Book Reviews

A. Arro Smith. Capturing Our Stories: An Oral History of Librarianship in Transition, with preface by Loriene Roy. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, imprint of American Library Association. 2017. 202p. Paper, $45.00 (ISBN 978-0-8389-1461-8).

This work grew out of “Capturing Our Stories: Developing a National Oral History Program for Retiring/Retired Librarians,” a project organized by 2007/2008 ALA President Loriene Roy, who also wrote the preface to this work. The aim of this oral history project, which can be viewed at https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~stories/, was to collect and record interviews from retired librarians in an effort to preserve their stories, experiences, and remembrances, all of which reflect the collective social memories of the library profession. A. Arro Smith, who was involved in organizing and implementing the project, continues supporting Roy’s mission through this book. In this work, which serves to supplement and analyze the oral history project, Smith offers a qualitative study that identifies trends and repeated themes addressed by the thirty-five interviewees, all of whom are retirees from the profession. Smith, through the use of oral history theories and methodologies, sets out to present and explore the “unique stories of the everyday lives of librarians” (ix) and “the story of librarianship in the last half of the twentieth century [as] told by thirty-five individuals” (xvii). Through doing so, Smith argues, a “‘social memory’ of librarianship” (2) can be constructed. Much like the oral history project itself, Smith argues that it is vital to capture and examine the stories and experiences of this now-retired generation of librarians, as their careers spanned an era of significant change within the library profession. From typewriter to computer, card catalog to OPAC, phone to chat reference, this generation of librarians lived through a defining transitional moment in librarianship.

Book cover for Capturing Our Stories: An Oral History of Librarianship in Transition

Rather than providing a detailed summary of the entire oral history project, Smith offers a companion text that identifies and discusses common themes that emerged through the interviews. The work also provides a short primer on oral history literature and methodology, which is written specifically for librarians. The work contains two parts, the first of which is significantly longer than the second. Part I, “Capturing our Stories” (chapters 1 through 6), contains Smith’s analysis and discussion of the oral history project. Part II, “How to Capture Stories” (chapters 7 and 8), discusses oral history methods and practices as they relate to librarianship.
Part I discusses how reoccurring themes in the oral history project provide insight into the social memory of librarianship. Chapter 1, “Becoming a Librarian,” explores the shared memories of library school, which are a common experience across all fields of librarianship. The longest chapter in the work by far, it also details how interviewees entered librarianship, with some of them planning to do so from childhood, while others fell into it as “accidental librarians” (22). Chapter 2, “Cliché and Stereotype,” explores popular depictions of librarians, both among the public and within the profession. Smith distinguishes between the two, arguing that stereotypes are often assigned externally and are usually recognized as generalizations within the profession. Smith further argues that librarians define themselves by how they do not conform to the public stereotype of the “meek, frumpy, unmarried” shushing librarian archetype (71). Cliché, by contrast, are generalizations within the profession that express a shared social experience, often without interviewers realizing they are generalizing. Smith highlights stereotypes and clichés within the profession, noting how librarians in different areas of librarianship—technical services, public service, and management—employ cliché while discussing each other. Chapter 3, “Technology Memories,” explores librarians’ nostalgia and memories of how technological advancements changed the profession. The interviewees discuss the advent of typewriters, early computers, OPACS, online databases, even the wide-scale implementation of microfilm as an alternative to print journals. In each case, they provide a balanced account of the both the good and the bad. It is notable that the librarians acknowledged concerns surrounding new technology, including the fear that it was “taking the humanity out of the craft of librarianship” (95), but they also acknowledge that these advancements ultimately improved their ability to serve patrons.

Chapter 4, “Regrets,” addresses hardships that interviewees encountered through their careers, including sexism, low pay, and the difficult decision to accept administrative positions. Librarians in this section discuss the sexism related to librarianship, the popular view that it is a “pink-collar” profession (121), and the subsequent lower wages it receives compared to other professions. Another recurring theme is regret over moving out of public or technical services to take up administrative duties. Interviewees note this move to administration required them to give up the daily librarian duties that had originally drawn them to the profession. A strength of this chapter is its measured tone. While the interviewees express regrets, they are all ultimately optimistic. This optimism carries over into chapter 5, “Helping People,” which explores the collective memories that librarians have of serving patrons. The manner in which librarians helped users varied, but Smith finds that service, unsurprisingly, was a recurring theme in the interviews. Chapter 6, “The Collective Memory of Librarianship,” serves as a conclusion for Part I, summarizing Smith’s analysis and findings from the oral history project. He reviews a number of themes from the previous chapters, including regret, cliché, technology, stereotype, nostalgia, and service. He also highlights two unexpected trends in the interviews, which were the number of “accidental librarians” who fell into the profession, and a general discomfort with cataloging that is held by librarians outside of technical services. As with the entire work, the chapter ends optimistically, reiterating the rewards of the profession.

Part II of the book provides a brief discussion of oral history methodology, particularly as it relates to librarians. While an interesting addition to the work, it reads like an appendix or addendum, especially because chapter 6 reads like a conclusion to the book. Smith further reinforces this feeling by suggesting that readers “please feel free to skip these sections unless you are working on a formal, scholarly project” (143). Chapter 7, “A Primer on Oral History Theory and Methodology,” provides a short overview on practices and discussions in oral history, memory studies, and collective memory. An emphasis is placed on how these fields relate to librarianship. Smith argues that these approaches and frameworks are useful in capturing the “‘bottom up’ story” from this generation of librarians, providing insight into the period of transition in which they lived (167). Finally, chapter 8, “Practical Oral History Advice,” offers suggestions to librarians planning similar studies. Smith warns that it is “rewarding and terribly labor-intensive” because it depends upon building human relationships (175). The chapter ends with “a final meditation on oral history” (183), which broadly and warmly encourages readers to embark upon similar projects.

This is an excellent companion and introduction to the “Capturing Our Stories” oral history project, which is accessible online through the School of Information at the University of Texas. By identifying trends and highlighting excerpts from the thirty-five recorded interviews, Smith provides a useful summary and overview of the project. In doing so, it gives readers an interesting window into the experiences of librarians who worked through the second half of the twentieth century. This aspect in particular would make the work an interesting reading for introductory classes on librarianship, or in courses in library history. The work is not, however, an exhaustive academic study. Readers interested in a more detailed academic examination will be better served by Smith’s 692-page (including appendixes) dissertation, which he has laudably posted online. “This book,” Smith assures the reader, “intends to be just the good stuff” from the dissertation (xvii). Similarly, the short primer on oral history practices in Part II is interesting, but more detailed studies on the topic can be found. The work is not meant to be a lengthy study, however; instead, it successfully serves as an interesting and useful window into the experiences of the last generation of librarians. Their stories, which span a significant period in the history of librarianship, will be of interest to librarians at all stages of their careers.—Richard M. Mikulski, Drew University

Copyright Richard M. Mikulski

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Article Views (Last 12 Months)

No data available

Contact ACRL for article usage statistics from 2010-April 2017.

Article Views (By Year/Month)

January: 0
February: 6
March: 68