Comments from the Deleted / Outdated PhilPapers Post

I should have done this at the time, but an email from someone prompted this. I tried to just put it in the comments to the main PhilPapers post I have up, but WordPress balked at the length I guess. So, for anyone who missed the conversation:

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Stephen Francoeur
Submitted on 2014/04/16 at 9:22 am
I think that it is promising that PhilPapers pushed back the deadline but honestly, that is still way too soon for some institutions to move forward with subscriptions. It also is out of sync with many universities that have fiscal years ending in June. It would be far better for the service to give at least 6 months notice before any such switch.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum 
Submitted on 2014/04/15 at 5:58 pm | In reply to Matt Thomas.
Matt, I agree. I dislike the approach that immediately starts with a threat to restrict access before anything else has been tried. There are possibilities of offering more as well. For example, right now PP is SFX-enabled, but only sort of. I did some searches comparing it to the Philosopher’s Index. For the same article, PP linked to SFX, but was missing the Source and Page# information, and wasn’t finding the article. The PI link did the correct SFX search and provided links. For books, PP doesn’t seem to have SFX enabled at all, whereas the book I searched in PI to compared linked to SFX and then the catalog record. If better funding could allow PP to offer services that would increase the compatibility with library systems, this would be an incentive for some to subscribe.

Anne Knafl (University of Chicago)
Submitted on 2014/04/15 at 3:23 pm | In reply to David Bourget.
Hi David,
July 1 still isn’t enough time, for me at least, since our fiscal year ends June 30 and our deadline for new orders is May 15. In addition, I have already spent down my philosophy budget for the year. Extending the deadline through the summer would be much appreciated.

Matt Thomas
Submitted on 2014/04/15 at 11:19 am
I’m not sure why philpapers didn’t just say what they meant initially: that they are no longer going to be open access. The subscription model is fine if that’s what they plan to change to but don’t wrap it up in “seeking support”. If libraries are paying, it needs to be something of value. And OA can coexist alongside a subscription model if they’re are providing access to two different things. Subscription could give an institution bonus access or special access or access to more than just what is available as OA. We can work with that. What no one appreciates is having to pay for the privilege of not being punished. Throttling or restricting access to your potential customers can only be seen as a punishment.

Also, is this a done deal? The information about this is well hidden. I see no way to get to the subscription information except the discussion forum item. Is that intentional?

Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 7:54 pm | In reply to David Chalmers.
David, it should be clear that I’m not opposed to this, but objected to the threat that unless we paid in 6 weeks data would be “throttled,” as well as the initial wording of the website that stated all of the 3000+ institutions would be expected to subscribe, rather than the larger universities who have philosophy departments and can probably afford it. I thought that was an inappropriate way to promote open access scholarship, and I appreciate the change.

Banners asking people to ask their libraries to subscribe, or perhaps with slightly stronger language, I think are a good idea. I thought the SEP approach was very clever. Instead of threatening to restrict access ever, the threat was instead to put up banners basically shaming places that wouldn’t contribute, especially larger institutions like mine. Although I also understand the need to create incentives when such shaming doesn’t work. Great and useful resources should be supported by the places that will use them the most, and if that makes the resource available freely to everyone else in the world, I’m all for it.

Mark McDayter
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 7:43 pm
At the heart of the open access movement is the notion of accessible public scholarship — the idea that even non-academics may have access to scholarly work and resources that are, after all, generally funded directly or indirectly through public money, and that are of a general benefit to society.

While we all recognize that scholarly libraries — indeed, libraries in general — are under terrible and very unfortunate financial pressures these days, OA is not really about ensuring institutional access. It would of course be wonderful if PhilPapers could remain free for everyone, all the time; were our public universities and researchers better funded that might even be possible.

But in the final analysis, this model, which allows individuals regardless of affiliation to use it, seems a pretty good compromise. If the worst is that a scholar has to use a home rather than office or library computer to get at it, I think there is little to complain about. In fact, I wish a few non-commercial resources that are not currently OA would adopt this model, which seems to me pretty true to the essential spirit of the movement.

