Date: Thu, 28 Mar 1996 10:56:53 CST
Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing &
From: Wendy Plotkin
Subject: PAPER: "Enoch Pratt Free Library & Its Services to Immigrants"

Posted by Wendy Plotkin

Amidst the introductions and other discussions taking place on COMM-ORG, I'd like to announce the availability of the next paper in the seminar. This is Amy Begg's "Enoch Pratt Free Library and its Service to Communities of Immigrant Residents of Baltimore During the Progressive Era, 1900-1914." In this paper, Amy describes the historical debate in the last 30 years over the "progressive" nature of librarians' services to immigrant communities in the U.S. in the early part of the century. Paralleling the debate over "Progressives" in general in the period from 1880-1920, this debate asks about the actions and motivations of urban public librarians:

o how did they respond to the need for library branches in neighborhoods increasingly populated by immigrants?

o to what extent did these library branches, when established, meet the special needs of immigrants?

o what were the needs of immigrants at this time in terms of library services -- materials that would further their Americanization and assimilation or that would assist in sustaining their connections to their "old world" cultures?

o and, implicitly, who would make these decisions?

The specific case Amy chooses to investigate is one that has been central to the "revisionists" case -- the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. In _The Enoch Pratt Free Library: A Social History_, Phillip A. Kalisch in 1969 made the argument that the library and its librarians ignored the needs of immigrants and served an "Americanization" agenda in the actions it took that affected them. Kalisch's work was used and expanded on in Jon Teaford's _The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870-1900_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) in which Teaford detailed at some length the domination of Progressive era library boards by white Protestant elites and the exclusion of middle- and working-class ethnic residents therefrom. Teaford asserted

The urban plutocracy viewed culture and beauty as their special domain, and service on park and library boards was a social distinction that many of the wealthy readily accepted. (68)
He then canvassed the composition of library boards in a number of cities, noting that they were "insulated" from political pressure and were "the special responsibility of the community's social and economic lords." (72) In cities ranging from Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh on the East Coast to Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco to the West, the elite were appointed, at times to life-tenure positions, as the trustees of public library boards.

Amy argues against the revisionist view, and presents as evidence the establishment of a branch in the Jewish section of East Baltimore. Members of the Jewish community organized and put pressure on the board of the Enoch Pratt Library to obtain library services in their community, and, although initially unsuccessful, eventually saw the establishment of Branch 11. Furthermore, the heavy use of the library by these residents is evidence of the appropriateness of the selection of the books, which Amy admits were weighted towards Americanization and assimilation goals -- goals that Amy argues are legitimate.

Amy Begg is Reference Librarian, National Museum of American History Branch Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.[1] She completed an M.A. in American History and a Master of Library Science at Catholic University in Washington DC. Amy has an interest in community involvement with the arts, humanities, and education, and plans to continue studying-community based educational programs .

I would urge COMM-ORG seminar participants interested in U.S. immigrant history and contemporary concerns to read this paper and comment on these issues of assimilation, Americanization, preservation of cultural traditions, and community control over local public cultural and educational services such as libraries.

To obtain Amy's paper and attached materials via Listserv, send e-mail to with the message:


Alternatively, to obtain the hypertext version of the paper via the WWW, with links to the footnotes and auxiliary material (described below), aim your WWW browser at

Included with the paper are a number of auxiliary materials. Among these is the comment of Cheryl Malone, History Bibliographer for the General Libraries of the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. candidate in its Graduate School of Library and Information Science. In her remarks, Cheryl explores the debate over Progressive libraries and places the experience of the Enoch Pratt Library in the context of public library development in the U.S. in the first quarter of the century. Cheryl's own dissertation, "Accommodating Access: 'Colored' Carnegie Libraries, 1905-1925," is about the establishment of libraries in three Southern African-American communities at the turn-of-the century under the auspices of the Carnegie program, a major source of library development funds at this time. According to an abstract of the dissertation, which Cheryl is hoping to complete by the fall,

