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Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America

Edited by Christine Pawley and Louise S. Robbins

Publication Year: 2013

For well over one hundred years, libraries open to the public have played a crucial part in fostering in Americans the skills and habits of reading and writing, by routinely providing access to standard forms of print: informational genres such as newspapers, pamphlets, textbooks, and other reference books, and literary genres including poetry, plays, and novels. Public libraries continue to have an extraordinary impact; in the early twenty-first century, the American Library Association reports that there are more public library branches than McDonald's restaurants in the United States. Much has been written about libraries from professional and managerial points of view, but less so from the perspectives of those most intimately involved—patrons and librarians.
            Drawing on circulation records, patron reviews, and other archived materials, Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth-Century America underscores the evolving roles that libraries have played in the lives of American readers. Each essay in this collection examines a historical circumstance related to reading in libraries. The essays are organized in sections on methods of researching the history of reading in libraries; immigrants and localities; censorship issues; and the role of libraries in providing access to alternative, nonmainstream publications. The volume shows public libraries as living spaces where individuals and groups with diverse backgrounds, needs, and desires encountered and used a great variety of texts, images, and other media throughout the twentieth century.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Series: Print Culture History in Modern America

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-2

Libraries and the Reading Public is a volume in the series “Print Culture History in Modern America,” a project of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture (CHPDC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This series focuses particularly on the mediating roles print has played in American culture since 1876. Its scope encompasses studies of newspapers, books...

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Introduction - Christine Pawley

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pp. 3-20

From the mid-nineteenth century forward, public organizations—free schools and libraries—played a crucial part in fostering in Americans the skills and habits of reading and writing. By the early twentieth century, government-sponsored community organizations like the agricultural extension agency, the school system, and the public library routinely provided...

Part 1: Methods and Evidence

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

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pp. 23-39

In 2012 the United States has more public libraries than McDonald’s restaurants. In the twenty-first century’s first decade, two-thirds of the population visited a public library at least once annually, and two of three were registered borrowers. These statistics state the obvious. The American public library is a heavily used and ubiquitous institution, and because 80...

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Reading Library Records: Constructing and Using the What Middletown Read Database

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pp. 40-63

This plaintive cri de coeur appears in the diary of Norene Hawk, a young woman of twenty-one, living in Muncie, Indiana. Who was she? And why is her diary a significant artifact for research on that most elusive of subjects, popular reading? ...

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“Story Develops Badly, Could Not Finish”: Member Book Reviews at the Boston Athenæum in the 1920s

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pp. 64-77

In the 1920s, the Boston Athenæum implemented a system for members to comment on books they read. A slip pasted into new fiction invited readers to record their opinions for the guidance of others. Readers were seldom unanimous about a book and argued vigorously about some books. This essay examines and comments on a sample of these reviews and uses...

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“A Search for Better Ways into the Future”: The Library of Congress and Its Users in the Interwar Period

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pp. 78-94

"I always regarded LC, in spite of its responsibilities to Government and in spite of its scholarly and museum-like characteristics, to be in essence a public library—the pinnacle of the library system of the country indeed, but of the library system viewed rather as a public library system than anything else,” Verner Clapp recalled. During the early years of his employment at the Library of Congress, Clapp worked at the public service desk in...

Part 2: Public Libraries, Readers, and Localities

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Going to “America”: Italian Neighborhoods and the Newark Free Public Library, 1900–1920

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pp. 97-110

"I have been down to America today.” Enrico Sartorio overheard this phrase more than once in the early decades of the twentieth century, uttered by Italian women who had ventured a few blocks outside of the ethnic enclave where they lived.1 Lillian Betts studied Italian immigrants in the Mulberry Street area of New York City in the early 1900s and noted that “within...

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“A Liberal and Dignified Approach”: The John Toman Branch of the Chicago Public Library and the Making of Americans, 1927–1940

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pp. 111-128

Abram Korman, chief of the foreign-language department of the Chicago Public Library (CPL), expressed his philosophy of service to the foreign born in an unpublished 1935 article titled “Present and Future Status of Foreign Language Work in Chicago.” He observed that 27 percent of the city’s population was foreign born, with another million residents first-generation Americans. He wrote that in

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Counter Culture: The World as Viewed from Inside the Indianapolis Public Library, 1944–1956

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pp. 129-148

Observers of Indiana culture have long remarked on its social and political contradictions. From 1890 to 1920, the state experienced a literary renaissance in which every Hoosier was a potential author. Some of America’s most popular and celebrated writers of the early twentieth century, including Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, and Gene...

Part 3: Intellectual Freedom

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Censorship in the Heartland: Eastern Iowa Libraries during World War I

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pp. 151-167

Early in 1918, Herbert Metcalf, secretary of the Iowa Council of National Defense, sent a request to public and academic libraries requesting that staff scour their shelves and remove materials sympathetic to the German war effort. While Metcalf ’s original letter does not survive, his records at the State Historical Society of Iowa include responses from a number of...

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Locating the Library in the Nonlibrary Censorship of the 1950s: Ideological Negotiations in the Professional Record

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pp. 168-184

Though Ralph Ellsworth, director of libraries at the State University of Iowa, titled his 1948 editorial on censorship in ALA Bulletin “Is Intellectual Freedom in Libraries Being Challenged?,” his concluding remark is a call to action beyond library walls.1 Writing during the post– World War II era of McCarthyism, and as an early member of the Iowa Library...

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“Is Your Public Library Family Friendly?” Libraries as a Site of Conservative Activism, 1992–2002

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pp. 185-199

In 1992, conservative Christian and homemaker Karen Jo Gounaud walked into Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Library and was alarmed to find the Washington Blade, a free gay and lesbian newspaper, available for the taking.1 Though the library administration and board initially rebuffed her attempts to have the publication removed, Gounaud proved not so easily dissuaded...

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The Challengers of West Bend: The Library as a Community Institution

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pp. 200-214

On February 3, 2009, four months prior to giving her public testimony, Ginny Maziarka and her husband Jim sent a letter to the director of the West Bend (Wisconsin) Community Memorial Library. The letter, which was placed in the overnight book drop, requested that the library remove a link on its website that recommended gay, lesbian, ...

Part 4: Librarians and the Alternative Press

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Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians

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pp. 217-236

Inside the cavernous main reading room at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue, away from the clamor of the surrounding streets, I began to open a dusty manila folder.1 I untied the surrounding string and looked down at the top item of the stack: the January 15, 1974, issue of Top Secret. This issue—and every other in the folder—appeared to consist of photocopies...

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From the Underground to the Stacks and Beyond: Girl Zines, Zine Librarians, and the Importance of Itineraries through Print Culture

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pp. 237-260

Recently, as part of an effort to revisit the question of how correlations between literacy and power function, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing—familiarly known as SHARP— organized its 2010 conference around the theme “Book Culture from Below.” The initial call for papers suggested that conference presenters direct their...


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pp. 261-264


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pp. 265-282

Further Reading

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p. 292-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780299293239
E-ISBN-10: 0299293238
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299293246
Print-ISBN-10: 0299293246

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 9 b/w photos
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Print Culture History in Modern America