Monday, March 5, 2012

A Review of Main Street Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand

A few years ago I ran across an article in the March 2002 issue of American Libraries magazine by library historian Wayne A. Wiegand. In the article Wiegand encouraged readers to celebrate Women's History Month by remembering early female librarians. As an example, he included an excerpt from a contemporary account of Martha Chaddock, Dubuque Library Association Librarian from 1865 until her death in 1893. According to the account, if Martha Chaddock told a young library patron, "You have read fiction enough for the present, John; here is a book about birds that will interest you," the boy would "devour the birds, feathers and all." No one entered Chaddock's library "without having a great thought driven like a golden nail into his mind." A repint of the description of Martha Chaddock appears under "A MODEL LIBRARIAN" in the November 1870 issue of Association Monthly in Google Books.

Although Wiegand barely mentions Dubuque in his new book, Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956, it is full of Martha Chaddock’s domineering spirit. Main Street Public Library examines the early history of four small-town libraries in the Midwest: Sauk Centre, Minnesota; Osage, Iowa; Rhinelander, Wisconsin; and Lexington, Michigan. Wiegand uses an impressive range of sources to reconstruct the history of these libraries, like board minutes, circulation statistics, librarians' correspondence, library association publications, newspaper articles and editorials, and so on. Wiegand even compiled a working database of titles owned by the each of the libraries from 1890 to 1970.

These sources reveal that the daily routine in a small Carnegie library one hundred years ago was not much different than today:
In 1918 Rhinelander was one of 211 Wisconsin public libraries, 89 of which occupied their own building; Carnegie had funded 63. Daily, [Jessie W.] Bingham and her staff changed date stamps, arranged book cards, entered circulation statistics, and shelved books. Periodically they read the shelves, often pulling worn books to be mended or unused books to be weeded. For acquisitions Bingham checked the pages of Booklist and other collection guides that the WFLC [Wisconsin Free Library Commission] provided, and upon purchasing new books ordered Library of Congress catalog cards. She also responded to any letters, regulated the schedule for the assembly room (including citizenship classes held every Friday night), attended to small bills and petty cash, and ordered necessary supplies, all of which she dutifully reported to her board (page 113).
But while the daily routines seem familiar, Wiegand’s bottom up, "library-in-the-life-of-the-user" approach shows that these libraries did not uphold what we think of today as basic tenets of librarianship. The libraries did not "keep their local citizens informed so that political democracy could function," nor did they "function as important information institutions to address local economic problems." And instead of promoting intellectual freedom, early librarians routinely excluded materials from their collections in attempt to "mold and police morality."

Some Wisconsin librarians, in my favorite example, removed comic sections from Sunday newspapers because "laughter they evoked disturbed the dignity of the library." And like today's entertainment DVDs, popular fiction was especially suspect:
In June 1921, the Bulletin of the Iowa Library Commission castigated "some libraries" for "making the mistake of advertising their new fiction" in local newspapers. "The desire to attract people to the library is legitimate," the author argued, "but to attempt to do so with new fiction as bait is like tempting a sick person to eat food which will make him sicker and also increase the percentage of sickness in the town." In the issue following, another author explained why the ALA [American Library Association] did not endorse serial fiction for boys and girls. "The fact that, after he had mastered the first book" of the series "he can sail through several volumes without mental effort, is exactly what makes the reading of series delightful to the child, and here is the greatest danger, for the child slips easily into the rut of easy reading." As a result, the author concluded, "librarians have adopted the general rule that any series that runs to more than four volumes is unsafe" (page 150).
Despite efforts to save patrons from the "rut of easy reading," much of what actually ends up in library collections, then and now, is driven by local demand more so than professional rhetoric. According to Wiegand, public libraries are "agents of social harmony," or places where community members meet to negotiate shared cultural values. And when they do, most people seem agree that their libraries should focus on making popular fiction available in various formats. When librarians discount this, Wiegand suggests, "we fail to account for the power of fiction to inform, foster ideas, construct community, develop a sense of discovery, inspire, and offer encouragement."

~Michael May, Adult Services

Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956 by Wayne A. Wiegand was published in October 2011 by University of Iowa Press.

This review was based on the digital galley obtained from University of Iowa Press through

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