Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library

by Wayne A. Wiegand. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 331 pp. $34.95 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-19-024800-0.

When faced with a new Wayne Wiegand book, you know that it is going to be good. He has written archives-based research books about American librarians in World War I and hard-hitting biographies of librarians like Melvil Dewey. For years he wrote popular one-page historical essays for American Libraries and penned trenchant longer articles like “Tunnel Vision and Blind Spots,” while also editing authoritative works like the Supplement to the Dictionary of American Library Biography. Inshort, Wiegand has done it all, and now tops his oeuvre with a compact one-volume history of American libraries that emphasizes how people have used and reacted to their libraries.

Wiegand, for many years a professor at the University of Wisconsin library school before teaching at Florida State, brings intimate awareness of librarianship to his history scholarship and a deep appreciation of archival and newspaper research. Library history was long a very sanctimonious field with limited critical thought, an approach exploded – somewhat unfairly – by Michael Harris and Dee Garrison. The field has since expanded with closer attention to women and minority studies, an expansion taken expert advantage of by Wiegand.

No sustained or systematic history of the growth or spread of libraries themselves is offered in this book, however, more like snapshots (e.g., New York Public Library, p. 93) amidst an analysis of popular reading and reaction to the library. The result, while entertaining and often enlightening, also can leave misapprehensions such as the implication that the South did not accept Carnegie libraries.

Wiegand emphasizes time and again the deep American public library linkage with and aspiration towards democracy – and the inability to always fulfill that drive. One of the trickiest topics is discrimination against minorities of gender, age, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The civil rights era comes in for close examination although he did not have access to Cheryl Knott’s fine new Not Free, Not for All.[1] His segments on library segregation and integration, while insightfully covered, hardly mention the scholarly attention given to a number of problems. Censorship and selection controversies are well covered in his episodic approach. Wiegand has delightful pages on collected but forbidden books kept in restricted library areas often called “inferno.” Here, as elsewhere, comparisons with foreign libraries beg for mention, but Wiegand keeps his focus resolutely on the United States.

Wiegand has opened new historic fields in this book with his use of online newspaper databases but cannot overcome limitations of his avoidance of more academic institutional, state, and regional studies. This is a failure of documentation not only about integration but many other developments. Wiegand’s approach is instead chronological and from the ground-up.

While enthusiastic about the role libraries, their managers and publics have played in America, Wiegand can be brutally honest about the “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia” (p. 5) supported and even promoted by libraries. White male librarians and their lay patrons gradually allowed women in but protected them because of “the perceived vulnerabilities of the female reader” (p. 21).

Technical developments are not ignored but not given extensive examination or analysis either. The impact of automation and the Internet is examined more from the patron side then from internal dynamics, hardly surprising in a people’s history. How, one may still wonder, did technical change affect how the library is organized and staffed, services expanded or contracted?  How did changes in funding and networks affect libraries and their users? That said, Wiegand does bring his story all the way to the 21st century in just ten chapters. The index is good and there are extensive footnotes to his immediate sources.

Wiegand displays a deft touch in interweaving social, cultural and library layers to form a coherent and compelling narrative with lots of illustrative detail. He is less adept, perhaps, in describing the development of libraries widespread over the country and, with a few exceptions, the impact of librarians themselves. He walks a fine line between praising the elites who established the libraries and worship of the people who needed and used them. All quibbles aside, this is an excellent book for anyone interested in libraries.

Patrick M. Valentine , East Carolina University

[1] See my review of Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow by Cheryl Knott (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), forthcoming here.