Perhaps what I love most about history is discovering nascent versions of current debates. On the one hand, it makes one wonder if we’re ever going to find answers to some questions. In a Zinnian sense, it seems as though we might avoid repeating mistakes if we’d just look to our archives. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see how these conversations transform over time. In the case of distance education, it would appear that, even with the great advances in technology, some of the very same challenges and quandaries that we face today were very present in the late 19th century.

Correspondence Library School, from Library Notes v.2,no.8, March 1888, p. 289-292

The plans ar wel advanced for a third fase of the Columbia Library School, for which a real want has been found, which can not otherwise be fild. As pointed out in the next articl ‘Summer Library School,’ it is a poor substitute, yet vastly better than none for those who cannot take the regular course. There ar others at points so distant or so tied at home that it is impossibl to cum even to the Summer School, and yet they ar alredy engaged in library work, anxious to improve themselves more than is possibl without skilful guidance, and willing to giv time at home to the study.

At present they hav absolutely no help except to write at random to librarians. Those whose advice is worth anything ar all crowed with their own duties, and tho in good nature they answer a letter or two, even zealous missionaries rebel if called on to meet all the needs of such a home pupil.

Acting on the offer to allow library assistants to work for readers at a distance for what their actual time was worth we hav received many letters similar to this: ‘I wish to ask questions about cataloging and classification [or about my new bilding, charging system or indeed any one of the hundreds of topics that may cum up]. I wish to be free to ask all I choose and not feel that I am imposing on good nature or using time paid for by others. Is it possibl to let sum of your staf attend to my wants and send me a bil.’ We have of course answered yes to all such queries and thus a kind of correspondence school has alredy created itself and is in operation. The pupil selects his own topics, asks what questions he chooses, pays for time actually givn to his case and stops. It has not been calld a school or class and of course not certificates ar givn or expected.

But more and more hav askt for sumthing more systematic and extensiv and the suggestion has come from leading librarians burdend with numerous queries as wel as from those seeking such help. So we ar now orgainizing a regular system which wil doubtless be modified by the experience of the first few years, and we shal continue in operation the present plan by which any one may ask needed help without joining any class and with the added advantage that wil cum from more complete organization for this kind of work.

Our plan is to lay out the course that should be taken, and then prepare the lessons in print or by duplicating processes, so they can be maild. With these will go references for reading and study. A comparison of the methods of the correspondence colleges, societies for home study, Chautauquas, &c., will reveal what is best adapted to library work. A leading feature wil of course be the revision of work in each department, as wel as may be by mail. Cataloging, classifying, accessioning and shelf work, making reading lists, and a great variety of practical exercises can be givn, and the work revized by an experienced and systematic teacher who can supplement the corrections with general advice. The same teachers engaged in any branch of this work ar availabl for the growing number of questions and difficulties which cum almost daily from sum source. A cataloger or librarian perplext with a hard book or any problem may submit it in writing to Correspondence School teachers, who, with their unequald facilities and with skil acqired by constant practice in such cases, can giv a clearer answer than a more experienced or lerned librarian who had never undertaken this peculiar work.

We expect to develop among our own teachers and pupils sum who wil show special fitness by nature for this work and who recognizing the field for usefulness wil be glad to giv their time to the correspondence classes.

Admission Few applicants ar expected outside those now engaged in library work for no one ought to hope to make any repsectabl preparation without the advantages of being daily in a library. Yet this is not made a rule since it might shut out sum who would like to take a course of library reading and study without wishing a position. Admission to correspondence classes wil be freely granted to those who fil the regular blank and state that they hav red our circulars and understand clearly what is offerd. Each pupil must take the responsibility of his success and can drop out of the course as soon as he finds that he has made a mistake in undertaking it….

Lessons and Reading As fast as possibl there wil be printed in Library Notes, outlines, rules and other matter most helpful to teachers of correspondence classes. Each pupil wil be expected to hav Notes for reference. Til printed such lessons wil be duplicated in ms. Wherever possibl students should also hav access to a set of Library Journals and the U. S. Report on Libraries. Each pupil who expects a certificate must report regularly on blanks provided, what he has red and giv in a few words the gist of the articl to show that he has correctly understood it and retaind the central idea. On theses reports, summaries and abstracts, and on the work sent in for revision wil depend the grading by the teachers which, whatever may be tho’t of the marking system in ordinary colleges, wil be important as giving us sum clue to the quality of work done by those at a distance, many of whome we hav never seen personally.

