Thursday, August 25, 2011

Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956

Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-956 (Iowa and the Midwest Experience) University of Iowa Press, ISBN 9781609380670, October 2011

This is a study of four small-town midwestern libraries during what were, outside the northeast, the formative years for public library service. The four libraries are Bryant Library, Sauk Centre, Minnesota; Sage Library, Osage, Iowa; Charles H. Moore Library, Lexington, Michigan; and Rhinelander Public Library, Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Wiegand studies the formation, growth, and development of these libraries, and how they interacted with the communities they served, the wider culture, and the culture of professional librarianship. He notes in his introduction that the USA has more public libraries than it does McDonald's restaurants--a statistic that will surprise some readers. Libraries are a basic, vital service for Americans, strongly cherished and supported. The question is, what exactly are the services valued by library users and the community in small-town America?

The ideology of professional librarianship places the value of public libraries in their role as part of the basic machinery of democracy, enabling members of the public to inform and educate themselves, and create and preserve their ability to participate meaningfully in a democratic society. While these four libraries surely filled that role--more so, I think, than Wiegand is willing to admit--what his study reveals is the degree to which a different role was more highly valued by the individual libraries and the communities they served: as mediators and harmonizers of community literary and social values, as well as sources of the popular reading the library profession often regarded as competing with the "real purpose" of libraries, and as public space.

From Sauk Centre, proud of its literary native son Sinclair Lewis and reaching out early on to the local and county school systems to expand services and readership, to Lexington, which did not hire a professional librarian and catalog its collection until 1970, after the time period of this study, the libraries and the communities they served varied widely. What they had in common were social and community leaders who brought with them from New England the familiarity with and desire for public libraries. In all four communities, the local business and professional men, and their wives and daughters through their women's clubs, formed associations, raised money, and created first social libraries and then public libraries. The boards of these public libraries were sometimes dominated by women, sometimes by men, but it was as rare to find a man on a library board who was not married to a prominent and active member of the local women's club, as to find a woman there who was not married to or the daughter of a prominent businessman or local professional.

Wiegand studied this libraries by, along with other primary materials, entering the entire acquisitions records for these four libraries, 1976-1956, into a database to be analyzed, reading the libraries' annual reports, and studying the newspapers and other public information for these libraries. One of the patterns that emerges is that although the organs of professional librarianship inveighed against "popular fiction," and tried to promote good reading, and the librarians in the four communities agreed at least about promoting "good reading," they did not meekly accept the ALA's or their state library association's judgment on what that was. They stocked the "good" books, but they also stocked the popular fiction in high demand among their readers, without the awful social consequences predicted. Wiegand makes the valuable point that how the reader uses the book matters, and that for many in an immigrant nation and a democratic society, reading popular fiction played an important role in assimilating social values, behaviors, and standards. (For more on how the value of a book is determined by how the reader uses it more than by "objective" standards, see C. S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism.)

This is an interesting book packed with new information and insights on the development of public library service in America.


To purchase a copy of this book from Amazon, click on the cover image.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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