Library Life: The Arthur Plotnik Photographs

Arthur Plotnik (second to the left) and other members of American Libraries editorial staff.

This spring, the American Library Association Archives acquired a generous donation of photographs from Arthur Plotnik, a photographer, journalist, writer, and librarian. Plotnik is the former editor of ALA’s flagship magazine, American Libraries, and his career with the American Library Association spanned over twenty years. Before coming to ALA, Plotnik worked at the H.W. Wilson Company, the Library of Congress, was a staff writer and reviewer at Albany’s Times-Union, and served in the US Army reserve. He is married to artist, Mary Phelan, who has claim to University of Illinois Library fame for her portraits of University Librarians Hugh Atkinson and Robert Downs.

A prolific writer, Plotnik published a book in 1975, Library Life – American Style: A Journalist’s Field Report, based off of articles about libraries and librarians he wrote for the H.W. Wilson Company. In it, Plotnik reflects upon his search for the Great American Library Dream and his search for a career that “had something solid and enduring to it, positive and humanistic goals in which one could believe.” [1]

The book chases that dream across the country, covering libraries and librarians, and making his way from West Virginia and the Bronx to libraries along the West Coast. At the end of the book, Plotnik disagrees with the view that American libraries were an “unholy mess,” a view that he says could be heard at library conferences and read in library literature. He concludes:

We are messy about the way we fund our libraries, the way we measure their services, the way we define their goals. But that the mess is unholy — I’m not sure. One may not find library service in every square mile of the nation, but by and large it is as common as police control, military presence, polluting industry, criminal forces, political corruption, ineffective schooling, bigotry, racism, censorship, poverty, greed, inflation, fear, ignorance, and all the other of our armies of the night. I find it a religious comfort to know that even the rottenest library somehow survives not very far away in America. [2]

Beyond documenting ALA events, conferences, and members, this collection of photographs, negatives, and slides donated by Plotnik captures the work and life of librarians, their interactions with patrons, and shows the optimistic view of the library profession in its “positive and humanistic goals.” The Arthur Plotnik Photographs adds to the rich collection of photographs held by the ALA Archives and contributes further to photos, drawings, and images transferred to the archives by American Libraries.

The Arthur Plotnik Photographs are available for viewing at the ALA Archives. Here are a few images from the collection:

Portrait of librarian Michael Gorman.
Library worker taking out books from the book return box at the Urbana Free Library in Illinois.
The Information Place – Reference services at the Detroit Public Library.
Eric Moon at the 1978 ALA Conference in Chicago and dancing with Marva DeLoach.



  1. Arthur Plotnik, Library Life – American Style: A Journalist’s Field Report, Scarecrow Press, Inc. (Metuchen, NJ: 1975) p. 1.
  2. Plotnik, p. 216-217.