National Library Symbol History & Implications

From ALA Library Fact Sheet 30:

The image debuted in its official capacity in the 1982 ALA publication, A Sign System for Libraries, by DeVore and Mary S. Mallery, and was the cover story of the September 1982 issue of ALA’s member magazine, American Libraries. DeVore’s original design scheme for the image (similar to the image shown below) was an opaque white silhouette against a blue (specifically, PMS #285 blue) background.

This is a great symbol on a number of levels. It’s striking, memorable, and the “L” is clever. If I were DeVore or Mallery I’d be so proud to see this symbol all over.

But characterizing libraries as places where people read alone was a mistake.

Here’s another take. It isn’t as clear – a major shortcoming for a symbol – but it is a more accurate way to describe how we should be thinking about libraries. There’s still room for solitary reading, sure. But there’s more going on. There are people. Not only do we need to think of our institutions in these terms, we need to convince the public to think of us like this too. Otherwise, more libraries will turn into kiosks.

The article “Tomes’ time might be up at Newport Beach library” gets it all wrong. We shouldn’t be concerned about library spaces without books. We should be concerned about library spaces without librarians. However, our current offerings and our representative symbol tell a story in which a bookless library makes less sense than a librarianless library.

We can change that narrative by emphasizing not content, but people and interactions.

8 thoughts on “National Library Symbol History & Implications”

  1. i never associated that symbol with the letter L till you said that.. woops.
    what about a smaller L-person tucked inside the bigger one, as adult and child reading/sharing a book…??

  2. Are you offering your excellent symbol as public domain or Creative Commons something or other? Because that would be swell.

  3. Aaron, any progress on the attribution for your version of the symbol? I’d love to use it on handouts and put it on my library’s Facebook Page. I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting images to use as our user photo. As much as I love the tradition library symbol (which I also never realized is an L), I haven’t made it our picture because it is pretty limiting.

    I’ve seen a few new versions proposed, but I think yours comes closest to capturing what a library is and offers.

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