Purpose of (19th Century) University Libraries

In doing some more research on Theophilus Wylie, librarian of Indiana University from 1840 – 1880 (among other positions like professor of chemistry, interim president, and Presbyterian minister), I ran across an interesting speech he gave among his papers.  Entitled “On Books and Libraries” (delivered sometime in January of 1878) Wylie gave a brief history of what books and libraries are, but also gave some unique ideas of what he thought a college library should be.  Nowadays we think of libraries as a kind of center for scholarly communication in which we collect, preserve, and disseminate research.  Wylie felt differently.

First, he gives some idea of the importance of books in a scholars’ life by saying that “It is not the number of books that make the scholar.  We sometimes think we know what we have in our books.  This is a mistake.  We must make knowledge a piece of our minds.”  He then goes on to say that “Some books we must appreciate and digest, others consult.”  In other words, some books need to be investigated in depth, but others need only be browsed for facts or quick information.  He illustrates his point by giving an example of a dictionary (which one only uses to look up definitions of words), and says “A library is like a dictionary for consultation.”

Wylie was living in a time that was transitioning from universities from institutions that primarily taught a classical liberal arts classical into the research universities we think of today.  In his time, the libraries were used primarily to help with the curriculum for teaching.  However, Wylie was also was purchasing journals and periodicals of scientific literature which he may have used in his research.  Professional librarians (with master’s level training and full time jobs) would not exist at Indiana University for another thirty years, and it would be another ten years before Dewey established the School of Library Economy at Columbia.  So, in many ways, Wylie’s statements serve as a kind of scholars’ view of what libraries and librarians should be before full scale professionalization of librarianship began.

Similar to Wylie’s time, we might argue that universities and libraries are going through another transition.  One might also consider that the kind of information overload we talk about today is simply an acceleration of a trend that began even before Wylie.  For scholarly communication and libraries today, Wylie’s advice, I think, still holds.  There are certain books that scholars need to “appreciate and digest, others consult.”  The question is how do we make those distinctions now and how can or should librarians become “consultants” in a meaningful way?

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