In 2003, the public library in Muncie, Indiana, was being renovated. In a leaky attic, among nesting pigeons and other vermin, a set of disintegrating ledgers was discovered. There was a register of patrons and a book accession list, covering the years between the library’s founding in 1875 and its 1904 move to a new building paid for by Andrew Carnegie. Much more surprisingly, the ledgers recorded 175,000 borrowing transactions over the period from 1891 to 1902. Loan records from the 19th century are rare, and the scale of this collection is unprecedented. What is most remarkable is that it was found in “Middletown”, as Robert and Helen Lynd called Muncie in their famous sociological study of 1929.
Many other researchers followed the Lynds to Muncie, which became a kind of laboratory for the analysis of Middle America. Consequently, Frank Felsenstein and James Connolly have been able to relate the library records to a wealth of existing knowledge about Muncie’s industrial, civic and cultural development. Muncie was a “gas boom” town. Before the gas wells opened in 1886, it had been a community of 5,000, with a tiny library overseen by the sheriff and based at the local jail. But by 1900, the population had quadrupled and the boosters had moved in, proclaiming that Muncie was now a city boasting “schools, churches, theatres, a street railroad, electric light, a perfect system of sewerage” and “factories musically humming where once was heard only the popping of growing corn”. A key item on this list is lighting. The local gas supply allowed many residents to read in the evenings, often as a family group gathered around one lamp. Meanwhile, the library was one of the few buildings with electric lighting, and the reading room, which opened until 9pm, became a social centre as well as a place of learning. This is just one of the reasons why the Muncie of the 1890s can be understood as a print-centred community.
So what did Middletown read? Predictably, the bulk of loans were of popular novels. Boys’ adventure stories, together with Louisa May Alcott’s books and Martha Finley’s tiresomely pious (and racist) Elsie Dinsmore series, were the most frequent choices. A comparison of library records with census data reveals that juvenile novels attracted not only school-age readers and their parents, but also adult patrons without children – especially working-class men. Intriguingly, among blue-collar families, male library patrons significantly outnumbered female ones, whereas among white-collar groups, the reverse is true. Travel books circulated widely, and Felsenstein and Connolly connect this to the establishment of a Tourist Club by a group of middle-class women in Muncie. Its members simply read and wrote about travel rather than taking trips, yet for Felsenstein and Connolly, this shows how print can nurture “a communal sense of belonging to a wider civilization”.
Carnegie believed that public libraries were progressive, democratic institutions, but more recently some historians have characterised them as instruments of social control. The Muncie accession and borrowing data demonstrate that the library was more concerned with accommodating readers’ tastes than with disciplining them. At the same time, the spirit of the sheriff lived on and certain principles of moral uplift were retained: the library did not stock Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, Émile Zola or Stephen Crane.
What Middletown Read aims to inspire further research projects based on Muncie’s library records, which were made available online in 2011. In their splendid and comprehensive account, Felsenstein and Connolly have arguably already made the definitive statement about the reading habits of 1890s Middletowners. Yet through the intellectual questions raised and the gaps in knowledge identified, their book will undoubtedly stimulate new thinking about the history of reading.
Faye Hammill is professor of English, University of Strathclyde. As part of her British Academy mid-career fellowship, she is researching print culture and popularity.
What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City
By Frank Felsenstein and James J. Connolly
University of Massachusetts Press, 344pp, £81.95 and £26.50
ISBN 9781625341402 and 41419
Published 30 June 2015