Morality and Cake Pans: The Rural Library

[imgbelt img=carnegiestamp320.jpg]Marcel LaFlamme reviews a new historical study of rural libraries in the Midwest. They were begun to cultivate ‘respectability’ and have endured by satisfying local tastes.

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The Good Midwest Life

The resourcefulness of rural public libraries knows no bounds. Tina King spotted this lending collection of cake and muffin pans at the public library in Atkinson, NE. “Since most of these towns don’t have big box superstores nearby, I can imagine it’s very handy,” writes King. “I can also appreciate the idea of not forking over $12 to create a never-gonna-make-it-again fire truck cake.”

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

By Wayne A. Wiegand
244 pp., University of Iowa Press, 2011, $25.95

If public libraries didn’t already exist, the poor sucker who thought to propose them would probably get run out of town. Imagine telling the Grover Norquist types that you wanted public money to pay for puppet shows and mystery novels. (Hippie!) Imagine telling publishers and record companies that you wanted to buy a single copy of a book or album and then allow multiple people to use it. (Freeloader!) In one of his last essays, the historian Tony Judt wrote that if we lose the railways, “we shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively.” The persistence of the public library as civic institution suggests that we haven’t forgotten, not entirely, not yet.

Wayne Wiegand’s new book delves into the histories of four small-town libraries in the American Midwest. Although 80% of public library systems today serve populations of less than 25,000, Wiegand argues that “we know little about the overall history of the small-town public library.” Each of the four libraries that Wiegand considers was established by transplants from the East, first on a subscription basis for the merchant and professional classes and then, with tax support, for the town at large. Three of them received funds from Andrew Carnegie to erect a library building. And each, despite the rhetoric that emerged later about libraries as “arsenals of democracy,” was first imagined as a source of moral uplift in a culturally barren region aspiring to respectability.

[imgcontainer left] [img:carnegiestamp320.jpg] [source]U.S. Embassy, the Hague

Between 1886 and 1919, industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated more than
$40 million for the construction of 1,679 new library buildings across
the United States.
Wiegand’s case studies are more similar than different, and one could be forgiven for wishing that he’d chosen at least one outlier: the library with the socialist press in the basement, or the one that nearly closed its doors after the librarian eloped with the chairman of the board. He’s most successful when tracing continuities between the four libraries: the tension, for instance, between local reading preferences and “those Commission ideas” advanced by urban library professionals bent on establishing their own expertise. He also has an eye for the small, evocative details that help to conjure a different time and place: the “Rest Room” on the lower level of the Sage Public Library in Iowa where farm wives could freshen up on their Saturday trips to town, or the Wisconsin librarian’s penchant for removing the comics from Sunday newspapers to prevent undignified outbursts of laughter in the reading room.

In addition to more conventional sources like meeting minutes and newspaper clippings, Wiegand makes imaginative use of the accession books in which his four libraries recorded the new titles they bought. (An army of work-study students entered the records into a database, which Wiegand has generously made available for other researchers to mine themselves.) Examining how the four collections changed over time leads Wiegand to some interesting comparisons and speculations: were summer tourists in Lexington, Michigan, the reason that the Charles H. Moore Library was the only one of the four to subscribe to Cosmopolitan? Why did the Bryant Library in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, collect Hardy Boys and Tom Swift novels, only to spurn the Bobbsey Twins?

Wisconsin Historical Images

The interior of the Brodhead, Wisconsin Public Library, circa 1910.
Note the hat hooks on the wall and the stove in the center of the
reading room.

Wiegand acknowledges that librarians and trustees likely shied away from books that would have offended local mores, but he cautions against sweeping assumptions about small-town conservatism. When Sauk Centre’s most famous son, Sinclair Lewis, was growing up in the provincial town that he would later lampoon, the Washington Post published a list of 54 books that the Boston Public Library had banned from its shelves. Eight of those books would have been available to Lewis in stuffy old Sauk Centre! So while local collection development decisions were made against the backdrop of pressure to disseminate “good” books and promote the reading of nonfiction over fiction, small-town libraries retained the autonomy to build collections that reflected their community’s distinctive interests and values.  

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