited

as the first bibliography. Cassiodorus is credited by many as leading the way

for monasteries to carefully preserve and copy many volumes. We know

more about the management systems in effect in them because in many

cases both the monastic orders and their records have survived.

Until the advent of the Gutenberg printing press in 1439, both

monasteries and their contemporary counterparts, European

universities, kept the book alive and well. The obvious exceptions to

this were the large private libraries like the Bibliotheque Nationale de

France started in 1367 as the royal library of King Charles V, Cosimo de

Medici’s private library which formed the basis of the Laurentian

Library or the Vatican library before the 1400s. There is evidence that

these libraries, both private and monastic, would lend works to be

copied, usually after securing some sort of deposit to ensure the return
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of the original works. However, when the Bodleian Library at Oxford

University was founded it was stipulated by law that no books could be

lent to anyone (Bostwick, p. 353).

The Beginning of our Modern Libraries

The 17th and 18th century saw the creation of some new categories of

libraries that would in turn lead to the development of the type of public

libraries that we are familiar with in our modern societies. There were three

kinds that developed principally in Britain and were either founded for the

general public or quickly became accessible to those that wished: the

endowment library, the subscription library and the circulating library. They

all contributed in some way to the footing that would inspire Raganathan’s


In 1741 the Leadhills Library was founded under the name of Leadhills

Reading Society (Crawford, 1997, p. 539). It was a subscription library for a

small lead mining village in Scotland. The initial members included company

clerks and smelters as well as other villagers and it enjoyed the approval of

the mining company. Members had to pay an initial subscription and then a

quarterly membership due. These funds were used to buy books. Most books

were lent monthly. Every month all the books had to be returned and then

members were allowed to choose a new book in strict order of seniority.

There were book inspectors who could go to the home of any member and
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demand to inspect the books currently in his possession (Crawford, 1997).

This society was a direct result of Scottish Enlightenment and its purpose

was “mutual improvement” (Crawford, 1997, p.545). Interestingly enough,

this was the same stock that would later give birth to Andrew Carnegie who

went on to build over 2,000 libraries (Rubin 2004, p. 290).

The Leeds Library, founded in 1768 in a town of 15,000, was also a

subscription library. Its founding members included 101 men and four

women. They wanted to have a greater understanding of what was going on

in the world and advance their knowledge (Cox, 1995). This library continued

to grow until the membership reached 500 members in 1813. At this point

they decided to limit the membership to 500. Two remarkable things

happened that ensured that the library continued until today. The first was

that the members chose to build a special building to house the library in the

center of the town. It was opened in 1808.

Because they fortuitously chose property that increased in value due to

its location, and because they built the library proper on the second floor

while renting the ground floor to merchants, they ensured an income that

continues to provide monies that can be used to buy new books. The second

farsighted decision was that books could not be sold. This has meant that

their collection has grown in value even though there have been occasional

exceptions made to the latter rule in order to raise funds and to sometimes

rent books that were in high demand instead of buying them outright. This

library has always welcomed use by “serious enquirers” including James
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Boswell in 1779 (Cox, 1997, p. 12 and 16).

Another type of library began around the same time, circa 1740: the

circulating library. These were quite popular with readers who were

interested in the popular books of their time. They operated by charging a

yearly fee which entitled the members to take out one book at a time for a

guinea a year, or for two guineas they could have as many as they liked

(Glasgow, 2002, p. 421). They seem to have operated like Netflix does today.

They were also much criticized for allowing young women to occupy their

time with the frivolous pursuit of reading romances, and indeed many of

their subscribers were women. In fact, it spurred a great interest in reading

and consequently writing in women. Perhaps the best known of all was

operated between 1842 and 1894 by Charles E. Mudie (Landow, 1974).

In addition to private subscribers, Mudie’s also proportioned books to

hire for libraries such as Leeds that preferred to obtain copies of popular

books for their members instead of buying them outright. These circulating

libraries also had a huge influence on the publishing houses and were

instrumental in the creation of the three-decker novel. It was thought that

getting a work on the Mudie list was more important for its success than the

critical reviews. It became the equivalent to today’s best-seller list which

increased his own power and created a market for the book (Landow, 1974).

1841 saw the birth of the London Library that catered to “the

professional man of letters and the so-called ‘general reader’” (Glasgow,

2002, p. 474). It began as a subscription library for lending but soon
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expanded to include a reference department. It also began to acquire special

collections both through endowment and outright purchase. As it grew it

became the premier library for many great scholars and writers with more

and more members and books. It became an exceptional and significant

institution. This is another example of a library that continues today as it

was founded with a “declared policy …to keep the subscriptions as low as

possible so as to make its resources available to those of modest means”

(Glasgow, 2002, p. 477). Interestingly enough it was founded at about the

same time as the Boston Public Library (Rubin, 2006, p. 285), another

emblematic and influential library.

