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Free Range Librarian, Volume 1, Number 1

Free Range Librarian

Volume 1, Number 1

The Gospel According To Marvin:
A Review of A Festschrift in Honor of Marvin H. Scilken
Karen G. Schneider

I’ve been teaching as a library school adjunct for five years now, primarily in the areas of Internet access, policy, and organization. I have yet to ask students to buy a textbook; I never found one that met my needs.

Now I finally have a book that will be required reading–and writing–and discussion: Getting Libraries the Credit They Deserve: A Festschrift in Honor of Marvin H. Scilken, by Loriene Roy and Antony Cherian (Scarecrow Press, 2002). Everything I believe about librarianship is embodied by this book, whether we are discussing librarianship practiced at the tip of a pen circling a review in a magazine, or by virtual librarians chatting remotely with their “clients,” or by a lone burner of the midnight oil patiently debugging a Perl script to make a catalog more available to her community.

Marvin was the consummate public librarian, and this collection of essays and articles is the consummate distillation of his practice and philosophy. For the uninitiated, in his later years, Marvin was best known as a librarian journalist who edited The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, subtitled The ‘How I Run My Library Good’ Newsletter, a lip-smacking blend of practical advice and Marvin’s philosophy. Marvin was also a public librarian, an administrator, a library politico, a lefty, a reading advocate, a muckraker who in the 1960s took on–and won–price-fixing in the publishing industry, as well as a kind, funny, warm man who feared technology, loved people, taught me how to write letters to newspapers, and gave his heart to our profession.

The first section of Roy and Cherian’s Festschrift, “A Meaningful Professional Life,” offers a historical scan of library advocacy by Lisa Bier, followed by several articles about library politics, cataloging, and beefing up circulation. While these issues cohere well as a theme around Marvin’s passions, this section lacks the fire in the belly of the rest of the book.

Section II leads with a satisfying interview, “A Conversation with Marvin H. Scilken,” in which the author, Joseph Deitch, wisely let Marvin’s own words take center stage, such as when Marvin explains the “Scilken Test”: “if this is the sole service provided by the public library, could you get local tax money to maintain this service?” (As the discussion on videos makes obvious, Marvin always found adroit explanations for any inconsistencies in his theories.)

The heart of Section II (and really, the entire Festschrift) is “In His Own Words,” Loriene Roy’s carefully organized collection of over three hundred “Scilken Aphorisms.” Ranganathan wrote our profession’s Nicene Creed, but the eminently quotable Marvin Scilken clearly penned our Gospel. Learn from the master:

Library finances: “We tell all who will listen, ‘library service is priceless,’ then we price it low.”
Authors and readers: “Writers are readers first.”
Book design: “A book should look and feel good in the hand.”
Catalogs: “It is my belief we head many potential users off at the catalog.”
Library aims and objectives: “Give the people what they want. It’s their library.”
Library Marketing Slogans: “Libraries are environmentally correct. (We recycle culture.)”
Library public relations: “Our problem is to get adult library users to support libraries as NRA members support guns.”

Section III of the festschrift is a map to understanding Marvin, with contributions by his wife, Polly Scilken, and his sister, Marjorie Scilken-Friedman; friends such as Dan O’Connor, Peggy Sullivan, Mitch Freedman, and Jack Forman; two articles I wrote about Marvin; and a wonderful reflection by Matthew Mantel, a recent library school graduate who concludes Marvin is a “role model.”

The core of Marvin’s service to librarianship was his thirty years as director of the Orange Public Library (NJ), which O’Connor points out became a working laboratory and a foil for his “lifelong campaign to champion libraries and library services.” Using his bully pulpit of The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, his high visibility in the profession, and later, his five consecutive terms on Council, Marvin railed against anything he felt detracted from connecting the deserving public to a library filled with the latest best-sellers.

Mantel observed that Marvin had a built-in “bulls–t detector”; Marvin once called for some “imaginative writer” to write a paper about “the ‘Harmful Effects of Conferences in the Quick Dissemination of Costly Ideas.'” He was eternally suspicious of fleeting fashions in library management and expensive professional “campaigns” directed at the library in-crowd, and Marvin doggedly pushed the idea that librarianship would be best served by clear, direct advocacy for the people we serve–an idea that is actually taking shape, Marvin would be pleased to know, in the formation of the Allied Professional Association (APA), a separate association that will be dedicated to advocacy and education for librarianship. Marvin would no doubt caution us to stay on track; “P.R. alone,” he observed, “will not bring in new users.”

This book is a Godsend. In the past year, I have introduced many changes large and small to Librarians’ Index to the Internet. Time and again I wished I could pick up the phone and ask Marvin’s opinion. Big fonts, or small? Feature-rich, or fool-proof? Who should I cater to: the long-term user, or the novice?

With this Festschrift in hand, Marvin can continue to be my guru. From now on, I no longer have to strain to hear his voice in my head: “If you spend time on the floor you know the borrower”; “we should devote some of our intelligence to making our catalogs intelligible to casual users”; “the easy availability of wanted books is the best public relations a library could have”; and finally, a gentle shove behind my shoulders: “the greatest factor in human affairs is inertia. Let’s get going.”

Techies and technophobes alike should make room on their desks for Getting Libraries the Credit They Deserve. Marvin’s legacy is a gift to all of us, and hats off to Roy and Cherian for their efforts to preserve it.


Free Range Librarian (ISSN Pending).
Originally published 9-2002.
Reissued 7-2003 at

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