ALISE 2008 Paper Proposal

Dr. Kate McDowell, University of Illinois

[email protected]



Survey Methods in Librarianship and Youth Services, 1882-1906



While the term “action research” is relatively new, the practice of using research to shape professional practice goes back more than one hundred years in the field of librarianship.  This paper will present historical research on librarians’ use of  survey methodology from 1882 to 1906 as a means of discovering what was being done nationally and discussing what new services should be developed in the area of library services to youth.  These early surveys were central to the historical origins of youth services librarianship, and they are worth examining as early forerunners of contemporary action research. 


Before youth services were established in public libraries, librarians advocating for services to youth, most of them women, led the development of the use of surveys in professional librarianship.  At the American Library Association conference in1882, Caroline Hewins presented the first survey-based report, which was the first of a series of eight Reading of the Young reports.[1]  In the 1890s, many of the same librarians began to surveys teachers, pupils, and children in the public library in order to discover which books young people preferred to read and what sorts of services would make the library “more interesting than it is now.”[2]  For example, at the Pratt Institute in 1898, surveys were used after the mounting of a major exhibit that included pictures, books, and stories about heroes.  Over 100 children who attended the exhibit were surveyed to discover what they liked and disliked about the exhibit, and their opinions formed the basis of further developments in youth services.  Children’s replies were only one of many factors in the late 19th century that influenced the kinds of services librarians created.  Nevertheless, librarians afforded children an unusual opportunity to influence the development of this professional specialty through surveys. 


What inspired librarians to use survey methods to find out what children wanted from their collections and services?  What questions did they ask to elicit this information?  How did they respond to children’s desires after surveys were conducted?   These and other questions inform this historical research project, which contributes a new understanding of what we now call “action research” by reflecting on how librarians gathered information from their clients at a time when the profession itself was still new and forming.  It also provides an unusual window on the roles of women in librarianship when they were in the professional minority.  The survey methods used by a handful of women promoting library services to youth were adopted by the profession as a whole within 20 years, and constitute the earliest instances of any type of systematic research in the field of library science.    



No presentation technology is required; handouts will be provided.

[1] {{95 Hewins,Caroline Maria 1882; }}

[2] {{114 Plummer,Mary Wright 1897; }}