Retired Librarian Mourns Decline of Libraries

American libraries are in a period of serious decline, a retired Harvard librarian told a small group of devoted bibliophiles, librarians and researchers in a talk at Houghton Library yesterday.

“To speak of the decline of libraries today seems odd,” said Kenneth E. Carpenter, former Assistant Director for Research Resources in the Harvard Library. “More information is available more readily than ever before. But ask scholars or librarians, and the response has generally been lament.”

Described in his introduction as “the best of the breed,” Carpenter has devoted his last three years of retirement to research.

“Almost no scholarly work has been done on the history of libraries,” Carpenter said from a podium placed underneath a gilded chandelier in Harvard’s rare books library.

Carpenter said his research uncovered local governments dissolving or merging libraries, a decline in interested readers, and the “diminished status and human resources policies that limit advancement” of librarians.

One of the greatest signs of recent decline in the library, according to Carpenter, is the popularity of “access by ownership,” which has allowed libraries short on funding to justify small or static permanent collections by claiming access to a larger collection through sharing with other libraries.

“Libraries are retreating back into a sameness of acquisition, justified by the ideal of “sharing” which sounds like commonality, but limits access,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter provided a history of the development of the research library, beginning in the early 19th century, that culminated in his reflections on the current period of decline.

Themes Carpenter said united the history of American libraries were those of conflict between causes such populism and elitism, localism and nationalism and librarians and institutions.

Carpenter’s address was not limited to the history of Harvard libraries; he described the rise of the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress and other university libraries. However, he incorporated several Harvard-based anecdotes that he related national trends to local occurrences.

Describing the move in the mid-1800s towards the acquisition of current documents along with old published volumes, Carpenter told the story of a Harvard librarian who was reproached in 1856 “because he wrote a flier and stuck it under every plate at Commencement, saying that there was nothing written of which the library would not want a copy.”

This comment was followed by sustained laughter from the audience.

Carpenter connected this attempt—and other historical struggles to expand library collections to include documents and books in other languages—as moves toward populism in libraries.

They showed “steps towards maintaining democratic institutions at home,” he said.

He celebrated the rise of accessibility due to the advance of technology. He also said he was pleased by the lasting support for libraries provided by organizations such as the Mellon Foundation, the American Council on Scholarly Societies and other “learned societies” and philanthropic foundations.

Nevertheless, Carpenter expressed concern at the popular status of libraries and of librarians.“Librarians are never—my wife has taught me to say “almost never”—master in their own house. There’s always a dean, university president, city council or state legislative council that’s legislating.”

Carpenter ended the talk by joking that his lecture was “in danger of turning into a homily.”