David Chalmers
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 6:38 pm
As co-director of PhilPapers, let me say that I’m sorry that our message to librarians came across as a threat. That’s far from what we intended. We have consulted with many university librarians over the last year or so, asking about the best model for financial support. We initially thought about pursuing a donation model, but a number of librarians (especially at public institutions) told us that it would be difficult for them to justify giving a donation and much easier to justifying paying for a subscription. They also told us that for this to work, there would have to be some sort of differential effect for subscribing and non-subscribing institutions. So that’s the model we have pursued.

We’ve done our best to ensure as much open access as possible consistent with a subscription model. The PhilPapers Archive (the biggest open access archive in philosophy) remains open access, of course, as do the PhilEvents and PhilJobs services. Subscription is for the PhilPapers bibliographic database, which is a bibliographical service comparable to the Philosopher’s Index. Access to the database remains free for non-institutional users. Even for institutional users, in the short term the access restrictions will take the form of banners saying “Your university doesn’t subscribe. Please ask them to subscribe.” Our aim has been for this subscription model to share as much of the spirit of a donation model as possible.

We’re sorry that our communication about this model translated into the appearance of a “threat”. We’re academics who are new to the subscriptions business. It’s hard to get tone right, and we obviously should have explained more in the message to librarians, as we did in our messages to users.

A little background: We set up PhilPapers in 2009 as a sort of labour of love, working for free. I’ve never received any financial compensation for my many hours per week working on PhilPapers and I don’t intend to (though I’m still hoping that one day my department chair at NYU will grant me a teaching release for it). For a period we had significant grant support from the UK, which paid for David Bourget to work nearly full-time on PhilPapers and for other technical staff, but this has now dried up. As things now stand, both of us have full-time academic jobs with many other duties, and it has become clear that without financial support to appoint technical and administrative staff, PhilPapers can’t be sustained. With the financial support from subscriptions, we hope that PhilPapers will be able to not just survive but to keep developing in new and innovative directions. PhilPapers is now used by the majority of professional philosophers and students, and we think we have a responsibility to keep it going and to develop it. So we hope librarians appreciate why this step has been necessary.

We greatly appreciate the feedback we’ve received so far from librarians. Any further feedback is welcome.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum 
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 6:17 pm | In reply to Jen (@JemLibrarian).
Jen, I understand that position, but don’t share it. I took issue with the threat, but I do understand that there are concrete reasons why this resource that’s widely used in the philosophy community can no longer remain free. My primary objection was the idea of targeting, even in theory, over 3000 institutions, most of which don’t offer philosophy degrees.

In a separate email from someone else at PhilPapers that arrived via another route this afternoon, PhilPapers said it has decided “the best way forward is a model involving annual subscriptions for large institutions.” I have no problems with that. Open access scholarship isn’t really free. It has to be paid for somehow. I have no objections to universities, especially those with philosophy graduate programs, being targeted to support a resource like this that’s valuable to everyone studying philosophy, including at smaller institutions that can’t even afford standard philosophy indexes and journal databases.

I think that’s good for the open access study of philosophy without putting an onerous burden on libraries. It’s akin to the fundraising campaign several years ago for the SEP, which raised money from philosophy departments and libraries like mine to make sure that valuable resource could remain open access.

Jen (@JemLibrarian)
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 5:33 pm
I would only not subscribe, I would discourage anyone from releasing/submitting their papers to this organization. This flies in the face of the principles of open access.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 2:53 pm | In reply to David Bourget.
David, thanks very much for commenting. I wrote this upon receiving your initial email to see whether other librarians were thinking. Thanks very much for considering my objections to the initial proposal. As I wrote to you, this move shows that it’s a positive move asking the institutionalized philosophy community to help support open access scholarship for everyone, regardless of whether their school happens to have philosophy degrees or programs.

