The Great Depression: Its Impact on Forty-Six Large American Public Libraries

By Robert Scott Kramp. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press, 2010. 220 pp. $18.00 (paper). ISBN 978-1-936117-02-4.

There have been few substantive studies of major socioeconomic events and their impact on library development and operations. And so it is especially fitting that this 1975 University of Michigan doctoral dissertation becomes more accessible to the library community and beyond. In 2011, the United States is experiencing a steep economic downturn that has some troubling parallels to the Great Depression of the 1930s. This study’s examination of how the protracted Great Depression influenced library policy, operations, and services reminds us that we have been through the tunnel before. We now have important benchmark data from the 1930s that can be compared to the present downturn to identify similarities and divergences.

Robert Scott Kramp employs content analysis to evaluate the Depression-related writings of library directors, 1930–1940, who led forty-six American public libraries serving more than 200,000 patrons. Source materials were limited to annual reports and to director contributions to nine journals (American Library Association Bulletin, Journal of Adult Education, Libraries, Library Journal, Library Quarterly, Publishers Weekly, School and Society, Special Libraries, and Wilson Bulletin for Librarians). The universe of publications amounted to 3,800 pages of annual reports and 620 pages of articles. The author furnishes a list of the thirteen most productive library director authors and provides snapshots of the issues addressed by each. Kramp aimed to study the impact of the Depression on the internal operations of libraries; to define how and where the Depression affected library services; to learn whether library policies changed as a result of the Depression; and to discover whether directors of public libraries changed their attitudes regarding their libraries, the public, or any other matter as a result of the Depression.

Library directors in the Depression appreciated contributions from the newly formed federal relief agencies but they were also skeptical about the long term. There was widespread apprehension over a federal role in local decisions involving fiscal allocation, planning, and assessment. Given this perception, it should be no surprise that the Library Services Act did not materialize until 1956. Demand for books was highest at the beginning of the 1930s and declined steadily with the improvement of general employment. Demand for services other than circulation followed a similar inverse pattern. Adult education was addressed by 25 percent of the library directors, and no unified pattern emerged. As for reading patterns, escapist literature predominated in the first few years of the decade, and by the end shifted to learning-oriented works. Fiction circulation declined throughout the decade.

Concern over budget matters was relatively modest during the first three years, but, as the Depression continued, elevated to a higher level of focus. By the end of the decade, most budgets had been restored. Salary levels, recruiting, unions, and personnel intrusions via the spoils system were all reported as concerns. When fiscal cutbacks were needed, reductions were first made in supplies, followed by collections, and lastly in personnel. Matters receiving only modest attention included cooperation among libraries, library planning, recruitment, relations of the public library to other types of libraries, unemployment of librarians, the role of women as administrators, public relations, and service to special groups.

Robert Scott Kramp has written the most comprehensive analysis of the public library’s multiple challenges during the Great Depression. One measure of a successful research project is the degree of value added for future researchers. By this standard, there are many productive
ideas to be gleaned from the findings presented here. Several come immediately to mind: the relationship between the economy and service priorities in rural and urban libraries; optimal leadership styles for fiscal reverses and rebuilding; and the relationship between the national economy and censorship activity. The Library Juice Press deserves a garland for making this study and other substantive works available in a readable and affordable format.

Arthur P. Young, Northern Illinois University