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Promoting Information Service
R. E. Wyllys

In LIS 386.13 you have learned a good deal about how libraries, archives, records centers, and other information agencies use various technical tools, and you have learned a lot about how society and information interact in today's world.

The goal underlying your studies in this course has been to prepare you to be a well qualified professional worker in the field of library and information science. The instructors and TAs in this course are confident that you share this goal—after all, if you did not share it, it is unlikely that you would have become an iSchool student.

One aspect of LIS that the course has only occasionally touched on heretofore is this: Professionals in the field should be active, not passive, participants in library and information services. Such services—being important to society in ways that LIS professionals understand better than anyone else—need to be outreaching, need to be anticipatory rather than merely reactive. Librarians, archivists, records managers, and other information professionals must strive to prepare to meet the information needs of the users of their services even before those users become aware of those needs. Librarians, archivists, records managers, and other information professionals must promote, market, and advertise the resources, capabilities, and benefits that their institutions offer to society. Librarians, archivists, records managers, and other information professionals must strive to turn non-users of information services into users by making those services attractive, useful, and known.

A remarkable, personal illustration of this view of library and information service was provided by one of the world's leading physicists, Dr. John Archibald Wheeler, when he gave the graduation address to the iSchool students who received their degrees on May 19, 1984. The scholarly journal that the iSchool publishes, Libraries & Culture, presented the following article based on Dr. Wheeler's address.


John Archibald Wheeler, Ph.D., Sc.D., LL.D.
Ashbel Smith Professor Emeritus
Jan and Roland Blumberg Professor Emeritus of Physics
Past Director, Center for Theoretical Physics
The University of Texas at Austin
Joseph Henry Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Princeton University

by Ronald E. Wyllys

Early in 1984, at The University of Texas at Austin, I attended a ceremony celebrating the establishment of several splendidly endowed professorial chairs in the sciences. At the conclusion of the ceremony a distinguished-looking gentleman approached me energetically and, holding out his hand, said, "You're Dean Wyllys, aren't you? I've been wanting to meet you. My name is John Wheeler."

I realized at once that I was shaking hands with John Archibald Wheeler, the world-renowned physicist who had recently retired from Princeton University and joined the faculty of UT-Austin because his much prized opportunity to "learn by teaching" (as he likes to put it) had ended at Princeton at the too early age of 70. What I did not realize immediately, but soon learned, was that John Archibald Wheeler is the son of Joseph Lewis Wheeler, who—as many readers of Libraries & Culture will know—was the most important American public library director of the first half of this century, .

Joseph Wheeler gained his first fame at the Reuben McMillan Free Library, the public library in Youngstown, Ohio, where he became the director in 1915 at the age of 31. In 1926, he went on to even greater fame and achievement as the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. And, after retiring from the Pratt Library in 1945, he achieved further fame by becoming the leading American public library surveyor and consultant of his time, in a post-career career that he pursued actively well into his eighties. (The world is fortunate that the Wheelers, father and son, have been blessed with long and vigorous lives.)

At the time Joseph Wheeler became its director, the Pratt Library, says Margaret A. Edwards [1], was "probably the worst public library in any large city in the U.S.A. It was housed in a gloomy old Victorian dwelling . . . with an overflow in three private dwellings . . . and a patchwork of branches. The staff was made up mostly of genteel women of fairly advanced years who suddenly became librarians when Enoch Pratt endowed the library and offered his friends' daughters a chance to make pin money in a lady-like way. In the entire system, there was not one trained librarian and only five college graduates."

Lee H. Warner [2] speaks of spectacular changes that [characterized] the Wheeler years" at the Pratt Library. For example, circulation increased 148% in Wheeler's first four years. Warner tells us that "Wheeler led. He fought for a badly needed new building, at times . . . seemingly by himself. . . .He demanded professionalization of his staff . . . and started his own training school. . . .In 1939, he hired a black professional staff member in the Southern city of Baltimore. . . .His twenty-year service at Pratt . . . was indeed . . . revolutionary." Warner has much more to say about Joseph Wheeler as a librarian, library-association leader, library educator, amateur historian, and author.

Edwards's and Warner's accounts provide fact after fact that prove Joseph Wheeler to have been a truly remarkable person and one of the great librarians of all time.

The energy, intellectual brilliance, vision, and creativity that Joseph Wheeler displayed in his career were passed on to his children. John Archibald Wheeler, because of his outstanding achievements as a researcher and teacher, has become known as a dean of American physicists. He shared his memories of what it was like to grow up as the oldest child of Joseph Lewis and Mabel Archibald Wheeler, along with his thoughts on the importance of library and information service in today's world, when he addressed the students, faculty, and friends of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science [as the School of Information was then named], The University of Texas at Austin, at the School's Graduation Convocation on May 19, 1984. What he told his audience then has enduring importance for all librarians. Here is what he said.

My message today is simple. Let me put it in that marvelous sentence of John L. Lewis: "He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted."