David Bourget
Submitted on 2014/04/14 at 2:51 pm
Hi Wayne, as we’ve discussed by email, we are not going to require non-BA granting institutions to subscribe. The language on the site has been clarified to reflect this. We also moved the start of the subscription model to July 1st following your advice. – David Bourget

 

A Last Bit on PhilPapers

I wanted to write a little more, because I know at least one person didn’t like that I’d taken down the previous post with the comments. I’m calling this a “last bit,” because I’ve spent a LOT of time this week writing about PhilPapers, mostly to PhilPapers.

I objected to the initial communication about the PP subscription for a number of reasons, but most distressing was beginning with a threat to restrict access on a timeline that was unworkable for most libraries and the theoretical application of the restriction to over 3,000 institutions, most of which probably don’t even have philosophy departments. The restriction timeline showed a lack of awareness of how library budgets operate and I thought the choice to go with no carrots and all stick was a bad idea, particularly since there are easy ways to avoid being hit with that stick. The broad application of the restriction seemed to me a betrayal of the whole purpose of OA scholarship and expected support from institutions that barely participate in the academic philosophical community that uses this resource so heavily. I blogged about it and began an email conversation with David Bourget of PhilPapers.

Over the course of two days, both in communication with me, comments on the blog, and comments elsewhere, David Bourget and David Chalmers of PhilPapers took the concerns of librarians very seriously, revised policies in the light of those concerns, and made it clear to me that there was now no immediate threat of restricted access, not on June 1, July 1, or any time very soon, especially now that they were aware of the budget and fiscal year restrictions on librarians. As an example, I used our own budget process. The fiscal year begins July 1 here, but it’s not until July that I even write the budget report in which I would make a request for any new funds to cover something like this, and it would be quite a while longer before everything was officially in place, and this is at a library with pretty good budgets and philosophy funding. I told them I thought it might be months before some libraries could subscribe, even those that want to as soon as they can.

Moreover, they revised the request to include at most only institutions that offered at least a BA in philosophy, and the messages from Chalmers on the blog and to philosophy professors was that they were especially making the requests from “large universities.” In my second post, I specifically mentioned research universities and better off liberal arts college libraries, and have communicated to PhilPapers that I believe reaching beyond those groups isn’t going to be productive. Philosophy is often poorly funded at smaller regional or branch public universities, for example, even if they happen to have a small philosophy department.

Since Tuesday, I’ve also spent a lot of time writing to PP about libraries and how they work. I’ve also suggested that the point of sales isn’t just to talk about what they need from libraries, but also what they can offer libraries that do subscribe. One example that came up from another librarian who emailed me was improved interaction with link resolvers for those who subscribe, making it much easier to get from citations in PP to other library resources, especially in the many cases where there is no document in the OA repository (e.g., all the book citations).

PP has been a grant funded project created and run by academics, not sales people. They’ve never tried to sell anything or work with libraries, so everyone is new at this. In that light, I think the issues I had with the initial PP email were the result of misunderstandings and miscommunication rather than a sign of ill will or arrogance. I’ve been very pleased at how Bourget has responded to my mostly constructive criticism, and I assume that of others who may be contacting him, and both he and Chalmers seem dedicated to making this work for libraries as best as it can without undue penalties, and especially without any short term penalties that would destroy the good will even of librarians that wanted to participate but couldn’t because of budgeting constraints in a short time period. Their only goal is making PP sustainable, not to harass libraries. Maybe this won’t work, but PP is a heavily used resource among philosophers and has developed a significant amount of valuable content, so it’s worth trying. Besides revising the language on the website, I think they’re preparing another round of communication with librarians that I expect will be quite different in tone and content.

It could be that I’ve been deceived, and that it’s all a clever ruse to get me to change my story for public consumption. I don’t believe it is, and don’t see how anyone would gain by that. On the extremely off chance that I’m wrong, and bad things happen down the road, it’ll be easy enough to respond in kind. Librarians have the power here. They have the power to help support a useful OA resource and keep it viable, or not. Since my criticisms have been addressed and I trust that more development will improve the site for libraries, I’m willing to give it a shot.

