Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a few days at the University of Regina, attending the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting, which was held in conjunction with the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences. It was a personal “first” on several levels: my first time attending Congress, my first time attending the CHA (even though I was, once upon a time, a history student), and my first time presenting a scholarly paper to an audience outside of my discipline and field of practice.
Having done this now, I would definitely recommend to others in the information field to attend at least one conference outside of our discipline. My experience at CHA tells me that many of the challenges and struggles that characterize the study of information today are much of the same challenges and struggles experienced in other disciplines. The challenges of digitization, digital scholarship, pedagogy in a digital age, and fighting misinformation (and disinformation, and mal-information) are not ours alone: if we look beyond our usual collaborators, we might actually find that some of the questions we’ve identified are already answered, or are in process of being answered.
Some of the impressions I walked away from Congress with:
Academics have a responsibility to make their discipline more hospitable for those who have been traditionally underrepresented within the walls of the academy. I felt quite buoyed simply hearing about all the public history projects that actively sought out women, people of colour, indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ to tell the parts of Canada’s history that have previously been ignored, omitted, or suppressed. I especially admired the scholars who pushed back against the myth-making machine of Canada 150.
The use of art as a vehicle for disseminating public history remains very much alive. However, instead of raising monuments to politicians and monarchs, historians are collaborating with writers and artists to develop posters, graphic novels, sculptures, photography exhibitions, and film that shed light on people who were not part of the political establishment but who did extraordinary things. I’d love to see art applied to information studies in this way.
Academics have a responsibility to advocate for fair compensation and pay equity for intellectual work. We may be in academia out of love, but, as one scholar put it bluntly in an early session I attended, academia continues to be “horribly exploitative.” We have to undo a system that thrives on the basis of intellectual work being completed for nothing (or next to nothing), and that expects projects to stay afloat on the basis of passion and volunteerism.
Incredulity would definitely be a good word to describe my current state. With less than three months of research leave to go, and less than two months before I present a short version of my research paper at the Canadian Historical Association annual meeting (part of Congress 2018), there is still so much to do. I now understand why faculty and librarians who have gone on sabbatical/research leave often say that the last couple of months is when everything shifts into high gear.
Here’s the abstract for the paper that I will be presenting at CHA, for those who are interested in library history:
Title: Story Hours in the ‘Slums’: Re-examining the Toronto Public Library’s Participation in the Settlement House Movement, 1910-1959
In the popular discourse, Canadian public libraries are frequently represented as the great social equalizer — a description shaped by the library’s history as a gathering place for diverse peoples and mythicized by the legacy of Andrew Carnegie. Public libraries, from the Victorian to Edwardian era, symbolized cultural and intellectual progress. They were meaningful to a young immigrant country that was seeking to establish a national identity. Nonetheless, social equality was not an intrinsic goal for municipalities that erected free libraries. Using Toronto as a case study, this paper argues that the public library’s role in furthering social equality was the result of a deliberate course of action and risk-taking, driven by the desire for growth and professional recognition. Although the Toronto Public Library (TPL) opened under fiscally and socially conservative municipal leadership, its expansion was made possible because it re-positioned itself from being an “apostle of culture” to becoming one of Toronto’s modern public social services. One such tactic was the TPL’s participation in the settlement house movement, significant for being TPL’s debut into services for immigrants and the poor. By piecing together archival records from three settlement houses and the TPL, this paper re-examines the motivations behind the library’s settlement work. Several themes emerge from this study: women’s professional struggles; competing views on immigration and social welfare; and finally, the challenges of maintaining public support in a socially conservative landscape.
 Dee Garrison, Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920 (New York: Free Press, 1979).
And now, an aside.
When I started my research leave last July, I had entertained high hopes of accomplishing more during my time away from the library. I had even expected to do a preliminary literature review for a second research project that would continue as my ongoing research when I returned to my regular posting at my library.
