Main Street Public Library

Study challenges traditional assumptions about libraries’ roles in the community

September 27, 2011

Main Street Public Library

One day in the mid-1990s Doug Zweizig and I were having lunch on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where we both taught. I was contemplating a history of the small-town American public library, I told him, but wanted a fresh perspective.

Eighty percent of public library systems existed in towns of fewer than 25,000, I noted, and in the 20th century alone, thousands had served not only as destination places but had also circulated millions of books to citizens of all races and ethnicities—young and old, rich and poor, male and female. With few exceptions, however, we still knew little about the historical roles these ubiquitous civic institutions played in their host communities.

“Well, how about ‘library in the life of the user?’” Doug replied. He reminded me of his 1973 Syracuse University dissertation in which he argued that librarians might profit by spending less time looking at “the user in the life of the library,” and more time looking at the library in the life of the user.

For me, that was a moment of epiphany. Library history had a tradition of focusing on the library and its administration, and most of my own research had followed that tradition.

“Superb suggestion,” I told Doug. By engaging in a history of small-town American public libraries from the perspective of users’ lives, I hoped to come up with a fresh way to assess the contributions libraries made to their host communities.

That was the genesis of my book, Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876–1956, published by the University of Iowa Press in October.

The Heartland yields discoveries

To contain the study chronologically, I decided to begin coverage in 1876, when the federal government published its first report on U.S. public libraries, and end with the Library Services Act in 1956, which for the first time provided federal funds for public library services through state library agencies.

To contain the study geographically, I decided to focus on public libraries in five small Midwest communities: the Sage Library in Osage, Iowa; the Moore Library in Lexington, Michigan; the Morris (Ill.) Public Library; the Rhinelander (Wis.) Public Library; and the Bryant Library in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (birthplace of Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and a Bryant patron, which explains my title). All were within one day’s driving distance from Madison, all had retained trustee minutes and accessions books (the latter allowed me to build a database of library collections through 1970), and all had microfilmed local newspapers I could mine for mention of library activities.

The library-in-the-life-of-the user perspective led me to two new scholarly areas. First, to understand more deeply why small-town library patrons took so seriously the popular fiction that over the decades consistently accounted for 65%–75% of circulation, I relied on the newer “history of the book” literature, perhaps best represented in the recently published five-volume History of the Book in America. That scholarship gave me a new vocabulary to explain how the act of reading stories helps construct communities, even if that reading is done in solitude.

It also demonstrated how communicative institutions (like public libraries) function through a variety of agencies, including “factual media” and “fictional media.” The latter, Jeffrey Alexander argues in The Civil Sphere (2006), “weave” civil society’s codes of behavior “into broad narratives and popular genres,” and create “long-lasting frames” for democratizing and antisocial processes alike, “even as they seem merely to be telling stories about people and life in an ahistorical and fictional way.”

Second, because primary-source data was showing me that residents in each of these towns used local libraries from their inception as community centers for a variety of purposes (including to “exchange social capital”), I decided to harness the public-sphere scholarship that specifically looks at public use of public places.

Over the next decade, I kept at the research between other tasks, and last year the University of Iowa Press accepted the study for publication. To pare the manuscript to Iowa requirements, however, I cut Morris from my coverage and published a revised version of that chapter in the Winter 2010 issue of the Journal of Illinois History. The project will also have other spin-offs. Because the collections database has such rich potential beyond what I was able to explore in the book, I asked 11 book history scholars to analyze the collections from multidisciplinary perspectives. Most essays will be published in the Spring 2012 issue of Library Trends; others will appear in disciplinary journals. And then, of course, there’s the “public library birdhouse” inspired by the architecture of the Sage Public Library.

Value beyond “the library faith”

What conclusions does Main Street Public Library make about the roles these public libraries played in their host communities between 1876 and 1956? Analyzed from a life-of-the-user perspective, these Main Street public libraries became local agents, physical and figurative, through which their communities’ citizens—elite as well as common—accomplished two tasks essential for local harmony. First, the libraries provided public space to demonstrate and teach social behaviors and responsibilities acceptable to the community. Second, they provided literary space through collections and services that offered models for successful living, problem solving, and an orderly life at the same time they peacefully mediated a set of ever-shifting cultural values constantly influenced by inside and outside forces (including the professional library community).

Little in the primary-source data indicates that any of these communities established and supported their public libraries primarily to keep their local citizens informed so that political democracy could function. Admittedly, some of this occurred in the reading rooms frequented by retirees, the story hours visited by children, and the term papers researched by high-schoolers. But rarely in the history of these libraries did anything gleaned in these information-seeking practices show up later in public discourse on controversial political issues. Because local controversies covered in newspapers seldom cited library resources or programs, I conclude the libraries I chose did not make many contributions to local critical debates. Instead, they served primarily as reading institutions for the dissemination of good books—with “good” largely defined through a process of mediation between those who selected the books and those who demanded them.

As a civic institution, the purpose and mission of the public libraries I studied was not primarily to supplement formal education, pursue a policy of “not censorship, but selection” (a phrase that has been repeated in library school foundation classes ever since Les Asheim introduced it into our professional vocabulary in 1953), or provide information considered essential for the marketplace or politics of democracy. Those were actually secondary, and because of the public library’s position as a civic institution that local citizens did not have to patronize, these goals were regularly and necessarily compromised, despite professional rhetoric. Rather, the libraries’ primary purpose and mission, as crafted over the generations by local leaders and users, was to foster the kinds of social harmony that community spaces and stories—shared and experienced—provide.

Thus, Main Street Public Library challenges traditional assumptions about the American public library and the roles it plays in its community. Conventional thinking and professional rhetoric grounded in a user-in-the-life-of-the-library perspective identify the public library as a neutral agency essential to democracy because, we’ve convinced ourselves, it guards against censorship and makes vital information accessible to all. For the past century this belief has been referred to as “the library faith.” My book argues that the small-town American public library has indeed been essential to its local community, but for reasons significantly different from those articulated by the library faith.

As I wound up the project several years ago, I visited the five libraries one last time. My research had already proved that the introduction of pre-1956 communications technologies (silent movies before 1910, radio in the 1920s, talkies in the 1930s, and TV in the 1950s) had not affected patron desire for the stories evident in the circulation of popular fiction. By factoring in the newer forms these stories take in 21st-century media (CDs, DVDs, e-books, etc.), statistics on circulation demonstrate that all five institutions were busier in 2008 than 1956. Yes, all provided internet access that is heavily used by local patrons, but besides supplying vital information essential to democracy (as the library faith would have it) these Main Street public libraries still functioned primarily as active agencies peacefully mediating local cultural and literary values, supplying patron-driven fictional media, and providing public space—all of which over the generations enabled these communities to weave a socially harmonious fabric that their libraries helped craft and then put on public display.

Doug was right. My study profited much from a library-in-the-life-of-the-user perspective, so much so that I’m taking lessons learned from Main Street Public Library into an even more comprehensive analysis of this ubiquitous institution, for which I received a 2008–2009 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. I’ve already decided to subtitle the book A People’s History of the American Public Library.

WAYNE A. WIEGAND is F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies Emeritus at Florida State University in Tallahassee, president of the FSU Friends of Libraries, and director of the Florida Book Awards.