The PhilPapers Subscription Drive

As you know from my last post (since removed), PhilPapers is seeking library subscriptions from some institutions to achieve financial sustainability. I had a number of concerns about the initial approach to librarians and the scope of the subscription drive that I communicated on this blog, on the ACRL philosophy discussion group listserv, and through email communication with David Bourget of PhilPapers. David worked quickly and with good grace to address my concerns and those of other librarians to the point where my criticisms are almost nil and I believe PhilPapers will act in good faith to encourage support without alienating librarians. David asked me politely if I would revise the (somewhat aggressive) title of my previous post, as it no longer reflected the PhilPapers stance and could potentially damage the subscription drive that I had already defended in the comments. Instead, I chose to take down the post and write another response.

Let’s begin with PhilPapers, which some librarians might be unfamiliar with. PhilPapers has become a useful, and, in the words of one Princeton philosopher who wrote me, an “essential” tool for contemporary academic philosophers. It attempts to replace the Philosopher’s Index, which, while a useful tool itself, has received a lot of criticism from philosophers over the years (and which has inspired at least one other competitor, the Philosophy Research Index). PhilPapers has always aspired to be more than the Philosopher’s Index ever tried to be, though. In addition to an index of the philosophical literature, it provides a taxonomy of philosophy and an open access archive of philosophical research that constantly grows as the hundreds of philosophers who contribute to it continue to do so. It is the best, if not only, available platform for open access scholarship in philosophy. As such, it deserves the support of the universities that house the majority of academic philosophers.

But as with any open access resource, there’s always the question of money. Some anti-OA folk criticize OA advocates for thinking that information not only wants to be, but can be free. However, outside of a few starry-eyed idealists, nobody really believes that. Open access scholarship should be freely available to all, but it has to be funded somehow. The argument for funding it is that without the profit motive, OA scholarship will be less expensive than the closed access scholarship that libraries have been funding for decades. Initially, the money sometimes comes from grants, as happened with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which also had a library fundraising campaign a few years ago) and with PhilPapers. While grants allow time to develop a product and test its value, they do run out. Such has happened with PhilPapers now. The logical alternative is to seek financial support from university libraries. It’s in the interest of libraries to support OA scholarship because doing so benefits everyone.

Thus, because PhilPapers has shown a great willingness to work with librarians to address our concerns and has revised and clarified its goal of raising subscriptions mostly from larger universities with philosophy programs, because of the great value of PhilPapers to the philosophical community, and because of the inherent value of open access scholarship for scholars and students throughout the world, I believe that libraries, especially those at research universities and better off liberal arts colleges, should subscribe to PhilPapers so that this excellent resource can continue to exist and grow. As the philosophy selector at such a library, I will be subscribing to PhilPapers this summer, after my fiscal year begins, confident that waiting until the time is appropriate for my library won’t bring on the sort of repercussions I was at first concerned about.

Ebooks and ILL in P2P Review

My latest column in the LJ Peer to Peer Review is here.

I quoted a German librarian saying he couldn’t get digital articles from U.S. libraries sent as email attachments, and that they had to be printed out, sent by regular mail, then rescanned. Someone emailed me questioning that. I’m assuming he was referring to German copyright law, not American law, but now I don’t know. Anyway, it was partly an example of how copyright law restricts technological advance, which I’ve addressed before. I should have been much clearer about that in the column.

Good for You is not Bad for Me

I’ve written variations on this post before, and then I’ve usually deleted them. I was inspired to write by the recent announcement of the Library Journal Movers and Shakers 2014, but it probably relates in a way to all forms of prominent recognition in the field of librarianship, whether it’s big speaking gigs, popular blogs or Twitter accounts, or whatever.

My own response to the Movers and Shakers list is the same as it’s always been. I look through the list to see if there’s anyone I know in case I want to send a congratulatory email. There’s rarely anyone I know, and for the past few years usually not anyone I’ve even heard of. Once I find out there’s no one I know on the list, I might click through on a few profiles, but that’s about it. People seem happy to win the award and it will possibly help them in their careers. That’s all fine by me. Good for them.

