Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America

edited by Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. 281 pp. $39.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-299-29324-6.

The intersection of reading and libraries has received a great deal of scholarly attention over the past thirty years and has generated a solid body of work. Pawley and Robbins’ new book provides an excellent contribution to this ongoing investigation and deserves to be read by all who are curious about this topic. The essays in this book were culled from about fifty presentations that made up the “Library History Seminar XII” that took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in September 2010. The Library History Seminars have a venerable history and over the years have reflected the state of library history at the time. Such is the case this time as well.

Christine Pawley introduces the volume and in a few dense pages aptly summarizes the historiography of reading and its relationship to libraries. The book itself is divided into four main parts: Methods and Evidence; Public Libraries, Readers, and Localities; Intellectual Freedom; and Librarians and the Alternative Press. The inestimable Wayne Wiegand provides the opening essay and the equally inestimable Janice Radway authors the concluding one. In between the reader is presented with a valuable array of well-written and well-researched contributions by some of our best known historians, as well as those just beginning their careers.

Reviewers will sometimes complain when assessing edited collections that the contributions are uneven in quality. Such is not the case here: each author has provided a quality essay that advances our understanding of libraries and reading in the past century and all deserve equal attention. The Methods and Evidence section begins with Wiegand’s outline of the theoretical assumptions that framed his recent book Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956 (2011). Frank Felsenstein and his colleagues from Ball State University follow with a description of their remarkable study of circulation records kept by the Muncie Indiana Public Library that formed the basis for the “What Middletown Read” database. Although all libraries at one time or another maintain circulation records, it is still quite rare for historians to have information about the books and who checked them out. Ross Harvey and Jane Aiken complete this section. Harvey gives an account of the efforts the Boston Athenaeum made to obtain feedback from its readers on the fiction they read, carefully maintained on slips of paper. Jane Aiken, who must be counted as one of our foremost historians of the Library of Congress, analyzes the annual reports crafted by the Superintendent of the Reading Room during the 1920s and 1930s and presents her readers with some informed insights into how that collection was used during that period.

Ellen Pozzi introduces the section on “Public Libraries, Readers, and Localities” with her investigation into the efforts the Newark Public Library made to acclimate Italian immigrants to American culture. Joyce Latham contributes her extensive knowledge of the Chicago Public Library with her informative study of the John Toman Branch during the period from 1927-1940. Jean Preer, longtime historian of American librarianship, complements Pozzi and Latham’s essays with her account of Marian McFadden’s leadership of the Indianapolis Public Library during the early Cold War years. These three accounts of urban libraries greatly expand our existing knowledge of the role these libraries played in American culture during the first half of the twentieth century.

In the third section devoted to topics on intellectual freedom, the state of Iowa is the focus for the first two essays. Julia Skinner explores the impact of World War I on public libraries and their collections. She recounts the pressures on local libraries to restrict German language materials as well as their efforts to support the American war effort beginning in 1917.  Joan Bessman Taylor examines the activities of the Iowa Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee in the post-World War II era and shows how that group promoted intellectual freedom in Iowa libraries during the tempestuous times of the early 1950s. Public libraries are often viewed as liberal-leaning institutions, but this is not always the case. Loretta Gaffney sheds light on the Family Friendly Libraries organization that lobbied the American Library Association during the last decade of the twentieth century to restrict children’s access to homosexual and objectionable materials. Emily Knox’s essay, which follows Gaffney, details the case of a challenge made to a link the library had maintained on its website that recommended gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender books for young adults in West Bend, Wisconsin. Knox explores the impact of how such challenges effect a library’s space and what goes in it.

The final section is entitled “Librarians and the Alternative Press” and includes two essays.  Alycia Sellie traces the history of librarians and their efforts to collect, describe, and preserve literature that falls outside the mainstream of publishing.  Beginning with the underground radical press of the 1960s Knox displays a fine understanding of the role libraries and librarians played in capturing this sometimes ephemeral material.  She worked for James Danky at the Wisconsin Historical Society during her years in library school, so she has good first-hand knowledge of this material.  Finally, Janice Radway contributes a fine essay representing her recent study of girls and the handmade publications they produced, which are often called zines.  Radway’s essay is quite sophisticated and reflects the decades she has spent thinking and writing about how and what people read.  Her contribution is a fine capstone to an excellent collection of essays.

Pawley and Robbins have created a solid collection of writings on a timely topic.  Whether you read only a couple of the chapters, or the entire book, there is something here for anyone interested in how libraries interacted with the reading public during the twentieth century.  This book is a wonderful contribution to the growing literature on libraries and reading.

Edward A. Goedeken

Iowa State University