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

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

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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Esther Bloom, Louis Bloom, Baguio, Philippines, 1935.
Esther Bloom and Louis Bloom, Baguio, Philippines, 1935

Photograph courtesy Bloom family.

Still, I determined to read, or at least to sample, all 291 books Louis Bloom had checked out. Where possible I’d borrow the books themselves from a deep-pocketed library; otherwise, I’d rely on Google Books and other online editions. I’d happily gather what external facts I could about Louis, but fundamentally his booklist would be my passport back in time.

Some of the experiment’s limitations soon became apparent. Though I dutifully read in natural light when I could, and was delighted when a power failure in our neighborhood meant I had to read Elsie Dinsmore for hours by a camping lantern, there never came a moment when I actually felt myself, well, time-traveled. If anything, checking yet again to make sure that I’d gotten the same edition Louis would have been reading, I felt myself turning into a pedantic antiquarian.

As time passed, though, I did feel myself growing strangely attuned to the Muncie library offerings. Passing Alcott Street on the way to work, I immediately started wondering what Louis and 396 other Muncie-ites had liked about Louisa May Alcott’s unbelievably popular Under the Lilacs.


After reading half a dozen of his science books, I decided that Bloom loved to read about how to make things, and about penetrating scientific mysteries. He borrowed a great many books that began with clear accounts of replicable experiments, or “how to” projects: The Young Mechanic , for example, opens:

Of all people in the world who must not be neglected are, first and foremost, “Our Boys” and, of all boys, mechanical boys deserve a very high place in our estimation.

It then goes on to explain, in six beautifully lucid pages, how to make a wooden toolbox using only a knife, gimlet, hammer, square saw, and a few nails.

I started to see differences between books that had previously seemed indistinguishable. In a catalogue, The Wonders of Acoustics (no recorded borrowers except Bloom) and The Wonders of Electricity look very similar. Both are translated from the French, both more than 20 years old when Bloom read them. Still, I was pretty sure that Bloom would have preferred Electricity to Acoustics hands down. Why? Because Wonders of Acoustics fed the reader fabulous tales about talking insects, and made elaborate apologies for every hard cold fact it introduced.  Wonders of Electricity assumed that you wanted to become a master of electrical theory by replicating 18th-century voltaic experiments (“Galvani’s experiment can easily be repeated. Remove all the upper parts of the animal …”).

Still, I had to accept that this database was no time machine. More like a superpowerful telescope—but one that could only ever see a few inches of the moon’s surface (Muncie, 1891-1902); and only ever perceive one incredibly narrow range of light (books checked out from its library). If I really wanted to bring Louis Bloom’s youth to light, I needed a different way in.

Building on information Felsenstein and Connolly supplied, I used and some fortunate Googling to trace Louis Bloom’s life after Muncie. Once I found and established contact with his direct descendants (I’ll spare you my agonies and disappointments), the emails and the facts came fast and furious. I learned that in 1907 Louis completed an engineering degree from the International Correspondence School of Scranton and that by 1910 he had begun a career as a stationary engineer for the U.S. Army, with a final posting in the Philippines from 1933 to 1936. And I learned about his Mississippi-born wife Esther, a self-taught artist who’d been on her way to the Art Institute of Chicago when, in a Little Rock Arkansas boarding house in the summer of 1910, she met Louis.

I learned about Louis’ two deceased sons—Robert (born in 1911, father of Alan, Stuart, and Jonathan) and William (1913; father of William, Steve, Richard, and Joseph) —and all seven grandsons still alive, nearly all engineers, several with children, even grandchildren, of their own. I spoke extensively with Steve, Alan, and Stuart. Although I never learned how tall Louis was, or if he liked sports, or even what foods he liked, I did learn he was a classic Midwestern Republican in politics; that his son Robert (just about the only nonengineering type in the bunch), after casting his first vote for Hoover and ruing it bitterly, turned into a “Roosevelt liberal” and went on to a distinguished career as a professor of history at Gettysburg College. And I learned that Robert always spoke of his father as “a worthy man”; that Esther fell for Louis partly because he always carried a Bible in his pocket. That Robert corresponded with and eventually married a girl whom his parents had first taken a shine to in the Philippines. I heard reminiscences of pitched political arguments between Robert and his conservative uncle Landess Bloom (patron 4,588; 149 loans); and Stuart’s faint memories of Louis' other brother Rudolph Bloom (341 loans).  I was oddly delighted to learn that like a French king, he pronounced his name without a final “s.”