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Reading Places

Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America

Christine Pawley

Publication Year: 2010

This book recounts the history of an experimental regional library service in the early 1950s, a story that has implications far beyond the two Wisconsin counties where it took place. Using interviews and library records, Christine Pawley reveals the choices of ordinary individual readers, showing how local cultures of reading interacted with formal institutions to implement an official literacy policy. Central to the experiment were well-stocked bookmobiles that brought books to rural districts and the one-room schools that dotted the region. Three years after the project began, state officials and local librarians judged it an overwhelming success. Library circulation figures soared to two-and-a-half times their previous level. Over 90 percent of grade-school children in the rural schools used the bookmobile service, and their reading scores improved beyond expectation. Despite these successes, however, local communities displayed deeply divided reactions. Some welcomed the book-mobiles and new library services wholeheartedly, valuing print and reading as essential to the exercise of democracy, and keen to widen educational opportunities for children growing up on hardscrabble farms where books and magazines were rare. Others feared the intrusion of govern- ment into their homes and communities, resented the tax increases that library services entailed, and complained about the subversive or immoral nature of some books. Analyzing the history of tensions between various community groups, Pawley delineates the long-standing antagonisms arising from class, gender, and ethnic differences which contributed to a suspicion of official projects to expand education. Relating a seemingly small story of library policy, she teases out the complex interaction of reading, locality, and cultural difference. In so doing, she illuminates broader questions regarding libraries, literacy, and citizenship, reaching back to the nineteenth century and forward to the present day.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-xi

This research was supported by a number of institutions. I am very grateful to the University of Iowa for two Old Gold Fellowships and an Arts and Humanities Initiative award; to the Wisconsin Historical Society for an Amy Louise Hunter Fellowship; and to St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota...


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pp. xiii-xiii

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Chapter 1: Literacy Debates and Dangers

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pp. 1-32

One evening in early November 1952, Jane Livingston, director of the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library, and assistant Andy Kroeger drove the county bookmobile south from Sturgeon Bay to a meeting at a tavern with some furious inhabitants of the township of Montpelier in Wisconsin’s Kewaunee County. “There were...

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Chapter 2: The Geography of Rural Reading

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pp. 33-66

Jane Livingston, Director of the Sturgeon Bay Public Library, moved to Door County in 1945. Born in 1915 and raised on a farm in central Wisconsin, like many other young women of her day Livingston at first planned to become a teacher. This in itself was no easy proposition. During the Depression, “getting an education was a real achievement,” she later recalled...

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Chapter 3: Reaching Readers with the Wisconsin Idea

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pp. 67-111

Progressive Era institutions systematically channeled reading materials to particular groups of people. Organizations like schools, libraries, women’s clubs, and extension agencies cooperated to foster literacy and encourage community participation, especially among immigrant and native-born members of the working class. Through...

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Chapter 4: Reading--for Whom, and What?

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pp. 112-152

From early in its history, the WFLC had maintained a close relationship both with the Wisconsin Library Association (WLA) and with the Wisconsin Library School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. WFLC founders Lutie Stearns and Frank Avery Hutchins were heavily involved in the establishment...

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Chapter 5: Children, Teacher, and the Rural School

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pp. 153-176

On a cold winter’s day in the early years of the twentieth century, a hired hand at four-year-old Hazel P.’s southern Door County farm taught the little girl to read. The two sat on the kitchen floor while the young man wrote out the letters of the alphabet, and Hazel repeated them after him. Lacking paper and a pencil, he improvised...

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Chapter 6: What to Read: Children’s Choices

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pp. 177-204

The Regional Library was refreshing the stagnant pool of print resources on the Door Peninsula in an unprecedented fashion. Suddenly, residents were awash in reading possibilities, as never before. Moving so rapidly from a situation of print scarcity to print abundance raised questions of choice that teachers and children had rarely confronted...

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Chapter 7: Women, Print, and Domesticity

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pp. 205-234

If for Door Peninsula schoolchildren, the bookmobile’s visits generated a party-like atmosphere, their mothers, too, found visiting the library could be the high spot of the week. Not only did it provide them with a constantly changing supply of books and magazines to take home, but it gave them an opportunity...

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Chapter 8: Winners and Losers: The Referendum and Its Aftermath

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pp. 235-258

True to its determination to make the project a democratically based joint venture between the state and the local residents, the plan for the Regional Library Demonstration provided for voter feedback in the form of a referendum in the fall of 1952. Voters were asked to consider the question, “Shall Kewaunee [or Door] County continue to participate in the Door-Kewaunee Regional library or some...

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Chapter 9: Epilogue

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pp. 259-282

With the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952, many conservatives hoped to see Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled back. In fact, Eisenhower largely maintained the status quo with respect to government programs, neither retreating, nor pressing for new initiatives. In the case of libraries, though, he presided...

Appendix 1. Wisconsin Free Library Commission Statistics

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pp. 283-285

Appendix 2. The D-K Database

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pp. 287-296


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pp. 297-325

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760574
E-ISBN-10: 1613760574
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498211
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498214

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 760179509
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading Places

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Subject Headings

  • Cold War.
  • Libraries and community -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Public libraries -- Wisconsin -- Door County -- History -- 20th century.
  • Public libraries -- Wisconsin -- Kewaunee County -- History -- 20th century.
  • Door-Kewaunee Regional Library -- History.
  • Rural libraries -- Wisconsin -- Door County -- History -- 20th century.
  • Books and reading -- Wisconsin -- Door County -- History -- 20th century.
  • Books and reading -- Wisconsin -- Kewaunee County -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rural libraries -- Wisconsin -- Kewaunee County -- History -- 20th century.
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