To whom am I talking? You graduands of the School of Library and Information Science. And what horn am I suggesting you toot? And to whom? To the great wide world of those who don't know at all, and those who appreciate only inadequately, what the world of knowledge can do for their lives, their families, their work, and their community.

And toot how? By regarding one's work as a genteel 8-to-5 job? By genteel answers to patrons with initiative enough to come in and inquire?

No! By reaching out to the world outside. By telling the story to everyone that one can buttonhole on the street or reach in store or home. By adopting as one's own that wonderful Biblical message, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." The way to toot is to toot!

Who am I to be pushing the idea that library and information service has to be "sold"? I happen to be one who absorbed the message in childhood from growing up in a library family, with a library father and a library mother, a library brother and sister and sisters-in-law, a library daughter and a library niece. If I am a propagandist for libraries and information service without actually being in that great calling myself, perhaps you will compare me with Clare Booth Luce. You will recall that time when she was American ambassador to Italy. She called on the Pope and launched into a propagandist argument for the Catholic faith. It was so fervent that finally the Pope had to interrupt her, "But, Madam Ambassador, I already am a Catholic!" As he forgave her, perhaps you will forgive me as I seek to convince the already convinced.

No one could see and hear more vividly than I, and at first hand, around the family table, morning and night, what selling service means and how it works. I saw it in a library context, but I suspect the message applies with equal force to almost every kind of information service.

What does it mean to sell library service? I can only tell what I saw in childhood and college years. I have to let you judge which methods of selling library service fit today's way of doing things, and which have to be modified—and how—to fit.

Youngstown, Ohio in the 1920s marks my first clear memories of the selling of library service. The steel mills depended heavily for their operation on new immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Should the library pass them by because they spoke only a modicum of English? Because they would never find their way to the library? Because they did not even know what the library was and what it did?

No! The approach was a direct opposite. Recognize instead that to all the world America is seen as holding out its torch of light and liberty, greatest of all friends of the future, and hope of all mankind. Give these new Americans the feel and thrill of what it is truly to be an American. Who could better reach out with this story to these laboring men than the library? Posters and leaflets in their own languages—Serbo-Croatian, Italian, Hungarian, and Polish—brought them to the library in a steady stream. I sometimes worked in its basement Saturday mornings repairing worn books to get them back into service. No single book stands out in my memory more vividly than America, Nasa Vlast, which, in translation, reads "America, My Country." It and many a duplicate of it in all those popular languages went out again and again. I don't know any city in this country where Americanization proceeded more rapidly than in Youngstown.

Skilled workmen, too, had their needs and their problems. Carpenters, masons, electricians, all confronted new products, new technologies, and new economics. The library used every way possible to make them aware of the help they could get and how to get it.

In those days when few had washing machines, laundry trucks collected the laundry and brought it back. Cardboards kept straight all shirts and other folded items—marvelous raw material for children in the making of cardboard houses, castles, and forts. Suddenly the cardboard caught the attention of one who would someday be recognized as the world's master library salesman. To the laundry he went. "How about letting us print lists of good books on those blank cardboard sheets and letting us tell people what the library can do for them?" "Yes" was the answer of that first laundry, and "yes" was the answer of the others. Then to the printing shops! "Will you contribute the printing as a community service?" And again the answer was "yes." Soon the cardboards and their messages of the great wide world of books were flowing out all over town. The circulation at the library climbed and climbed.

It was not enough, however, to bring people to the library. How could one bring the library to the people? There it was, up a hill, in a genteel section of town, with its classic front and tier of steps to be climbed and making no slightest invitation to any passerby. It would be impossible to sell library service to people without bringing library service to people. Where? Right in the hubbub of downtown traffic, in the shopping district at the intersection of the two principal streets, was a 200-foot circle of green grass. There! Sure, there wasn't room for much of a building. Sure, there was no money in the budget for a building. So what? Go to the labor unions for help in the project! Knowing that the library was out to help them, they were out to help it—carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, roofers. They gave their labor. Go to the supply people, beg for bricks and cement, lights and windows—and beg successfully. They gave the materials. Mr. Wheeler became known—at least at home—as Mr. Wheedler. He became famous as able to wheedle almost anything out of anybody. That tiny building, placed where it was, loaned out more books than the main building.

J.L.W.'s idea of how to build a library was becoming clear. Public support is not the first requirement for reaching out with service. Reaching out with service is the first requirement for public support.

If every difficulty is an opportunity, then the move from Youngstown to Baltimore was a new opportunity. The main library was spread over a rabbit warren of old houses, with odd dark passageways running from one to another and to the long outdated main building. It was the depth of the depression, the greatest depression this country has ever known, with unemployment higher by far than we have ever seen it. Who could dream of building a great new library at such a time? No endowment. No cash in the till. No budget for a building. But we here, at the University of Texas, know that the true endowment of this university is not the lands and oil of West Texas but the minds and hearts of the people of this great state. So it was, too, in Baltimore. No agency had reached out more warmly than the library to bring books and information of every kind to help people deal with their problems in that sad time. No institution had done more to call on citizens and citizens' groups to help in this work one way or another. The library had not waited for people to come to it. It had reached out to them. It had "tooted its horn." Every member of the library staff heard again and again that message, "Service." Never let a patron go away dissatisfied! It was no wonder that the library had built up an endowment in the minds and hearts of the people of Baltimore.