Between 1905 and 1925, several cities used grants from Andrew Carnegie and the Carnegie Corporation to build public libraries staffed and used exclusively by African Americans. The ambiguity of the segregated public library, a separate building standing simultaneously as a monument to the containment of black bodies and the liberation of black minds, expressed well the tensions of New South cities in the Jim Crow era. Whites accommodated blacks' desire for access to a new municipal service, while blacks accommodated whites' insistence on separation. By focusing on Louisville, Kentucky; Houston, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and New York City's Harlem, the dissertation explores the differing motivations and meanings behind library services to African Americans in the South and compares and contrasts those to similar developments in the North. The study relies on the Carnegie Corporation records on microfilm at Columbia University and on extant records of the public libraries selected for study. The chapter on Louisville has been published as "Louisville Free Public Library's Racially Segregated Branches, 1905-35," _Register of the Kentucky Historical Society_ 93:2 (Spring 1995): 159-179.

Also accompanying Amy's paper and Cheryl's comment is a complete and annotated transcription of the article

John Foster Carr, "What the Library Can Do For Our Foreign Born,"
_Library Journal_ (October 1913), 566-68.
offered by Amy as a source on the attitudes of the library community during the period covered. Carr confirms the Americanization agenda in this article, especially appropriate in light of his authorship of his "Guide to the United States For the Immigrant," published by Doubleday, Page & Co. in 1911 "under the auspices" of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution.

Carr's article also has two additional interesting, although admittedly tangential, pieces of information. First is a reference to Cesare Pascarella's 1894 epic Italian poem "The Discovery of America" which Carr indicates was read with great relish at gatherings of Italian immigrants at the Mount Vernon, New York library with which he was associated. I've included information on the poem as an annotation to Carr's article, although information on it in the one English edition I obtained was skimpy -- and additional information on it would be appreciated. "The Discovery of America" is about Christopher Columbus and his travails, as well as the travails of the modern-day immigrant, in an ironic tone. Thus, one of the poem's parts begins

Because big books won't give you any notion Neither will a college education, Unless you've got a keen imagination, You never can imagine a real ocean.
Secondly, Mount Vernon, New York, home of Carr and his library, itself is an interesting place. It was established in the 1850s by expatriate New York City working class residents who established an Industrial Home Owners Society, as a means of obtaining and offering to others affordable and secure housing in a stable atmosphere. In the transcription of Carr's article, I've included information from Kenneth Jackson's CRABGRASS FRONTIER (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) about Mount Vernon, which ultimately failed in its mission due to the pressures of land values and the escaping New York City upper and upper middle class population.

Jackson notes that at the time of his book there was little secondary information on Mount Vernon. I'd be interested in anything more recent about the Industrial Home Owner Society.

I appreciate Amy's and Cheryl's contributions to the seminar.

Wendy Plotkin COMM-ORG Convener

[1] The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) contribute to the Institution's mission "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge" through their service to the Smithsonian community in support of research, exhibitions, education programs, publishing, and the administration of the Institution. The Libraries also serve the scholarly community and the public.

There are 18 Smithsonian Libraries, fifteen of which are in the Washington, D.C. area. The holdings of all 18 libraries, including books, serials, microfilm, and other materials, are indexed in a union catalog, available on SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information Service. Each record lists all holding branch libraries. Access to SIRIS is available in all branch libraries and via the Internet, at Telnet:

At the broadest level, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) Branch Library collections are concerned with the history of science and technology and their impact on both the American scene and the everyday life of Americans. The primary aims of the collecting policy in the NMAH library are:

1.) to provide materials for documenting and servicing the museum collections and the public contacts they generate 2.) to support curators in their research efforts 3.) to provide a facility that can serve as a center for research for scholars in fields of interest in the museum.

The NMAH branch library collection contains monographs, current, and non-current serials. In addition, the library features a reference collection, and a reading room dedicated to biographical research materials. Finally, NMAH Library has an extensive collection of trade literature published by manufacturers in the nineteenth and twentieth century.