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

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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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I was thrilled to find Louis and his descendants moving so successfully on out of Indiana, with the same love for mechanics and for scientific principles that had inspired him as a teenager. In all the grandson interviews, I heard different versions of the classic American success story that revolved around two things: a passion for analytical thinking and tinkering and a voracious love of reading. Just as I was finishing this article, Alan and Stu kindly sent this photo.

Louis Bloom, Baguio, Philippines, 1935
Louis Bloom, Baguio, Philippines, 1935

Photograph courtesy Bloom family.

I took in Louis’ earnest stare, rumpled hair and quizzically tilted head, and felt my disappointment about my copycat reading experiment fade a little.

Still, I couldn’t help noticing that none of Louis’ grandsons fell out of a chair in amazement when they learned that they could now track what their grandfather had read. All three interrupted me when I started talking about Horatio Alger, and my efforts to summarize Louis’s beloved science books were met with a polite “Uh-huh” and a change of topic.

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Steve and his wife Kimmy were happy to hear what I had uncovered about Louis and his family. (“Oh, cool” Kimmy said enthusiastically whenever a new biographical fact about the Blooms came up.) But when I asked Steve what it meant to him to know about his granddad’s borrowing records, there was a pause and then he said, politely, “Oh, not that much.” Later on, Steve told me about his own history of binge-reading as a fifth-grader: “Four or five books a week, I guess I cleaned that Base library out.” So I delightedly told him that Louis too, when he got his first card at the age of 13, had taken out six books in his first week, four books in the second and third weeks. “Well, yes,” he allowed slowly “that does seem like it might be a connection.” Connection, I wrote in my notes, and bolded it. But was it?

The book I’m currently trying to write is about the way that ordinary readers—Louis, me, or you—can sometimes feel drawn into a book, so far into it, that it gives us a partial sense of a life elsewhere—until we recall that our hands ache, our eyes are tired, and it’s time to pick up the kids. My working title is Semi-Detached, and that about summed up my feelings by the end of my Bloom experiment. I was partially there with Louis in the Muncie library—but I was also a very, very long way away. I’d gathered and crunched some data, and heard some stories, but …. I was always gaining on Louis, but somehow I was never fast enough to fall into stride with him, to turn sideways and find myself looking him straight in the eye. I was struck by Stuart’s reaction when I asked him what we could deduce from his granddad’s reading. He laughed and said, “You know, I don’t even think the books I read as a kid say much about who I am now. It was all baseball then and I haven’t even seen a game in 20 years. Even as a grown man I changed; I feel like I’m in my fourth lifetime now.”

Stuart’s point about the gap between what you read and who you are got me thinking. Maybe the way Louis receded as I chased after him was not my problem but my answer. In the books Louis checked out he found, as readers everywhere always do, more than just a perfect mirror of his own life (as if “what Middletown read” told us “what Middletown really was”). He also found a way out: a glimpse of the Italy where scientists experimented with frog’s legs, or the state of Mississippi back when killing a slave was a simple property crime. The books he read might even have helped him catch a glimpse of what he wanted his own future to be working in the world of mechanics and of physics, far from Muncie (“Go West, young man”—yes, until you hit the Philippines). Thanks to those books, he too had a telescope. Like mine, it was small and imperfect, with no guarantees about the accuracy of what he glimpsed through it. Still, coming from the sort of Muncie life that he did (his mom had moved them in with in-laws, had even been threatened with having to send the kids off to various relatives) I bet that glimpse at a distant world loomed fairly large for him.

Alan gave me the final clue. All Louis’ grandsons had described to me what it was to be a voracious reader as a teenager: reading rapidly and indiscriminately (Stuart); so absorbed that school bells would ring, the whole class would leave, and you’d still be in your seat with “the teacher laughing her head off” (Alan); or going through an eclectic pile of books fast that “the base librarians quizzed me about them to make sure I’d really read them” (Steve). Alan, though, also told me about going to the Wesleyan college library to research a paper on the Spanish American War and reading the card that listed his book’s previous borrowers: Woodrow Wilson (Wesleyan’s football coach from 1888-90, in case you’re wondering). “That was some feeling.” Maybe Alan was just being polite, but I like to imagine his grandfather Louis too leafing through books in the Muncie library and feeling a thrill at the thought of who’d been there before him. I think of Louis with his back toward me, and his head down in a book, doing his best, just like me, to step a little bit beyond his own time and place. Sometimes, what divides us also connects us.

*Correction Nov. 18, 2011: This article misstated the first name of a library researcher. It is Douglas Galbi, not Chris Galbi. 

*Correction Nov. 23, 2011: The article said Bernadette Lear compiled circulation information from libraries. In fact, she has compiled holdings information.

*Correction, Dec. 2, 2011: This article originally misspelled the name of one of Louis Bloom's younger brothers. It is Landess, not Landis.

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