Andrew S · Essays · History · Libraries! · Non-Fiction

Champion of a Cause | by Archibald MacLeish

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Champion of a Cause: Essays and Addresses on Librarianship by Archibald MacLeish
(American Library Association, 1971, 248 pages)

Archibald MacLeish, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, playwright, journalist, and lawyer, served as the Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. Though he had no previous experience as a librarian, MacLeish did a lot to shape modern librarianship in these years. In the lead up to WWII, he cast librarians as defenders of democracy and the culture of freedom against European fascism. This political stance infused a sense of activism that has come to be a defining aspect of librarianship. This collection brings together MacLeish’s essays and speeches on librarianship.

In addition to writing about how libraries support the democratic process, MacLeish also gives a detailed (and frankly pretty boring) description of the massive reorganization of the Library of Congress, which he oversaw. He also writes about the plans that the Library made to preserve important books and artifacts in the event of an attack on the capital. Between helping to define the role of librarians and modernizing the operations of the nation’s foremost library, MacLeish made a remarkable impact on American libraries in a very short amount of time. The final few address were given in the 1950s and 60s, well after MacLeish had left the position of Librarian. In these, MacLeish speculates on the future of libraries in ways that are still relevant today.

This collection of essays and addresses is fascinating, both for what it reveals about the development of the profession and as an example of how people in government positions reacted to and prepared for America’s involvement in WWII. MacLeish is also an excellent writer, which makes these essays that much more enjoyable.

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