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.

Like many kids who grew up poor in the American hinterlands during the 19th century, Louis Bloom left few public traces. Born in Muncie, Ind. in 1879, he was the oldest child of a widowed mother who took in lodgers. City surveys, census forms, and his death certificate reveal that he worked in the town’s glass factories as a young man, and died in San Francisco in 1936 a government engineer. Given the family’s poverty, it is striking that all three Bloom brothers, Louis, Rudolph, and Landess (though not their sister Ella) are recorded as graduates of Muncie High School.* That’s it. No way to tell how tall he was, what sports he played, the foods he liked, or how he dressed.

Louis Bloom, Esther Killingsworth Bloom, 1910.
Louis Bloom and Esther Killingsworth Bloom, 1910

Photograph courtesy Bloom family.

In 2011, though, a few hundred additional facts about the young Louis Bloom entered the public record. We now know, for instance, that on Wednesday Feb. 3, 1892, he ascended to the second floor of the Muncie City Building, turned left at the top of the stairs, entered the city library, signed the ledger kept by librarian Kate Wilson, and checked out The Wonders of Electricity. He came back the next day to return it and take out Frank Before Vicksburg; Friday it was Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick; Saturday The North Pole: And Charlie Wilson’s Adventures in Search of It. Sunday, the library was closed; Monday Feb. 8, 1892 (his 13th birthday) he took out James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer; Wednesday he returned for Ben the Luggage Boy (another Alger); Thursday he picked up Goodell’s The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice; and Friday Henry Mayhew’s (charming) biography of the astronomer Ferguson, The Story of the Peasant-Boy Philosopher. Altogether, 291 books checked out under his own name, plus another 28 in early 1895 under his brother Rudolph’s. The only extant piece of Louis’ handwriting is his name in the patron’s ledger. If library records are usually the night sky of cultural history, a dim backdrop to action elsewhere, Louis’s borrowing history is like a supernova.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to read like the dead. Not just to read dead authors—something a little bit creepier. Yes, I am aware that recapturing the actual experiences of long-ago readers is impossible, like visiting Mars or traveling in time. Still, I can’t help reading inscriptions, plucking out old bookmarks, decoding faded marginalia. I catch myself wondering who was reading this a century ago, and where, and why?

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So when I learned about What Middletown Read, a database that tracks the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902, I had some of the same feelings physicists probably have when new subatomic particles show up in their cloud chambers. Could you see how many times a particular book had been taken out? Could you find out when? And by whom? Yes, yes, and yes. You could also find out who those patrons were: their age, race, gender, occupation (and whether that made them blue or white collar, skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled), and their names and how they signed them.

Library ledgers
Muncie held onto its catalogues, its patron records, and the ledgers that tracked every loan

Photograph courtesy Sara McKinley.

What Middletown Read is based on an incredible trove of unprepossessing ledger books found in an attic during the renovation of Muncie’s 1904 library, and brought to light by Ball State University English Professor Frank Felsenstein. “Middletown,” if you’re wondering, is Muncie’s academic drag-queen name: Ever since the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a pathbreaking pair of books about the city (Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937) the place has been awash in social scientists studying its every move; this database is in fact part of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies.

There have certainly been extensively researched books on single libraries before, but no previous project includes a database that supplies, to ordinary casual Web visitors, this kind of in-depth history about a library’s acquisitions and patrons. It’s the interlinked combination of three different sorts of data—patron records, borrowing records, and library catalogue—that makes this such a revealing cache. As Christine Pawley (author of an illuminating study of 19th-century reading practices in Osage, Iowa) put it when I spoke with her, What Middletown Read is “an absolute goldmine, like nothing else I know.”

(If comparable records ever do crop up in the United States, they’ll likely be from the same time: Bernadette Lear has even compiled a list of 700 libraries that retain some century-old holding information.* Precious little data for libraries from before 1860 exists, and ledgers went out of favor for recording transactions by the 1920s. Moreover, privacy considerations mean that library records from later eras are either discarded right away, or off limits to researchers.)

Wayne Wiegand, professor emeritus of library and information sciences at Florida State, has argued that library use should be understood not as a lonely act but as part of the complex story of the social nature of reading. Sometimes we read what others of our age, gender, and class are reading, sometimes we strike out on our own, but the choices readers make always involve them in a public network, not just a public institution. Louis Bloom was a fabulous autodidact, but also just one of many Gilded Age youth coming of age in a town that the Indiana gas boom was rapidly turning into a small city.