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Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 113-114

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Letter to the Editor

4 September 2003

Dear Editor,

I just finished Daniel Goldstein's "The Spirit of an Age: Iowa Public Libraries and Professional Librarians as Solutions to Society's Problems, 1890-1940" in Libraries & Culture 38/3 (Summer 2003). . . .

Overall, two minor quibbles aside, the article was excellent. My main argument with the article is on page 216: "Iowa showed little interest in public libraries for most of the second half of the nineteenth century. In1890 there were still only ten tax-supported public libraries, despite the passage of enabling legislation twenty years earlier."

There may well have been only ten tax supported public libraries, but in 1890 there were at least 37 communities with public libraries of some sort that survived into the 1990s. The tax supported model had been in place since the founding of Boston Public Library in 1854 or thereabouts. In terms of funding for public libraries most of the latter part of the 19th century was devoted to shifting from the old social library model to public funding. The transition was far from over by 1890.

To imply that Iowa was deficient in public library development because there were only ten tax supported libraries in 1890 is drawing conclusions the evidence does not support, unless the evidence is very narrowly defined. It further begs the question of "compared to what?"

Consider Iowa and three neighboring states:

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Table 1

[End Page 113]

Iowa does not appear to be lagging behind the neighbors in chronological terms. In absolute terms Iowa had, in 1890, more public libraries than any of the other three states. Further, in 1890 Iowa ranks 15th in the nation in terms of libraries per capita.

There is much of value in Goldstein's article, and the numerical or relative growth of the public library in Iowa is not the focus of the article. That being said, I do think the claim that the state had "little interest" in public libraries is simply not supported by the facts.


Charles A. Seavey
Associate Professor
University of Missouri-Columbia



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