Sometimes there are responses I find puzzling. Envy, resentment, a large helping of why-not-meism. It’s as if good for them somehow becomes bad for others. There might be another round or criticism this year, and there have certainly been some in the past. I’ve only seen dribs and drabs, because I don’t frequent the virtual locations where people spend their time complaining about stuff like this. But some of the stuff that has seeped into my bubble is hard to take seriously because it seems so motivated by resentment.

Some people resent that the particular winners won the award, with the implication that what they did wasn’t that great, or it wasn’t the “real” library work that we hardworking librarians too busy to showboat do “in the trenches,” the metaphor implying that working in a library is somehow akin to standing in a muddy hole in the ground hoping not to get shot by enemy combatants. Since I rarely read through them, I don’t even know what most of the people did to get rewarded. I assume it’s flashy programs or popular library promotions or something like that. I don’t really care what they did. Unless I know them personally or work with them in some capacity, what they did has no affect on me whatsoever. The underlying assumption is that what I do is just as worthy of recognition as what they did, and if the world was fair I’d win awards, too. What is there to say to that? A lot of life’s frustrations come from the conflict between reality and our expectations of reality. If we absolutely can’t change that reality, it’s foolish not to change our expectations.

Some people resent the winners because, supposedly, the thing they’re really best at is self-promotion. Possibly. On the other hand, talented self-promotion can’t be the only thing that distinguishes most of the award winners from everyone else. The M&S award winners all seem to have done something new that affected other people in positive ways. Maybe they’re great at promoting that thing, but they still did whatever thing they’re promoting. To expand this some, the big name librarians are often big names because they’re really good at promoting their expertise into speaking and writing opportunities. But still, they have that expertise, or at least had it at one point. I can’t be resentful that they’re better at self-promotion than me, because I really don’t care whether they’re well known or not. Their popularity takes nothing away from me.

The hard truth that a lot of us don’t want to accept is that we’re just not that special, and in particular we don’t have the drive and talent to promote ourselves into the librarianship stratosphere. I’ve accepted that truth about myself, because I don’t care about library fame. The professional recognition that matters to me is the kind that affects my life. Becoming a Mover and Shaker might make things better for me, although I don’t see how. But not being one doesn’t take anything away from me. What recognition other people get doesn’t help or harm me. Even if I cared that wouldn’t make me any more capable of that self-promotion. I could put myself up for an award, but I don’t want one. It doesn’t help that some of the most creative things I’ve done in libraries I couldn’t talk about in public anyway. Nevertheless, it’s likely that even if I really, really wanted an award, I probably wouldn’t get one, at the very least because I’m not willing to make the effort to promote myself in that way. I can live with that just fine.

The only thing I might find irritating is if some award winner came up to me and said something like, “I’m a Library Journal Mover and Shaker, which means I’m great and you have to pay attention to me.” Actually, I take that back. I wouldn’t find that so much irritating as amusing, and everyone could use a good laugh. I just can’t imagine a situation in which that would happen. I guess another potential irritant would be if I was competing against an award winner for a job, and the only reason they got it over me was that they had the award. Again, I can’t see that happening. Generally, what’s good for them isn’t bad for me.

So congratulations to all the award winners and the famous librarians and the like. Good for you. Best of luck and all that. Now back to work.

[I realized after writing this is similar in some ways to my post on wandering free and easy last year. Maybe it's something about the approaching spring that brings on these moods.]

Radical Enlightenment in Brief

After a long and interesting discussion on Twitter, I wanted to say a bit more about the Enlightenment than in my last post. This is for the Twitter discussion, but I couldn’t put in 140 characters. Basically, below is the philosophical and political Enlightenment that I discuss in the book, and generally what I mean by “the Enlightenment movement.” In discussions of the Enlightenment with me, I’m more interested in whether someone agrees or disagrees with the values espoused below than with the term “Enlightenment” itself, which has always been heavily contested. Thus, I mean by the Enlightenment the values below, but the important part for me is the cluster of values, not the term Enlightenment itself, and what might help to implement those values. Most people in the world disagree with the values below, but I suspect some librarians agree with me who maybe think they don’t because of some labels I use. Although I could be wrong on that, too.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

