Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America

Christine Pawley. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. 325 pp. $28.95 (paper). ISBN 978-1-55854-822-8.

The central narrative of Christine Pawley’s second monograph is simple. In November 1949, two local county boards voted in favor of a “demonstration” project that vastly extended the public library services offered to residents of Wisconsin’s rural Door Peninsula. The Door-Kewaunee Regional Library, the first to receive direct financial support from the state, also marked Wisconsin’s earliest attempt to pool library resources across county lines. Nearly three years later, the combined expansion of village libraries and bookmobile services had more than doubled circulation figures, and standard achievement tests showed the area’s students performing well beyond expectations. Nevertheless, in November 1952, voters in the southern county of Kewaunee rejected a referendum that would have continued the regional library beyond the withdrawal of state funding and supported it on a permanent basis through local tax revenue. The experiment, designed by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission (WFLC) to promote active and responsible citizenship through the spread of information, thus came to an abrupt end.

Although remembered vividly by librarians, teachers, and other longtime residents of Door and Kewaunee counties, printed evidence of this episode has remained largely out of public view, in unprocessed archives and microfilmed newspapers held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Pawley provides a valuable map of her research in the first chapter of Reading Places, in which she explains how luck, sleuthing, and a professional nudge from Wayne Wiegand all helped her to uncover thousands of circulation records from the Demonstration. The resulting stories “of the readers on the Door Peninsula during the early years of the Cold War—and on research methodologies in book history in general” reflect the author’s talents as a diligent historian and nuanced writer (28). In addition to her archival research, Pawley conducted twenty-five oral histories and consulted an expansive set of secondary material to inform her deep inquiry into the origins, experiences, and significance of the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library. Ultimately, she uncovers not just the institutional story of the Demonstration, but insights about the “reading values of real, historically situated readers” (277).

In Kewaunee and Door Counties, Pawley finds that those values were structured largely by geography and ethnicity. The area south of Sturgeon Bay was dominated by families of Belgian and Eastern European descent, for whom books and reading played relatively minor roles, at least in the lives of adults. Moving northward, Door County was not only the permanent home of families who had relocated from New England and Scandinavia, but a tourist destination for wealthy residents of cities like Chicago, who brought their books and their cultural values to the region in the summer months. Age and gender, too, played an important part in the referendum’s final outcome. Among adult users, women charged out ninety-five percent of the books, signaling the library’s particular failure to attract and serve male patrons (121). And while the WFLC board had explicitly targeted the Demonstration for adults, children accounted for roughly three-fourths of the library’s circulation (119, 121). Bookmobile service opened up new opportunities for the students and teachers in rural schools, who otherwise depended on small, unchanging classroom collections. With many of its most enthusiastic proponents too young to vote, the library succumbed to attacks that it was, at best, an ineffective and expensive defense against Communism, and, at worst, an example of its evils. Although she failed to interview any strong opponents of the library, Pawley does not dismiss Door Peninsula’s “non-readers” out of hand (114). Instead, she argues that from the beginning, they “made sophisticated use of the democratic processes available to them, suggesting that their ability to participate as citizens in local affairs was already developed and rested not one whit on the availability of library services” (111).

Exploring what she calls the “institutional middle layer” of the WFLC Demonstration allows Pawley to make connections both broad and local (15). The short-lived and geographically specific library experiment served as an interface between individual, intimate experiences of readers and the larger societal and historical forces that conditioned their relationships to print. Indeed, nearly every chapter of Reading Places looks beyond the Door Peninsula to place its readers and library services in a regional and even national context. The development of mobile library services and services for children changes in the structure of rural schooling, and librarians’ embrace of the ideals of intellectual freedom all shaped the expectations for, and results of, the WFLC’s mid-century experiment. Meanwhile, personal accounts and even close readings of select library holdings, like the “career” novels that targeted school-aged girls, tie the regional project to individual readers and their real or speculative experiences.

Treading in this middle layer encourages Pawley to look beyond the binaries that posit the reader as poacher against the reader as consumer, or strictly delimit reading for pleasure from reading for self-improvement. Yet all studies have their limits, and in Reading Places one is left wondering how the voices of library opponents, or details about their campaigns to challenge book selections, would have complicated the accounts of librarians who labeled such opponents simply as “non-readers.” Privacy restrictions also prevented Pawley from identifying individual readers from the extant circulation records. She notes, though, that while some bookmobile patrons “failed to include their names on the charge slips, they always recorded the site” (120). With the help of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, this type of data might yield new histories of community library use and reading practices. Sadly, however, the physical archive of the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library has less to offer. Late in the project, the author returned to consult the Demonstration’s records, only to find that the “institutional frailty” of the WFLC had extended to the very material used for her study (281). Of the three original unprocessed boxes of records, only one remained; the circulation slips and photographs had been discarded. We are lucky, then, that the story of this region and its library experiment has been told in a work as thorough and compelling as Reading Places.

Wendy Korwin, College of William and Mary