One more library that was noteworthy in the development of public

libraries was Bootle’s Public Library outside of Liverpool. It was begun in

1884, aided by a generous endowment of 1,530 books from Dr. R. Tudor

(Glasgow, 1998, p. 235) and was open to all rate payers over 15 years old. It,

too, had a specially constructed building which remained a source of great

civic pride until the amalgamation of Bootle into Sefton in 1974 (Glasgow,

1998, p. 237). Throughout its history it has provided services to all levels of

society and been a tremendous resource to the town, for example in hard

times of high unemployment (Glasgow, 1998, p. 234). The librarians have

also been pioneers in meeting the needs of their patrons with diverse

programs and innovations in the physical plant. Bootle was one of the first

libraries to have a special children’s program and area (Glasgow, 1998, p.

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These examples show how the development of libraries in our society

has gone hand in hand with an ethos of access to books and information. It is

important to us that books be used and that every reader has books and that

books have readers, to paraphrase Raganathan. All this action culminated in

the 1850 English Public Libraries Act that established a system of libraries

freely open to the public.

The Development of Library Management

Naturally enough, as the type of libraries grew along with the number

of libraries and the users who wished to use them, so grew the management

issues surrounding running such organizations. In 1853 W. C. Poole was

"among the first to recognize...the value of concerted action [and] a member

of the first convention,,,, probably in the world,,,, among librarians” (New

York Times, 1894) In 1876, the same year that the American Library

Association was formed, he published The organization and Management of

public libraries which dealt with every essential in libraries and was the

standard for many years. Melvil Dewey’s early successes firmly managing

the New York State Library and the New York State Library Association

quickly became models followed in other libraries and library systems like

Iowa and New Jersey (Weigand, 1996 p. 197). Aurthur E Bostwick felt that

librarians should be attuned to the profession, but recognized many systems

as perfectly acceptable but noted that “the librarian of today can scarcely

keep pace with his fellow librarians unless he receives the right hand of
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fellowship of the American Library Association.” (Bostwick, 1921 p. 202)

Modern library management has mirrored management theories and

practices as they have evolved over the last century or so. The Scientific

Management Theory (1890 - 1940) developed by Frederick Taylor which

proposed organizing, standardizing and measuring all tasks. Workers could

then be rewarded or punished according to how they measured up. This was

a system that worked for routine work and large organizations. It was

followed by the Bureaucratic Management Theory (1930 - 1950), actually

more of a variation than a brand new idea, that fully developed the dividing

of organizations into hierarchies and reiterated strong control and authority

as hallmarks of the organization. The Human Relations Movement (1930 -

now) attempts to react to the constraints of these earlier theories and sees

the organization benefiting as workers needs are met. These are the principal

theories, although many variations also exist.

Future Challanges

Librarians started paying more attention to these ideas at about the

same time that they started organizing as a profession. Certainly Dewey was

quite obsessed with regulating even the most minute details of how the

library functioned. Luckily, within the ALA there has been a constant interest

in the development of good management practices. In fact, there are

changes around the world that we can and do study in order to provide the
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best libraries in these very challenging times and electronic technology is our

biggest challenge.

Our libraries are still the largest depositories of information. Managing

and providing access to knowledge, just selecting from the vast and

confusing array of what is available, has become an everyday test for every

library. Staying on the cusp of technological development, being able to

attract and retain staff proficient in that technology, and being able to pay

for it all probably keeps more library directors awake at night more than any

other issue.

One part of this is access versus ownership. With the electronic choices

available many libraries are more or less being forced to lease their material

in the form of electronic subscriptions that only provide access for as long as

the subscription lasts. While this does help enormously with storage

problems, it also means that the library’s investment vanished into

cyberspace when the subscription runs out. Some people point to this as the

death knell for libraries as we know them, as physical buildings of brick and

mortar. Why will people need a place to go if they have a computer?

Much is being published and discussed about this now, and what can

be gleaned from many of the ideas and approaches is that the librarian is still

the procurer and guide to knowledge. Knowing where exact and trustworthy

information is and how to access and process it is the skill that perhaps we

most need to develop. We need to work with ideas and be able to gauge the

quality of what is so readily accessed on the internet. We need to prove that
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valuables can still be found in volumes.

Luckily there is ample evidence that that is exactly what is happening

and there are many exciting ideas for helping forge this transition. One

example of a modern tool for management is found at the website for

Blended Librarian that describes itself as : "a working organism through

which library practitioners would help each other to improve their knowledge

of and ability to apply the theory and practice of instructional design and

technology"(Bell, 2008). It offers many resources and tools. They are

designed for academic librarians and libraries, but most can be adapted to

other libraries as well.

This evolution in library management, from the past, most basic

functioning of simple document depositories, through the various

incarnations of libraries that became what we know today, must continue to

develop and change. Our future accomplishments will be greater if we

understand and build on the past keeping in mind the values that we have

developed: providing access, being professional and adapting to the

changing needs of our users.
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