The resourcefulness of rural public libraries knows no bounds. Tina King spotted this lending collection of cake and muffin pans at the public library in Atkinson, NE. "Since most of these towns don't have big box superstores nearby, I can imagine it's very handy," writes King. "I can also appreciate the idea of not forking over $12 to create a never gonna make it again fire truck cake."

Main Street Public Library:
Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956

By Wayne A. Wiegand
244 pp., University of Iowa Press, 2011, $25.95

If public libraries didn’t already exist, the poor sucker who thought to propose them would probably get run out of town. Imagine telling the Grover Norquist types that you wanted public money to pay for puppet shows and mystery novels. (Hippie!) Imagine telling publishers and record companies that you wanted to buy a single copy of a book or album and then allow multiple people to use it. (Freeloader!) In one of his last essays, the historian Tony Judt wrote that if we lose the railways, “we shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively.” The persistence of the public library as civic institution suggests that we haven’t forgotten, not entirely, not yet.

Between 1886 and 1919, industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated more than
$40 million for the construction of 1,679 new library buildings across
the United States. (Source: U.S. Embassy, the Hague via Flickr.)

Wayne Wiegand’s new book delves into the histories of four small-town libraries in the American Midwest. Although 80% of public library systems today serve populations of less than 25,000, Wiegand argues that “we know little about the overall history of the small-town public library.” Each of the four libraries that Wiegand considers was established by transplants from the East, first on a subscription basis for the merchant and professional classes and then, with tax support, for the town at large. Three of them received funds from Andrew Carnegie to erect a library building. And each, despite the rhetoric that emerged later about libraries as “arsenals of democracy,” was first imagined as a source of moral uplift in a culturally barren region aspiring to respectability.

Wiegand’s case studies are more similar than different, and one could be forgiven for wishing that he’d chosen at least one outlier: the library with the socialist press in the basement, or the one that nearly closed its doors after the librarian eloped with the chairman of the board. He’s most successful when tracing continuities between the four libraries: the tension, for instance, between local reading preferences and “those Commission ideas” advanced by urban library professionals bent on establishing their own expertise. He also has an eye for the small, evocative details that help to conjure a different time and place: the “Rest Room” on the lower level of the Sage Public Library in Iowa where farm wives could freshen up on their Saturday trips to town, or the Wisconsin librarian’s penchant for removing the comics from Sunday newspapers to prevent undignified outbursts of laughter in the reading room.

In addition to more conventional sources like meeting minutes and newspaper clippings, Wiegand makes imaginative use of the accession books in which his four libraries recorded the new titles they bought. (An army of work-study students entered the records into a database, which Wiegand has generously made available for other researchers to mine themselves.) Examining how the four collections changed over time leads Wiegand to some interesting comparisons and speculations: were summer tourists in Lexington, Michigan, the reason that the Charles H. Moore Library was the only one of the four to subscribe to Cosmopolitan? Why did the Bryant Library in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, collect Hardy Boys and Tom Swift novels, only to spurn the Bobbsey Twins?

Wiegand acknowledges that librarians and trustees likely shied away from books that would have offended local mores, but he cautions against sweeping assumptions about small-town conservatism. When Sauk Centre’s most famous son, Sinclair Lewis, was growing up in the provincial town that he would later lampoon, the Washington Post published a list of 54 books that the Boston Public Library had banned from its shelves. Eight of those books would have been available to Lewis in stuffy old Sauk Centre! So while local collection development decisions were made against the backdrop of pressure to disseminate “good” books and promote the reading of nonfiction over fiction, small-town libraries retained the autonomy to build collections that reflected their community’s distinctive interests and values.  

If Main Street Public Library disappoints on any front, it is with its failure to make good on the theoretical ambitions that Wiegand sets for it: moving beyond the perspective of the user in the life of the library to understand the library in the life of the user. The reader learns a good deal about which books sat on the shelves of Wiegand’s four libraries, but very little about what patrons did with those books once they left the building. Did parents read to their children before bed at night? Did young, lonely immigrants struggle through the classics, sounding out the strange words in hopes of impressing a boss or sweetheart? And how were these or other reading practices specific to the small-town Midwest? Wiegand would have needed to cast a wider net in order to answer these questions, perhaps looking to oral histories or personal writings like diaries; aggregate circulation statistics are too blunt an instrument to shed real light on how rural Americans incorporated library materials and services into their everyday lives.

Main Street Public Library opens with a heartening thought: the United States presently has more public libraries in operation than it does McDonald’s restaurants. Even as charter schools are touted as the future of K-12 education and the Postal Service lurches toward a future driven by profit instead of access, local accountability and public tax support remain the norm for America’s libraries. If anything, small-town libraries have evolved beyond the narrow, faintly moralistic mission with which they began: building collections in multiple languages, embracing pleasure reading (and viewing) rather than trying to quash it, and taking a more prominent role in job training and economic development. Wiegand’s look back at library history honors the accomplishments of yesteryear, while throwing into relief the more expansive and inclusive definition of library service that holds sway in rural America today.

Marcel LaFlamme is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University,  Houston, TX.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.