- - Tuesday, December 29, 2015



By Wayne A. Wiegand

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 331 pages, illustrated

Don’t let those loaded words “People’s History” in its subtitle put you off this excellent book. Yes, my hackles tend to rise too at that phrase which all too often connotes something nefariously antinomian. So it is good to encounter it used properly to describe a phenomenon deeply rooted in the traditional culture of the United States. Wayne A. Wiegand, F. William Summers Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University, starts out in a characteristically forthright manner:

“It is an indisputable fact — Americans love their public libraries. They always have and evidence to support this statement abounds.”

And those two sentences encapsulate the twin pillars which render such great support to this book: the author’s passionately affectionate admiration and the solid scholarship and feel for his subject that can only come from a lifetime devoted to studying the American public library.

It is such a uniquely American institution, dating back to before the Republic actually existed, and indeed it can fairly be said that the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin was a Founding Father of both. Although Mr. Wiegand points out that The Library Company of Philadelphia founded in 1732 was a subscription library similar to such institutions already established in Britain, he goes on to point out, “Franklin wanted his Library Company to nurture the ‘Self-Made Man’ he had celebrated in ‘Poor Richard’s Almanac’ ” and that “All his life Franklin touted the value of social libraries.”

Because the doctrine of the “Self-Made Man” flowered and multiplied in fertile soil, as the United States became a nation and grew and prospered over the ensuing centuries, it developed far beyond the learned confines of Franklin’s originator and began to reflect the needs and pleasures of the American people in all their glorious multiplicity. And the fact that public libraries were available to people all over this country much earlier than elsewhere contributed in countless ways, known and unknown, to their development socially and economically as well as culturally.

Although there is the attention to racial and other forms of discrimination which is a sine qua non in today’s historiography, Mr. Wiegand shows himself to be admirably restrained and sensible in his conclusions:

“Nowhere in my research did I find evidence that public libraries fostered the major social movements that mark American history. In fact, public libraries often inhibited them because these social movements threatened hegemonies built into the library systems and services that reflected community priorities. My research does demonstrate, however, that the changes American public libraries fostered for individuals constitutes their strongest bonds with users . The American public library also stands as one of the few civic institutions resistant to centralizing tendencies that characterize the last hundred years. Although it has sought and accepted federal money (and made very good use of it), it has nonetheless resisted federal control. Because 85 percent their funding comes from local taxation, public libraries are local organisms living within the social and cultural environments their communities create for them.”

He puts his finger on what is perhaps the greatest strength of public libraries in the United States: They are community-based, genuine local institutions, mirroring the mores and the needs of the residents, whose library it most decidedly is. And it is uncommonly refreshing these days and equally delightful to see emphasis on the individual as well the community coming from an academic: “The American public library has been in a unique position to satisfy self-designed needs of multiple groups and at the same time help individuals make sense of their worlds in myriad ways.”

If libraries inevitably mirror their communities, they are the engines of enlightenment and entertainment for so many, helping to shape their individual personalities, opinions and worldview.

And here’s some more of that solid scholarship to back up just what a success story this iconic enduring American institution still is. In 2012, “Nearly 300 million Americans — 96 percent of the population — lived in a public library service area” and there are a billion and a half visits each year. So much for the dire predictions that the 21st century would see the demise of the public library. Indeed, its embrace of the Internet has only served to increase and enrich the range of its offerings. In many communities, it offers the only free source of access to the World Wide Web.

We can never know how many people have been opened up to the wider world by their public libraries, Mr. Wiegand gives us some priceless quotes to show off the power of these essential institutions:

From E.L. Doctorow: “The three most important documents a free society gives are a birth certificate, a passport, and a library card.” ” ‘In this room,’ Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough said as he swept his arm around the Tulsa Public Library ‘we are at dead center in the absolute heart of the best institution in our society — the free library.’ ” And from Kurt Vonnegut: “The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”

After hundreds of pages of Mr. Wiegand’s impassioned advocacy for this particular slice of Americana, truly democratic root and branch, we can only endorse these heartfelt testimonials which begin his splendid book.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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