1.2 What Middletown Read
James J. Connolly
The What Middletown Read Project arose from the chance discovery of a set of crumbling ledgers during the 2003 renovations of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library. The records included a register of the names and addresses of every patron who had joined the library between its opening in 1875 and the end of 1902. They also included two volumes of its accession catalog, listing each book acquired by the library over the same interval. Most importantly, the cache contained twenty-five slim, decaying notebooks with pencil notations recording each circulation transaction, including an identifying number for each patron and book. They covered the library’s lending from November 1891 to December 1902 with one gap; library staff likely destroyed the circulation records detailing transactions between June 1892 and November 1894 in the wake of a local smallpox epidemic. Soon after their recovery, Frank Felsenstein, Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Ball State University, visited the library in search of material for a book history class. He found the collection of ledgers in a handful of unlabelled boxes on a shelf. Recognizing their value for documenting historical reading choices, he enlisted the cooperation of the Center for Middletown Studies and Ball State University Libraries. The result of their collaboration is the What Middletown Read Database (WMRD), which is now open to the public.
Had these records been discovered in any community, they would be of great significance. That so thorough a run of library records has been discovered in Muncie, Indiana, is especially serendipitous. Muncie is perhaps the most well-studied small city in the United States. Since the publication of Middletown: A Study in American Culture by Robert and Helen Lynd (1929), a steady stream of researchers has come to this modest community in East-central Indiana to explore the process of modernization in the United States. Even today, the city remains a magnet for journalists and researchers seeking a snapshot of life in Middle America. The project adds a new dimension to this robust body of scholarship.
WMRD provides researchers with an opportunity to examine past reader behavior in the United States on an unprecedented scale. The only comparable archive is that of the Sage Library in Osage, Iowa, which has been described by Christine Pawley in her pathbreaking Reading on the Middle Border: The Culture of Print in Late-Nineteenth Century Osage, Iowa (2001), but the Sage Library records are roughly a tenth the size of those discovered in Muncie. There have also been several studies of circulation patterns for very small private circulating libraries from earlier in the nineteenth century. Privacy laws ensure that details of more recent library use remain unavailable to researchers. The Muncie Public Library records list more than 6,000 patrons (4,008 of whom borrowed at least one book during the period covered by the database), 11,000 books and just over 174,000 individual loans. The database also incorporates demographic information from census records for many of the borrowers, including their occupation, age, sex, place of birth and marital status as well as additional bibliographic information about each book.
Creating such a resource was a large and complex undertaking – more so than anyone on the project team imagined at the outset. To begin with, the original records were in poor condition and had to be digitized. Doing so not only preserved them but made them easier to work with and allowed us to make them accessible to database users. Even in serviceable condition, the ledgers proved difficult to interpret because of obscure handwriting and inconsistent or casual record keeping by the staff of the Muncie Public Library. Had they been in pristine condition, these materials would still have presented a challenge simply because of their scale. It took three years to assemble profiles of the patrons and more than a year (and a dozen cataloguers) to transcribe and enter bibliographic information for each book. On top of that, project staff had to enter each of the 174,000 circulation transactions by hand. Finally, it took considerable time and testing to design a custom-made online search engine to fit this idiosyncratic data.
The reward for all this effort is the now-open WMRD, a database which, through the power of the internet, allows anyone in the world to examine century-old circulation records from a public library in a provincial American city. It helps us to get at that most elusive of historical figures: the ordinary reader. Scholars examining the evolution of print culture have explored in depth the authors who wrote books, the texts they produced and the publishers who distributed them. Missing for the most part has been the reader. We have some access to sales figures, and one can find commentary about books and reading in diaries and other sources but linking individual readers or particular groups of readers to specific texts, authors or genres has been hard to do on a substantial scale. WMRD allows its users to do just that for readers in one notable American community.
Among the things we learn from a perusal of the database is that late nineteenth-century library users, much like those of today, craved popular and mostly ephemeral fiction. Children flocked to the library where they borrowed in huge numbers books by Horatio Alger, Charles Fosdick, Oliver Optic, Martha Finley, L.T. Meade and Louisa May Alcott. Alger was by far the library’s most popular author despite the fact that professional librarians and the cultural arbiters of the day frowned upon his work. Loans of his books alone account for more than five percent of the total circulation during the period documented in the database. Women borrowed romances and domestic fiction quite frequently as well, mostly long forgotten books by authors such as Edward Westcott, Hugh Wynne, Marie Corelli, Eugenie John and Edward Payson Roe. The obscurity of these once popular names – we remember Alger and Alcott but few others –testifies to the distinctiveness of the cultural world Americans occupied a century ago.
Among the most interesting things to be gleaned from the WMRD are the socioeconomic patterns evident in reading choices. The database allows researchers to formulate queries using occupational categories such as white collar versus blue collar or, for those seeking more precision, through a five-level scheme based on skill and function pioneered by sociologist Alba Edwards. Classifying jobs in this way provides a very rough proxy for the more elusive concept of class, but it can give some sense of differences in behavior among readers of varied wealth and status. On the whole, white-collar borrowers outnumbered those from blue-collar households by a large margin. While the preferences of the two groups were not entirely different, one striking variation is that white-collar patrons were much more likely to borrow new or recent best-sellers, while their blue-collar counterparts tended to choose older, familiar books by established authors. This pattern held among both adults and children. It suggests at least a couple of things: that better-off library users had access to older books, perhaps at home, and that they were more enmeshed within the mass literary marketplace of the era.
Such findings offer but a glimpse of the potential of WMRD. It provides a tool not just for those seeking detail on broad patterns of print consumption, but also for those exploring more specific questions. A scholar studying Mark Twain might capture from it a more concrete sense of Huckleberry Finn readers. Those interested in the publishing industry can trace the circulation of a particular firm’s imprints. Users can formulate searches based on such categories as subject heading, binding type, the year of a borrower’s birth, their birthplace or a combination of these and other variables.
One of the most rewarding parts of our work has been the discovery of other projects that examine reading and libraries. Christine Pawley’s investigation of the Sage Library was among the first studies we learned of, and it provided us with a valuable model. More recently, we encountered The Australian Common Reader, a database that documents public library circulation in that country around the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps others can follow these examples and seek to capture, preserve and make available the reading choices made in libraries by ordinary people, both past and present.
James J. Connolly is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University. He is the author of An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America (Cornell University Press) and The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism: Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900-1925 (Harvard University Press). He also edited After the Factory: Reinventing America’s Industrial Small Cities (Lexington Books) and has published numerous articles and essays in edited volumes and journals such as Social Science History, theJournal of Urban History, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.