That second project was supposed to investigate how cataloguers talk about their work in order to advocate for the profession. Ironically, as my research leave progressed, real life began to mirror my research interests. Suddenly, I wasn’t just thinking about advocacy for cataloguers, but advocacy for academic librarianship more generally. I pondered over questions related to access, equity, power, professional practice, and the ethics and values of librarianship, not only within the scope of my research paper on settlement house libraries, but more broadly, across specialized libraries such as my own. Following advocacy campaigns such as Save the UT Libraries felt strangely surreal given the timing.
I am still processing it all. No conclusions yet.
One thing that I’ve learned from my ongoing research into Toronto’s settlement house libraries is that libraries that thrive are libraries that:
- Have passionate, dedicated staff members who are always ready to champion the cause of the library.
- Don’t focus so much on judging people for what they pick up and read, but ensuring that good — albeit sometimes overlooked — literature is available for when readers are ready to discover those works;
- Have staff who observe first-hand the wants — and needs — of the community they serve. This means keeping eyes and ears open at all times, really listening and watching what is happening.
An observation that brings me joy as a current-day librarian is that early settlement house workers valued professional librarians, and wanted them as a partner for managing the settlement house libraries. When the Toronto Public Library initially declined one of the settlement house’s invitation, board members decided to send one of their settlement workers to professional library school, so that they could have a knowledgeable, informed, and skilled librarian — rather than a volunteer, however well-meaning and educated he/she might have been — making decisions regarding the library collection and its services (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1670, File 8). This was the position of social workers, not librarians!
The last settlement house library in Toronto (based at St. Christopher House, now renamed West Neighbourhood House) closed in 1959. The official explanation from the Toronto Public Library, as found in their annual report for that year, was that St. Christopher House’s renovations no longer allowed for space for the TPL. The official explanation from St. Christopher House was that it could not offer as much space as the TPL requested. Who initiated the end of the settlement house/public library partnership is unclear, but what is clear is that by mid-20th century, the TPL had set its sights on expanding and strengthening its system of neighbourhood branches. In the case of the St. Christopher House library, the TPL integrated the collection into the new Manning Boys and Girls Branch, which the TPL had organized in partnership with the Board of Education. (Side note: School libraries operated by the TPL also seem to have fallen out of favour.)
For their part, settlement houses in Canada and the U.S. were overhauling their mission and programs. In some cases, as in Hull House in Chicago, the board in charge of the settlement decided to disband the house altogether, compelling its community to accept a decentralized model of participation in social services.
When I think about the settlement house workers’ determination in the late 1910s to engage professional librarians to set-up and run their libraries, I think of how much has remained constant. Yes, technologies and societal norms change, but libraries still need information resources. Simply gathering information resources into a space does not, however, make a library. A space without the types of information resources that support the people it purports to serve is no longer a library, just as a space without librarians is not a library, however co-opted the latter word may be.
In a couple of weeks, I will be returning to the annual Ontario Library Association Super Conference, presenting a poster on the early days of Toronto’s settlement house movement, but more specifically, on the beginnings of the partnership between the settlement houses and the Toronto Public Library.
Needless to say, the challenges of presenting on a topic that I am still in the midst of writing were many; thus, focusing on a specific time period–the start of the partnership–seemed to be the most practical. Distilling pages of textual notes onto an (albeit large) poster, while saving room for visual content, turned out to be the most challenging, but once I had decided on the look, sketched out the design on paper, and discovered how simple Microsoft Publisher was to use, the poster project became much more manageable. In the process of putting the pieces together, I also learned that requesting copyright permission from the City of Toronto Archives is far less stressful than asking for copyright permission from other bodies, and that maps can convey a lot of information within a space that’s too tiny for a paragraph.