Any one who completes a regular course of such study and passes satisfactory writn examinations wil be entitled of course to the certificate of graduation from the correspondence course by no one wil for a moment look on that as equivalent to regular school graduation….

The new idea wil be welcumd by accomplisht members of the profession as relieving them of the growing burden of personal assistance to mere apprentices. In many cases where they are unwilling absolutely to refuse help, tho their own duties make it litl less than a sin to ad another item, if they can notify inquirers that they can get all the information they need from a responsibl source it wil be easy to decline giving one’s personal time except on weighty matters and to personal frends.

In fact most questions sent to prominent librarians ar very elementary to one thuroly verst in library economy. In many cases it is like asking an astronomer to leav his telescope and stop his pressing duties for which day and night ar not half long enuf, to cum down and explain how to work out sum simpl problem in algebra. Tho’tful yung librarian, realizing this, ar unwilling to ask such favors since all men whose opinions ar worth much are prest for time; but sum seem incapabl of understanding that any time can be too valuabl for answering in detail all their litl questions and sum persistently ask about matters recently and fully treated in print in Library Notes or Journal. They ar too niggardly to pay the trifling subscription or too indolent to read, and when they want a bit of information ar too selfish to regard the rights of another to his own time but send him (perhaps on a post card) questions that wil take $5 worth of his time to answer properly. If in a fit of generosity they enclose a stamp for return postage they feel as if the obligation had been transferd to the poor victim. Sum of these sufferers who find it hard to be frank and say ‘I hav no time to answer all your questions; I can hardly stagger thru the day with my own pressing duties,’ have urged the announcement of this department so that they may be able to refer inquiries politely to it.

More on spelling reform to come. For now I will just say that it’s a tremendous challenge to type reformed spellings, and the spell checker definitely doesn’t like it.

And if you’re not already aware of Dewey’s omnipresence in the library world, pay attention. He’s everywhere, and it’s no accident. We’ll definitely see more of this.


From The Chicago Public Library Staff News, v.3:no.3, Nov. 1924

This is addressed to the Juniors–you who come to us in such numbers, usually on temporary appointment until the next Civil Service examination, which you must take and pass before you can begin to be promoted. You come into our staff, mostly, straight from school or college and have never been regularly employed before. Usually you were led to seek employment with us because you thought you would like our kind of work, or because someone else who directed you thought you would like it, and that your tastes and capacities fitted you for it.

We hope you do like it, and find it interesting and congenial. If you do not, you are wasting your time here and we are wasting ours in trying to teach you even the simple duties of the positions to which you are assigned. You are just beginning at the bottom of what really is a very fascinating and somewhat complicated kind of work, and your part of it for the time being is quite apt to appear both simple and mechanical. But you are a part of a big machine which works smoothly only when all of its parts work smoothly together. If your part goes wrong the whole machine may go wrong. If, for example, in charging books, you copy a borrower’s card number incorrectly, say, by writing a 6 where an 8 ought to be, you are charging a book to an entirely different person from the one to whom you gave it at the desk. And if it would become overdue, our notices would be mailed to an innocent party, who would have a right to feel offended and to hold a very low opinion of the Public Library. Your acts or your conduct in general may, thus, become a direct cause for making or marring the reputation of the Library as a public institution.

Truly inspiring. Really makes you want to be a librarian, doesn’t it?

These lucky juniors would likely enter a training program with the public library. Some of the more fortunate ones attended library school, whereas people hired as library clerks had no opportunity for promotion without formal training. Entrance to the public library’s training program required a high school diploma and a passing score on this exam (There are two pages. Click on the image for a pdf):

Chicago Public Library Examination for Entrance to the Training Class

Chicago Public Library Examination for Entrance to the Training Class, June 27, 1925 (click image to see pdf)