027: Main Street Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand

by Gerard


027.477: Wiegand, Wayne A. Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2011. 180 pp. ISBN 978-1-60938-067-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 000: Computer science, information, and general works
  • 020: Library and information sciences
  • 027: General libraries, archives, and information centers
  • 027.4: Public libraries
  • +77: North Central United States and Lake states

In an age where libraries are becoming more and more technical, where cybrarians are the new normal, and library services include everything from toddler’s story time to teenage game rooms to technical courses for the elderly but savvy user, it’s nice to look back at the beginnings of the institution. While libraries in America have been around since the Library Company of Philadelphia formed in 1731, patrons never really get a sense of the history of the building. Wayne Wiegand’s Main Street Public Library tries to wind back the clock and chronicle the beginnings of four typical libraries in America’s Midwest.

The book profiles four libraries: The Bryant Library in Sauk Centre, Minnesota; The Sage Library of Osage, Iowa; The Charles H. Moore Library in Lexington, Michigan; and The Rhinelander Public Library in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. These libraries share many similarities. They each started as a closed collection of books available for local shareholders in the company. When they went public, the hours were limited to a few hours each Saturday. Each library’s collection was bolstered by donations from the public, and those drives regularly brought in hundreds of volumes.

They also constantly struggled with ensuring that residents are reading “good” literature (apparently the scourge of Horatio Alger and Oliver Optic paperbacks was warping the minds of youngsters everywhere). Each was started with governance by the town’s elite, but then quickly bent to the will of the librarians (first) and the users (later). Also, there were an awful lot of Masons involved in the library councils, although that’s to be expected as both the Masons and libraries seek to increase the public good.

On the other hand, each library had their unique flair. The Bryant Library became a model for how well a small town library could perform as long as the librarian was properly trained. The Sage Branch quickly became enmeshed in the town political squabbles, leading to the rapid turnover of head librarians. The Moore location was in a prime spot to attract a lot of tourist subscriptions, which accounted for the bulk of its circulation numbers. The Rhinelander location had to contend with immigrant tensions and union workers while building their library.

On the book as a whole, there are just two issues. The first is the amount of statistics laced throughout the text constantly comparing library subscriptions, holdings, and per capita lending amounts to the ALA standards. All that data gets in the way of the story of the places. The second is that each chapter ends rather abruptly. You get into the swing of each library’s history, and then all of a sudden, 1956 rolls around and the author has nothing more to say. Also, the writing’s a bit off. It’s not bad writing; it’s just not good writing, either. It reads more like a really long journal article than a book.

On the positive side, you get a real sense of small town library metamorphosis from the antebellum years to the mid 1950s. Also of interest is a decent analysis of each library holdings, how they compared to each other, and which books caused reactions in each branch’s community. Wiegand tracks how certain acquisitions (or conspicuous non-acquisitions) were informed by the political, cultural, and social atmosphere of the nation and the community at large. I’m getting a little long-winded here, but this was a decent and very informative book. If you are in any way connected with a public library, this is a good book for you.