Rather than provide any in-depth analysis of his exhaustive works, I will provide Israel’s own summary of the Radical Enlightenment from his shorter and more accessible Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy:

Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies it its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally. (vi-vii)

As should be clear, by Radical Enlightenment Israel means more or less those political beliefs developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that eventually triumphed over the more conservative beliefs in divine-right monarchies or established churches or “enlightened despots” as the foundation for liberal democracies in the West. As he describes it,

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values in the post-Christian age. This in itself lends the history of the movement great importance. But this type of thought—especially in many Asian and African countries, as well as in contemporary Russia—has also become the chief hope and inspiration of numerous besieged and harassed humanists, egalitarians, and defenders of human rights, who, often against great odd, heroically champion basic human freedom and dignity, including that of women, minorities, homosexuals, and religious apostates, in the face of the resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice that in much of the world today appear inexorably to be extending their grip. (xi)

We end with this vision of Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century Europe and America present us with complicated histories, even if we restrict ourselves merely to intellectual history. For every proponent of Enlightenment, there were hundreds of detractors; for every radical idea, thousands of reactionary ones.

If we consider the Enlightenment as a period of history, we must along with Darnton and many others continue to see it as more complex and more quotidian than if we consider the Enlightenment to be a living intellectual tradition, an Enlightenment project. Israel’s work reinforces this view of Enlightenment. He digs deeply into the intellectual history of the period and discloses raging debates over socinianism or materialism that now seem trivial or obscure, but that helped form the modern consciousness. However, he is certainly not writing Whig history, because it is clear that while a system of ideas emerged as the foundations of Enlightenment, Enlightenment has yet to fully triumph. (pp. 41-43).

Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

I just read Beerbrarian’s post on libraries and neoliberalism, partly responding to this post on locating the library in institutionalized oppression by nina de jesus. I wanted to enter the discussion, but then realized I’ve already pretty much said what I have to say on the subject. I’ve addressed neoliberalism and libraries some before, particularly in a post on Libraries and the Commodification of Culture. I wanted to make that a research project a couple of years ago, but frankly after a lot of reading I found the topic too overwhelming. Nevertheless, the gist of that and other writings provides some view of where I think libraries are located in “institutionalized oppression.”

At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.

de jesus says that she has “seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.” The reason for that could be that the library, as an institution, isn’t that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity. That’s a strong and counterintuitive claim, and the burden of proof rests on de jesus. However, there have been two  books arguing just that, both published in the 1970s and both still worth reading (although as you’ll see below I disagree with some of their conclusions). First is Michael Harris’ The Role of the Public Library in American Life, second is Rosemary DuMont’s Reform and Reaction: the Big City Public Library in American Life. Excerpted below are three pages from Libraries and the Enlightenment where I address Harris and Dumont and the possible counterargument to my claims that libraries are institutions philosophically founded upon Enlightenment values of freedom and reason, and are instead instruments of oppression.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

The taste elevation theory has also been criticized for its “elitism” and “authoritarianism.” In The Role of the Public Library in American Life,” for example, Michael Harris argues that the entire democratic argument behind the founding of the Boston Public Library is flawed because of its elitist authoritarianism. By the eighteen forties, Boston had developed into a major destination for new immigrants, who in the opinion of the Standing Committee of the Boston Public Library thought “little of moral and intellectual culture.” George Ticknor believed the massive influx of immigrants could be a problem because, in Ticknor’s words, they “at no time, consisted of persons who, in general, were fitted to understand our free institutions or to be intrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,” and thus the city needed to “assimilate their masses” and accommodate them to democratic institutions, primarily through education. Harris criticizes “Ticknor’s belief in the library’s potential as one means of restraining the ‘dangerous classes’ and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray,” and claims this belief “explains his insistence that the public library be as popular in appeal as possible” (6). The most significant motivation behind the founding of the Boston Public Library and other libraries in the nineteenth century, Harris argues, was a fear that the masses would destabilize society, especially the immigrant masses unused to republican regimes. Any attempt to “Americanize” immigrants was “elitist” and “authoritarian,” a critique developed further in Rosemary DuMont’s Harris-inspired Reform and Reaction. The desire to elevate the reading taste of the people is just a desire to control the lower orders and prevent radical social change.

