Libraries and the Enlightenment

By Wayne Bivens-Tatum. Los Angeles, CA: Library Juice Press, 2011. 211 pp. $25.00 (paper). ISBN 978-1-936117-42-0.

When, a third of the way through the book, Bivens-Tatum explains why there has been “little mention of libraries, which might seem odd since this is a book about libraries,” he answers that “college libraries were just not that important” (83). Nor apparently were princely, royal, noble, municipal, or other private and religious libraries. One must wonder therefore why he did not just add to the many books on philosophy and education in the Enlightenment rather than tackle the subject of libraries. Puzzlingly, there is little real examination of Enlightenment thought about libraries. There is quite a lot on general German philosophical influence, very little on German (or other) libraries through the first half of this book. Leibnitz and Lessing are not mentioned, much less their work in libraries while Hume who also served as a librarian appears more as a reactionary than a forward thinker.

The chapter on American social and public libraries is more focused but ignores the parallel and highly influential contemporary movements in Scotland and England. Bivens-Tatum seems unaware of library history journals like this one or its British counterpart Information and History. In several pages about the first president of an American research university, Daniel Coit Gilman of John Hopkins, he does not mention Gilman’s library background or writings. Bivens-Tatum is better on the origin and need for public libraries within the American context and quite good on the educational mission of public libraries. Yet as he admits (p. 135), this democratic mission is not so much from the Enlightenment as from the 19th century (135). He relies and expands on the work of Jesse Shera, the sometimes forgotten Patrick Williams, and the more recent argument of Arthur Hafner and Jennifer Sterling-Folker (cited only under Hafner in the bibliography).

Near the end of the book, Bivens-Tatum writes a good deal about “universal libraries” as reflected in Alexandria, Conrad Gessner, Gabriel Naudé, Memex, and Google which relate, in a way, to the Enlightenment. His level of abstraction is perhaps exemplified in his conclusion that “We still need to think teleologically about libraries, but the end or telos of libraries is suggested by their origins as well” (p. 1185). Yet we learn relatively little about the origins of libraries. His argument is that “American libraries were inspired by the values of the Enlightenment, and protecting those values in the future is our professional obligation” (p. 187).

If one was expecting a book on eighteenth-century libraries or about libraries in Enlightenment thought, this was not it. It does have its virtues in thinking of the future of libraries in terms of Enlightenment ideals.

Patrick M. Valentine, East Carolina University