Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland

By Wayne A. Wiegand. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2011. 244 pp. $25.95 (paper). ISBN 978-1-60938-067-0.

Wayne Wiegand writes history faster than most of us can read it. Indeed, the title under review here is not even Wiegand’s most recent book. For Wiegand’s most recent work, see Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne A. Wiegand, Right here I see my own books : the Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012). Nevertheless, even though he has authored countless articles, essays, and books over the past four decades, his recent study of several Midwestern public libraries and how they were used represents nearly two decades of patient research delving into library records and other primary and secondary materials, and serves as a reliable model for how such research should be conducted. One of the problems with our current academic arrangement is that young historians often must produce a wealth of scholarship in a hurry. The historical enterprise, however, can also benefit from a more deliberate approach, which requires time for more leisurely thought about and contemplation of the historical record and what it means. Wiegand brings to his scholarly work the perspective of someone who has spent decades thinking and writing about American librarianship, and as much as anything, this mature and learned perspective is what is most valuable about Main Street Public Library.

For his study, Wiegand closely analyzed four Midwestern libraries and their collections for the period from 1876 through 1956: the Bryant Library of Sauk Centre, Minnesota; the Sage Public Library of Osage, Iowa; the Charles H. Moore Library of Lexington, Michigan; and he Rhinelander Public Library of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. A fifth library, the Morris Public Library of Morris, Illinois was considered too similar to that of the Sage Library and was not included in the book, but was treated elsewhere. “An Established Institution: The Morris Public Library of Morris, Illinois, 1913-1953,” Journal of Illinois History 13 (Winter 2010): 265-88. Wiegand provides a useful overview of his research in a recent essay, “The American Public Library: Construction of a Community Reading Institution” in Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway, eds., A History of the Book in America: Vol. 4: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), pp. 431-451. From the accession books of these five libraries, Wiegand constructed an Access database, which can be searched in a variety of ways. The database is maintained by Ball State University’s Center for Middletown Studies at: Containing hundreds of titles that are shared in common or uniquely held, this database contains a wealth of information about the collections of these small town Midwestern libraries over a 75-year period. The 2010 Library History Seminar XII contained a number of presentations that further analyzed this treasure-trove of data. The conference proceedings will be published as “Windows on the World: Analyzing Main Street Public Library Collections,” Library Trends v. 60, no. 4 (2012).

The writing of history is a little like entering a room and joining a conversation that is already in progress. Wiegand helps us understand this conversation by devoting his initial chapter to a thorough review of the literature of reading and place and in so doing helps the reader appreciate the larger theoretical and contextual framework of his book. The introduction is followed by a series of chapters devoted to each library with insightful depictions of the people and the community within which each library thrived. Wiegand bases much of his narrative on primary archival sources maintained by each library. Each library has its own tale, with years of give and take between the librarian, the governing boards, and the library’s users. Wiegand makes plain his interest in telling the story of the “library in the life of the user” instead of the traditional approach of focusing on how the user affected the life of the library. Indeed, an exploration of the library as place is one of Wiegand’s more significant contributions to our historiography, as he blends the theories of such eminent writers as Jurgen Habermas into his narrative mix. Over the years, Wiegand has demonstrated a sustained engagement with social theorists, which both broadens and strengthens his work.

Wiegand’s other major point is the role of fiction in the reading habits of library users. Despite the best efforts of hordes of well-meaning librarians, and the American Library Association and its various guidebooks for what constitutes the best sources for reading, Wiegand demonstrates again and again the preponderance of popular fiction as the main source of reading for each community. Fiction—and not necessarily high-brow fiction—was the heavily circulated items in each library over the many decades covered by his book. Wiegand closely analyzes each library’s collection, noting when specific books were acquired, what library acquired them, and the relationship of these collections when compared to the various lists of ALA-recommended titles.

Wiegand concludes that the main street public library in America—as revealed at least in his close examination of these libraries—provided a valuable two-fold service to their communities: they served as a safe public space for the demonstration of acceptable social behaviors and responsibilities, and they provided an inexpensive (to the reader) literary space through their collections and the various services they offered that enabled the user to negotiate his or her way through their daily life with the comfortable assistance that the written word could provide. This made the library a valuable social agency for an America that was transitioning from a predominantly rural society to one that was becoming more and more urban.

Main Street Public Library is an exceptional book not only for the story it tells, but also for the historical methodology that undergirds its narrative. It is a solidly constructed history that reveals the craftsmanship of a master historian at the top of his game.

Edward A. Goedeken, Parks Library, Iowa State University, Ames