The Wondrous Database that Reveals What Books Americans Checked Out of the Library a Century Ago 

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 17 2011 10:32 AM

This Book Is 119 Years Overdue

The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago.

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Felsenstein and his co-director, Ball State history professor James Connolly, have been working extensively with the data about Muncie’s 4,000 borrowers, and generously shared many of their preliminary findings with me for this article. (More of their research can be found here and here. Look for their co-authored book sometime in 2013.) For example, they discovered that fewer than 38 percent of Muncie patrons were blue-collar, though more than 60 percent of Muncie’s families were blue-collar. They also discovered that blue-collar families were significantly more likely to have multiple library cards than white-collar families. With little spare cash to buy books—and with few forms of affordable daily entertainment—the single book permitted out on each card frequently was not enough for a blue-collar family with several avid readers. Blue-collar borrowers were also more likely to borrow classics, or older books, while white-collar readers gravitated to the latest fashionable books: Felsenstein and Connolly speculate this may reflect the availability of older books in the houses of wealthier patrons.

Muncie City Building.
The library was in the rear of the city building

The website’s deliberately open architecture has made it easy for data hounds, scholarly and otherwise, to jump in. Douglas Galbi, for example recently analyzed the median date of publication of the database’s 20 most popular books: 1878. Hence, he pointed out, these books were probably between 13 and 24 years old when read, far older than the average book checked out nowadays.* Galbi also pointed out Middletown readers’ predilection for government publications: The 1892 Report of the tests of metals and other materials for industrial purposes … had 107 recorded borrowers—Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, by contrast, clocked 28.

When I jumped into the numbers game myself, the first thing I noticed was the incredible popularity of fiction in the library. Of the 175,218 transactions (that works out to about 39 per patron over a 10-year period, though there were quite a few wildly voracious patrons who borrowed hundreds of books) 137,188 (78 percent) were works of fiction. Of the 4,008 active patrons, all but 185 had borrowed at least one novel.

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Who were they reading? Herman Melville barely registered (68 loans; the library did not even own Moby-Dick), Charles Dickens (587) and James Fenimore Cooper (691) did surprisingly poorly given their 19th-century reputations. Twain was a solid shower (877). When it came to authors I truly admire, only Louisa May Alcott (2,962) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (1,462) cracked the top 15, which is instead filled out with the syrupy Rosa Carey (1,922) and run-of-the-mill Hardy Boys forerunners like Oliver Optic (5,208) and Charles Fosdick (7,399).

I formulated research questions: Can you make any demographic generalizations about Mark Twain’s readers? Well, none of Muncie’s 15 known African-American patrons (yes, that’s 15, among at least 739 African-American residents—now there’s a research question) ever borrowed a Twain book. Can you make something of the fact that 696 women borrowed at least one of Martha Finley’s highly sentimental and domestic Elsie novels—but so did 544 men (not boys, though: Almost all the male borrowers were born before 1878)? Or the fact that four books of short stories by Henry James were checked out 142 times, but that there is not a single loan of any of his novels? Was it meaningful that the African-American teenager Grant Frazier, himself a boot-black, had checked out five of the most popular Horatio Alger novels, but not the two that are explicitly about the rise of boot-blacks, Tom the Boot-Black; or, the Road to Success and the granddaddy of them all, Ragged Dick, or Street-life in New York with the Boot-Blacks?

That question of what books made the rounds among Muncie teenagers intrigued me. In essence, novels, especially the free novels you picked up in the library, were one of the key “social media” of the age. Just waiting to be told are fascinating stories of change over time, tracked via a single book and its various readers, or a single reader and her various books. For example, you can watch the 8th and 9th graders of Muncie tearing through Charles Fosdick’s Frank series, the Percy Jackson of its day, in the winter of 1892: 21 kids, 54 loans.

William Bloom, Louis Bloom, Robert Bloom, Esther Bloom, 1913.
William Bloom, Louis Bloom, Robert Bloom, and Esther Bloom, 1913

Photograph courtesy Bloom family.

This time machine drew me inexorably back toward Louis Bloom. It charmed me right off the bat, for example, that he only got around to borrowing Uncle Tom’s Cabin (115 borrowers) two weeks after he’d returned Wiliam Goodell’s The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice (5 borrowers). I wondered if, by recreating the borrowing patterns of a single borrower, I could make myself into a proxy for him; make his experience in some small way my own.

This struck everyone I talked to as a highly suspect idea. Frank Felsenstein has tracked quite a few individual Muncie stories (he discovered that Louis Bloom’s brother, Landess Bloom, who read oodles of nautical tales, went on to join the Navy) but he still feels that it would be dangerous to make strong claims about the relationship between library records and lived experience. Not least because books were often borrowed for friends and family, and because even blue-collar kids would very likely have had access, via loans, drugstores, and serialized fiction in newspapers, to plenty of other reading material.

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