Monday, August 31, 2015

Part of Our Lives - A People's History of the American Public Library

Title:  Part of Our Lives - A People's History of the American Public Library
Author:  Wayne A. Wiegand
Publication Information:  Oxford University Press. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0190248009 / 978-0190248000

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Indisputable fact - American love their public libraries."

Favorite Quote:  "Although public libraries could never be all things to all people, the history presented here shows they have been more things to more people than most cultural authorities - including many librarians - have realized."

My friends have rolled their eyes and said, "You're reading what? A history of libraries? Why?" For certain books, I would agree that such a book may not be for everyone. This one though may appeal to a much wider audience than the title may suggest.

The author Dr. Wiegand is the F. William Summers Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University and the author of numerous articles and books on libraries. Oxford University Press began publishing in the late 1400s and has been in the business ever since. They are, of course, world-renowned for their publications as they work to fulfill their mission (as stated on their website) of "excellence in scholarship, research, and education." In other words, the source of the history in this book is reliable and authoritative.

Admittedly, I am precisely the target audience for books. I obviously am very passionate about books.  I am regular patron of my local public library. Okay, more than a regular patron. My local library has always been my home away from home. Over the years, I have volunteered and worked in different libraries. The public library services have always been an important factor in choosing a home. I like to say that I raised my children in the library. So, I knew as soon as I saw the title that I wanted to read this book.

Of course, I recommend this book to anyone avidly interested in books. I would also recommend this book to anyone with an interest in US history. This book is a walk through US history from the mid-1850s to present day through the lens of a public library.

The writing style and the history presented is very much anecdotal. The author explains this approach in the book itself. "Assessing what happens in library places does not easily fit into statistical taxonomies documenting library use, yet anecdotes like this demonstrate that public libraries help build community in multiple ways." The story-based approach make the book much more accessible. I find myself able to relate to the people and events. When the anecdotes refer to places I know, it adds an additional element of interest, with many moments of "Hey, I know that library, but I didn't know that..." For example, some interesting, random facts from the book:
  • When libraries had limited collections, having an overdue book was an offense for which people were arrested and jailed.
  • The card in a card catalog (remember those!) was measured in centimeters because Melvin Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, tried his whole life to get the US to adopt the metric system.
  • Library stacks used to be accessible to librarians only. Patrons had to wait in line and request a book. When patrons were finally allowed in the stacks, people were not always happy because "generations of patrons were now forced to read narrow vertical book spines by uncomfortably contorting their necks."
  • Originally, many people fought to keep the youth out of libraries fearing that the young would the peaceful environment of the library and the quiet needed for the pursuit of learning.
Interesting stories aside, this book is serious history about the role the public library has played in history. One motto for the American Library Association has been "The Best Reading for the Greatest Number at the Least Cost." "Best" implies that libraries seek to help people grow in their reading tastes. "Greatest number" implies that libraries try to reach the different facets of their community, whether in bring patrons in to the library or bringing books to patrons. "Least cost" implies that infallible truth that the quest to stretch limited funding as far as possible is a never ending battle.

From this objective, the major theme that emerges in the book is the library as the heart of a community - a gathering place where ideas develop and discussed, a welcoming and safe shelter, and a haven for intellectual freedom. This role and the exact definition of that goal has changed and evolved as our nation has evolved. Through this lens, this book depicts many serious issues of US history such the role of government, immigration, war, race relations, the Civil Rights movement, and Communism. The book is definitely one of the more readable and interesting history books that I have found. I would recommend it anyone looking for this unique perspective on our nation's history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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