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

Wayne A. Wiegand. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-024800-0
Reviewed by Eric Norton.

As this work's subtitle suggests, Wiegand, a professor emeritus at Florida State University's School of Information, takes a user-centered approach in this history of American public libraries. Wiegand does a superlative job of featuring the voices of average community members as well as famous individuals who, by and large, have loved their public libraries. Other histories of the institution and the profession are written by and for librarians, and they concentrate on supplying information as libraries' sole raison d'ĂȘtre. In seeking the patron's perspective, Wiegand finds that the library's role in popularizing reading and providing community spaces is just as crucial to the people the library serves.

Throughout the book, Wiegand points to the importance of fiction in the lives of library patrons. In the early 19th century, at the beginning of the public library movement in the United States, librarians were reluctant to stock fiction of any sort, but over time novels have become central to library collections. Popular formats such as comic books, romance fiction, and even series books for children took much longer to be accepted. By providing fiction, Wiegand argues, libraries connect readers to the "personal histories and emotional roller coasters others experienced." Furthermore, he feels that giving patrons a choice of reading material reinforces the democratic ethos and provides the bedrock of a strong community.

The push and pull of the community and the library over materials is another of Wiegand's major themes. Libraries are often, but not always, more permissive than their communities' majorities. Faced with McCarthyism, some libraries avoided buying certain titles, while other librarians resisted community pressure to shun books seen as linked to communism. Passages even more painful for this reviewer to read include a section on one Southern library refusing to issue cards to African-Americans on a technicality, and another in which a library removed a local gay newspaper after the passage of a local referendum found a vast majority of citizens in favor of banning any materials depicting or advocating homosexual acts. But in general Wiegand sees the value in this interplay, and he feels community standards should outweigh any standards that librarians may set, such as the Library Bill of Rights as championed by the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Along with the information service championed by the profession and the reading loved by the public, Wiegand also tells the story of the library's importance as a gathering place in one example after another. From libraries' beginnings in this country, communities large and small have come together in their local public libraries for lectures, art exhibits, classes, movies, and all manner of programs. The author ably demonstrates that it is this participation in an institution, rather than simply visiting a physical building, that forms the strongest component of people's love for libraries. In my own experience, the heartfelt words of thanks from patrons of all ages for programs at my local library certainly validate Wiegand's findings. (Sept.)

>Eric Norton is head of customer services at the McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

Reviewed on: 08/17/2015
Release date: 10/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 344 pages - 978-0-19-066029-1
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