This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 4, 2011 - popular reading builds community

"Main Street Public Library" is a forthcoming book by Wayne Wiegand, an eminent library historian. It's the story of four public libraries - Bryant Library in Sauk Centre (Central MN), Sage Public library in Osage, IA, Charles H. Moore Library in Lexington MI, Rhinelander Public Library in Rhinelander, WI.

The public library movement, beginning in about 1876, was in many ways the response to waves of "foreigners." As Wiegand notes, nervous Americans adopted two strategies to regularize the newcomers: compulsory education, and such highly visible institutions as the public library.

The four libraries followed a pattern that applied to a lot of Midwest libraries. It went something like this:

A core group of civic leaders, usually radiating from pre-suffrage women's groups, issued a civic call. Some modest amount of funding was committed by town councils. A tiny start-up space was found, with a non-librarian and a small stock of "good books."

Eventually, someone hit up Andrew Carnegie, who ignored the request for awhile, then dickered over the price, then eventually provided capital funds -- but never for books, and never for operations. This strategy of requiring matching funds, proof of serious intent, had the effect of growing organized support essential for the establishment and sustainability of the library.

Over time library management became a little more professionalized. Library Trustees looked for "trained" librarians. Libraries that thrived -- meaning that they wound up with more space and money -- built relationships with their communities in three ways: children's services (mainly story times), the provision of public meeting space (both for individual reading and group gatherings), and, most powerfully, response to the demand for popular fiction.

With ringing and lofty rhetoric, librarians assured all that we were essential to democracy because we informed our citizens about the issues of the day. Indeed, this organized presentation of information, reliable, thoroughly reviewed and vetted, was the essential function of the institution. As the profession grew in stature, "collection development" meant the compilation and distribution of prescriptive lists. Those lists did indeed influence many libraries' holdings.

The anti-fiction hostility of librarians was pronounced. Many librarians sounded the alarm about the dangers of, yes, reading. Oh, the horror of women who read romances, boys who read comic books, and men who stashed the Police Gazette under their mattresses!

That prejudice lasted a long time, extending with particular ferocity against the Stratemeyer Syndicate (producers of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series).

But despite the civic mandate of local leaders, despite the profound anti-fiction bias of librarians of that time, there was a third player in the histories. It turns out that what people mostly wanted from the public library wasn't heavy-handed educational lectures. They wanted a rattling good story.

And by and large, they got it.

Wiegand advances the idea that libraries did in fact do what they were supposed to do: we built community. We just didn't do it the way we thought we did. Popular reading itself was the key.

Think about it. Which had more to do with the emergence of the American pscyhe: "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or the by-his-own-bootstraps fiction of Horatio Alger? Which had more to do with national scientific progress: "Scientific American," or the inventions of Tom Swift? Who had more to do with our attitudes about gun ownership: Alexis de Toqueville, or Zane Grey?

Sometimes it's hard to tell if history teaches us anything or not. But I'm happy to pass along this professional update from your local librarian: go ahead and read. Really. Anything. For the good of the nation.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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