But could the City of Baltimore get the authority to float a bond issue for the new building? Permission had first to be won from the State of Maryland, in the shape of a special enabling act. I remember well that drive in the winter dark with my father from Baltimore to Annapolis to a midnight session of the Maryland State Legislature. He had been lobbying the members for days. Now the issue came to the crunch. The vote was narrow, but it was affirmative. The building project was on its way!

Economy every step of the way was part of the ideal of service to the community and membership in the community. I never heard of a great public building built anywhere at anytime where the taxpayer got more for his money than Baltimore did in its public library. With all its economy it had beauty and style. Still more, it tooted the horn of service more effectively than any library building had done before. A monumental flight of stairs to be climbed? No, a big welcoming street-level entrance, like a department store. Walls impenetrably sheathed against the profaning eyes of passersby? No, the direct opposite. Great street-level show windows like department-store windows, but eye-catching with their exhibits of books and current topics, and the view on beyond of everyday men, women, and children using the library for their daily concerns.

What can I say to you who have done so much, worked so hard, and are about to go forth to give the world so much? My message is a simple one. It is not enough for you only to give library and information service to those who know enough to ask for it. You will only occupy the place of leadership in the community that rightly belongs to you if you go out and sell the idea of library and information service to those as yet untouched by it.

Nothing does more than information, rightly grasped, to open the doors of the world to a better tomorrow; and no agency does more than the library—in today's new and wider sense—to provide the most reliable information, the best thinking on the whole sweep of human concerns. The library is the university of the people.

We all count ourselves as friends of civilization. We also know that there are enemies of civilization. That burner of books named Adolf Hitler was not the last. We see them today, and we will see more tomorrow. How can one of these enemies destroy all of what we call civilization? How can he most effectively stamp out a nation's or a community's breadth of outlook, destroy its sense of history, extinguish its visions of greatness, and reduce us all to unenlightened clods? Simple! Wipe out every source of information! And begin with the library! Why? Because that's where people go to get their own information in their own way on their own questions.

It does not take hammer, fire, and dynamite to destroy our libraries and information centers. Indifference is enough. Just keep cutting the budget a little every year. Or keep the budget fixed and let inflation do the job of destruction just as effectively and more insidiously.

There is a still more subtle way to destroy what we hold dear. Promote the idea that television carries all that anybody needs to know. Create a docile people. Tell everyone to sit in front of the tube. Let someone else pick out what scenes we shall see, what English we shall hear, what standards we shall accept. Stay passive. Never think for ourselves. Never learn the art of expressing ourselves with clarity and strength. Never put together a well-reasoned statement on anything. Above all, never write. Cure people of that nonsensical idea that we should go to the library to get our own information in our own way on our own questions. This curative program, thoroughly adhered to, will make it unnecessary to burn books and dynamite libraries and information centers. Nobody will ever bother to open a book or consult an information terminal.

Nobody? Nobody read or write or speak? Then the enemies of values, of history, and of imagination, and of all that we call civilization, will have accomplished their aim without once having lifted a hand.

Nobody read or write or speak—or almost nobody? If I can't read straight and speak straight and write straight, how can I think straight? So far as literacy in science is concerned, this country is already on its way to a terrifying future. Shortly before his death in 1981, Philip Handler, President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, painted a vision of tomorrow in which "there are [in the United States] about 2.5 million scientists and engineers comfortable with the language of science and technology . . . and 200 million [other people] who neither understand nor appreciate science." And what Philip Handler says of science is slowly becoming true of other fields that shape our future, such as economics, defense, management, and law. Never before has it been so vital to the health, safety, and welfare of all of us to have men and women familiar with the best thinking—of all times and all countries—on the great issues.

In the battling for the larger view, in upholding a sense of history, in searching on every issue for the best thinking on that issue, in the front line of the friends and defenders of civilization, who has a more important part than you graduands that I see before me today? And how? Most of all, by tooting the horn of library and information service. "He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted."

1. Margaret A. Edwards, "I Once Did See Joe Wheeler Plain," The Journal of Library History, 6/4 (October 1971):291-302. (This article is a fascinating personal recollection of what it was like to work for Wheeler, along with many delightful anecdotes that show Wheeler as a man filled with overflowing energy and with a passionate love of books and libraries.)

2. Lee H. Warner, "Wheeler, Joseph Lewis (1884-1970)." In Dictionary of American Library Biography, edited by Bohdan S. Wynar. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1978. (Warner's article is on pages 549-552.)

3. "Selling Library Service" was published in Libraries and Culture 28/4(1993 Summer):327-332.


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Last updated 2003 Jan 12 by R. E. Wyllys