Which truth, what fiction? librarians' book recommendations for children, 1876-1890

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The character is very largely formed by the books read and not read, " proclaimed Kate Gannett Wells, a representative of parents at the 1879 American Library Association (ALA) conference, the first such conference to address the question of how public libraries should engage with the reading of children.1 From 1876 to 1890, librarians in the United States debated which books were appropriate for public library collections, and therefore what constituted "the best reading" for the public.2 During these years, public librarians' professional discussions and publications reflected growing acceptance of the idea that public libraries should provide services tailored to children.3 Librarians harbored fears that crime papers, story papers, dime novels, and other forms of "sensational" fiction growing in popularity at the time would harm all citizens, children and adults. Those fears have been well documented in a number of historical studies.4 This chapter analyzes the changing book recommendations made by public librarians during the experimental phase of the development of public library services to children from 1876 to 1890. Over the course of these years, librarians moved from resisting fictional publications to a selective acceptance of imaginative literature that reflected the values of middle-class childhood. In the 1880s, as librarians began to make lists of recommended books especially for children, they promoted "truth-like" books over fiction in their recommendations of reading for the young. By 1890, their recommendations had begun to change, as librarians increasingly favored fiction that depicted middle-class childhood as worthwhile reading for children. Librarians' early book recommendations for children provide evidence for understanding how debates over fiction were interpreted in the emerging field of youth services. In addition, analyzing the rationale for these recommendations reveals how competing ideals about the "best" reading played out in changing collection and book evaluation standards. Changes in valuations of reading materials for children within children's librarianship were also connected to broader social changes in publishing markets, schooling, and middle-class expectations of childhood. The starting point of 1876 is significant in the history of librarianship in the United States for at least three reasons: it was the year of the formation of the American Library Association (ALA); the inauguration of the first professional journal for librarians, Library Journal; and the publication of the first national report on public libraries, Public Libraries in the United States of America.5 Within that report, there were several articles that began to probe the issue of what kinds of books public libraries should provide for children. Other significant publications of the period include youth services pioneer Caroline Hewins's 1882 book of recommendations for children's reading, Books for Boys and Girls: A Guide for Parents and Children, which was reissued with a slightly modified title, Books for the Young: A Guide for Parents and Children, in 1883. Also in 1882, Hewins inaugurated a series of surveys, published as the Reading of the Young reports, that gathered information from libraries across the United States regarding what books and services they were beginning to provide for children. The Reading of the Young reports were created by women and repeated every few years from 1882 to 1898; those examined here were published in 1882, 1883, 1885, and 1889, and 1890. These sources have received little attention to date, despite their national scope, impact on the development of youth services librarianship, and unusually early use of survey methods.6 Women were still a minority within this male-dominated group of professionalizing librarians. It is significant that the Reading of the Young reports were authored by women because, although men and women participated in discussions of library service to children, women dominated this specialty within librarianship by 1890.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEducation and the Culture of Print in Modern America
PublisherUniversity of Wisconsin Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)0299236145, 9780299236144
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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