I mention this revisionist history of the founding of public libraries because it calls into question my argument that such foundings were inspired by the Enlightenment goal to educate and improve the lot of everyone, rich and poor alike. For Harris and like-minded historians, such idealistic rhetoric always masks the ambitions of the powerful to control the powerless. However, one does not have to disagree with Harris’ account of George Ticknor—who did seem to be an authoritarian prig—to recognize that something as complex as the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory. Though the 1852 “Report” goes out of its way to argue that while good books should be supplied, no one should be forced to read them, one could still argue that even thinking some books were better than others and that people should read those books is “elitist,” etc. One question is whether such elitism and alleged authoritarianism are anti-democratic, and potentially counter-Enlightenment. The revisionist critique seems to imply that to be democratic in relation to books and learning means to consider all books equally good and useful and to consider all political beliefs and values worth defending, even if they are hostile or foreign to the needs of a democratic republic.

These days we would say this is a question of the value, or perhaps even the meaning, of multiculturalism, and addressing this debate in depth is out of our scope here. Harris and others (rightly in my opinion) would argue that the culture of the immigrants should be respected, but the question is, to what degree and in what areas? Let us assume that Ticknor and other upper-class Bostonians had a very conservative idea of what democracy should be; nevertheless, that does not show that they did not believe in democratic institutions. If we believe in the value of democratic institutions, then we must support those institutions, and what is more we must insist that everyone supports those institutions publicly, regardless of their private beliefs. Groups in democracies might fervently believe in fascism, but a democratic society cannot allow them to act on those beliefs. We can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions. What democracies cannot allow is a mere “modus vivendi,” as the philosopher John Rawls argues, where groups abide by democratic institutions until they can be overthrown. Carrying this argument back to Ticknor, why would he not believe that immigrants from countries without democracies would need some sort of education regarding democratic institutions? How could anyone possibly believe otherwise? Is there any difference in motivation behind this belief and the practice we have in the United States of giving extensive tests on American democracy to naturalizing immigrants, tests which most natural born Americans themselves cannot pass? While some supposedly democratic criticisms of practical educational institutions are no doubt valid, we must resist the tendency to believe that all educational efforts not derived from the group being educated are inherently undemocratic. Undemocratic groups require an education in democracy.

Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. For example, Jane Addams and the settlement workers in the early twentieth century wanted to “’Americanize’ immigrants into the norms of their new society,” but they definitely improved the lives of urban immigrants (Flanagan 37). Indeed, by the standards of the anti-immigrant movements that gained control of the American government in the nineteen twenties, George Ticknor looks like a raging liberal. Citizens of a democracy must be acculturated into democratic institutions, and criticizing this necessity because the action first arose from the conservative fear of uneducated immigrants ignores this. Even Harris is forced to admit the value public libraries had for everyone, including immigrants. “That the library’s services to the immigrant had definite positive values for those able to take advantage of them cannot be denied,” though he still claimed that librarians had little to do with benefit, arguing that “these positive values were the result of the immigrant’s persistence and not the librarian’s conscious attitude” (14). In his zeal to deny the beneficial accomplishments of anyone remotely conservative, Harris acts as if the libraries which benefitted the immigrants sprung into existence without influential citizens to found them and working librarians to run them. Regardless of whether or not an enlightened and democratic ideal was not realized in practice, it is undeniable that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library wanted to found an educational institution to allow people access to useful knowledge and give them the opportunity to educate themselves for life and citizenship, and that the Boston Public Library became such an institution whatever its flaws. It is also clear from the founding of the Boston Public Library to the founding of libraries throughout the century, that the most important motivating reason was the link between the public library and public education. (pp. 110-14)