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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with library historian Wayne Wiegand about the future and history of libraries

Wayne Wiegand, a Florida State University professor, is a world-renowned librarian historian studying the importance of libraries in the United States.

On a tour of his book, “Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library,” Wiegand will be stopping at UNC’s Carolina Club today to deliver the 2015 Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture, hosted by the School of Information and Library Science.

Wiegand spoke to Arts & Entertainment Editor Sarah Vassello about the future and the history of libraries in America as well as the importance of the library as a public space.

The Daily Tar Heel: First of all, how did you become a world-renowned librarian historian? What makes libraries interesting to you?

Wayne Wiegand: Well, actually, it’s got a North Carolina connection. Among the best library historians in the world in the 1960s and 1970s were Ed Holley, who was dean of the library school at UNC, and Haynes McMullen, who was his colleague and his faculty there, and some of their writings got me interested in library history. So one can say a reason I got interested in library history was because of UNC people.

DTH: What about them made you interested in libraries?

WW: Like millions of other children, I was introduced to civic responsibility at my local public library in my hometown. That’s where I got my original library card, and somebody said to me, “OK, Wayne, you’re responsible for this public property.” So I’ve used public libraries all my life and found them to be a benefit in a variety of ways and turned my historical interests into looking at libraries.

DTH: Where do you see libraries today?

WW: Among one of the things that I’m going to be saying at North Carolina (today) is that we’ve experienced only growth in public libraries since the beginning of the 21st century, and a lot of people predicted they wouldn’t last into the 21st century with the internet.

The reason they’ve grown is because of that public space and the reading, viewing and listening materials they provide. People are using them and they’re using them and there are more of them than there ever were before, so if you’re asking about the future, it looks pretty bright to me.

DTH: You have a book coming out as well as a documentary on which you served as a historical consultant coming out early 2017. Why do you think that the public wants to learn more about libraries?

WW: I think the politicians who consider public budgets need to develop a much deeper understanding of the role the public library play in their community.

If they had this deeper understanding, you wouldn’t hear such statements like, “Well, it’s all on the internet anyway,” or, “Libraries are dinosaurs in this age of brick and mortar.” Those are statements based on a limited understanding of what public libraries do and what they are in my book, so that’s one reason.

We need to also give the users of public library a vocabulary to explain why they’re so happy with them, what uses they make in their life and we haven’t done that very well in our librarianship.

For example, we only started counting the people who attended public programs in public libraries ten years ago, so we didn’t have statistics to show us that people have been using public libraries for their physical spaces for 170 years now. In addition, we haven’t been studying seriously what they get from the commonplace stories that they circulate by the billions.

We have to figure that out, how people use those stories in their everyday lives to figure out things around them. These are what we have to do in our librarianship.


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