For those planning to attend the OLA conference, a preview of my poster is now up: http://www.olasuperconference.ca/poster-sessions-thursday/
One of the things that I had not sufficiently prepared myself for, prior to beginning my research leave project, was the emotional weight that would come from reading accounts of past injustices endured by marginalized people. Since my research revolves around the library services offered through Toronto’s settlement houses, I have looked through settlement house records at various archives and special collections, in the hopes of finding textual and photographic references to libraries. In the process, I have encountered passages, upon passages, of reports and minutes that seem innocuous on the surface, but which, upon further consideration, are quite horrific.
Take this excerpt from the April 8th to May 13th, 1924 report written by the head worker of St. Christopher House; it reveals that, despite the gradually improving economy, the financial benefits did not trickle down to the poor:
“There is still a great deal of unemployment in the district and resulting hard times. Our donation of groceries from Dovercourt Rd. Presbyterian Church vanished very quickly. Three families threatened with eviction had to have loans and cases of undernourishment come to our notice frequently. Away last November Judge Mott sentenced four boys living in a Leonard Avenue rear house to Orillia or as an alternative that the entire family be deported to England. The family chose deportation but up to date nothing seems to have happened and those boys are a distinct menace to the neighbourhood.” (p. 5)
(City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1673, File 2)
Although the head worker does not explain what “Orillia” is, by my deductions, it was most likely shorthand for the Orillia “training school”, or the Orillia Asylum for Idiots (later renamed the Ontario Hospital School, and later again, the Huronia Regional Centre). Asylums in the early twentieth century were meant to isolate and remove from society people of all ages who exhibited behaviours that deviated from the norm (Leung, 2014; Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.). Aside from committing those diagnosed with some form of mental illness or intellectual disability, the Orillia Asylum regularly admitted children and youths that the Children’s Aid Society, the Toronto General Hospital, and orphanages sent over as a last resort, in the absence of other welfare options. Indeed, advocates of asylums, such as the prominent eugenicist Dr. Helen MacMurchy, justified the practice by arguing that juvenile delinquency, crime, prostitution, sexual deviancy, and illegitimacy were all evidence of feeble-mindedness, which they felt was best treated through institutionalization (Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.; Samson, n.d.).
Having to choose between checking into an asylum versus being deported to another country is not a real choice. It seems that to the family living behind Leonard Avenue in 1924, it was not a real choice either.
Leung, E. (2014, March 18). “Orillia Asylum for Idiots” opens in Ontario. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/timeline/53284371132156674b00028b
Rossiter, K, & Clarkson, A. (n.d.). Opening Ontario’s “Saddest Chapter:” A Social History of Huronia Regional Centre. Retrieved from http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/article/view/99/153
Samson, A. (n.d.). Helen MacMurchy publishes The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/timeline/5172ef94eed5c60000000024
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five months since I went on research leave. I’m now in the midst of writing the first draft of a manuscript that I hope will shed light on the role of Toronto public libraries in the work of settlement houses in the first half of the 20th century. It’s been a struggle. After years of writing technical reports and co-authoring library science papers, it’s been challenging getting back into the style of writing a history paper. And, because I’ve been around academics for a long time too, I have found myself constantly questioning the sentences that I’ve put on paper, wondering about how many other interpretations could be made of the same primary sources that I’ve found, and asking myself, “is there anything that I’ve missed, and if so, what?”
Primary sources are such tricky pieces of evidence, and perhaps that’s part of the reason behind my misgivings. The original sources don’t give the full picture of what went on, and sometimes, an expression or a term used by the author, or a discernible silence on an issue, gives way to my suspicion that politics was involved: that a particular decision was not made simply on the basis of financial and usage data, but on a specific assumption and value judgement about libraries that the author won’t articulate.
For all the research output from the library science field these days, I’d love to see more history projects that not only disseminate information about a chain of events, but that re-examine our profession. I’ve love to see more history-based research that approaches our past from a non-Western-centric feminist perspective, given that Canadian libraries have come in contact with culturally and economically diverse people since the early days of the public library movement. It makes me wonder if part of my writing struggles is because I lack (and need?) a critical theory framework for my paper.