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

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>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC. [ Silence ]>>John Cole: Well, good morning and
welcome to the Library of Congress. I’m John Cole. I’m the Director of the
Library’s Center for the Book, which is the reading and literacy
promotion arm of the library. We are pleased that you can join us for a special presentation
today about a brand-new book. Since we are book and
reading promoters, it gives us special pleasure
to honor the product of some of the research that has
been done around the country. Especially if it’s pertinent to what
we do, which is promoting books, reading, literacy, and libraries. The Center for the Book was
created by Daniel Boorstin when he was librarian in
1977, as a way to reach out to the general public to
promote books and reading. And to encourage the scholarly
study of books and reading. Literacy really wasn’t a hot
topic when we were created. It came along, we of course
added literacy promotion to this, and as a librarian I’ve also as
the founding director managed to get library promotion
into the equation. And we have had a very
fruitful, more than 35 years now of a public-private
partnership that promotes books, reading, literacy, and libraries. We operate largely through a
state center affiliates program. Each state now has a
designated Center for the Book. And it’s important for us to be with
those states at the ground level, especially through our involvement
with the National Book Festival, which was brought to the Library
of Congress by Laura Bush in 2001. And now we’ve just
celebrated the 15th year. But an important part
of that is the Pavilion, the so-called Pavilion
of the States. We’ve now moved off the Mall into
the Washington Convention Center, where we had record crowds
on Labor Day Saturday. But the states are all represented. And it’s the state involvement that helps make the National Book
Festival really truly national. This Books and Beyond
Program today is part of our noontime author series. These programs are all filmed
and are available later on the Library of Congress website. So I do ask you to turn
off all things electronic. We will have a question and
answer session with our author. And also a book signing, which
becomes part of this experience of our promoting books and reading. We have a special guest
today, however, who is going to introduce
our speaker. It’s Dr. William Adams,
who is the tenth Chair of the National Endowment
for the Humanities, which has had a special
role as he will explain in promoting this particular book. And under his leadership has
really moved the Humanities Council into some new, exciting
projects that involve books and reading and the general public. And he will mention a
little bit about those. He’s a former President of
Bucknell and also of Colby College. I also would like to thank the
library associations of Maryland and Virginia, and the
University of Maryland College of Information Studies for their
sponsorship in helping us get out such a wonderful crowd. Wayne is really on a
bit of a tour here. He’ll make appearances at Maryland,
and he is doing a good deal to help libraries through
this promotion of his book, and through — I think you
will find his fascinating view of libraries from the ground up. To introduce him, though,
it’s my pleasure to introduce Dr. William Adams from the National Endowment
for the Humanities. [ Applause ]>>William Adams: Thank you, John. And good afternoon everyone
— I think it’s after noon? Are we almost to afternoon? It’s great to see you. It’s great to be here. I wanted to come over and do this. It’s really just a couple of
blocks away as some of you know. In part because of the long
and deep relationship we’ve had with the Library of Congress, which is currently manifest
in a couple of ways. We are partners with the Library in the grand national
digital newspaper project, which as some of you probably
know is a project we undertook with the Library about ten years ago to digitize every American newspaper
published in the United States between 1830 — I’m looking for Jane
— 1830, 1840 and 1920-something, depending upon where
that march of time is with respect to the public domain. We also are partners with
the Kluge Center here at the Library of Congress. And we are partners in spirit, I
would say, in almost every other way that matters of this great national
institution is of course very close to our mission and our work, which
includes always prominently books and libraries and the public and
information with and for the public. Libraries are a particular
interest of us. As some of you know, we’re about
to celebrate our 50th anniversary. We were founded by the stroke of Lyndon Johnson’s pen
on September 29th, 1965. Created along with the
National Endowment for the Arts by the National Foundation on
the Arts and Humanities Act. Which brought us both into being
twins at birth, separate at birth. But nonetheless creatures
of that extraordinary moment in American history when
so much was going on. I’m sure you’ve been tracking, as
I have, all of the anniversaries that have been announced
in the last year or so. An extraordinarily creative period
for the Congress, for the President. And we are a part of
that wonderful moment. We were founded very much in the
image of the early expression of NSF, the National
Science Foundation. Which was then devoted
principally as we were to research. And research is a wonderful thing. And we are still deeply
committed to research, it is one of our six major
grant-making programs. But since then, I’m very proud
that the agency has evolved into a much more ambitious,
robust public-facing agency. And one of the expressions of that,
one of the earliest expressions of that was our commitment
to libraries. And we have since almost the very
beginning been funding libraries all over the United States. Public ones, private
ones, research libraries, municipal libraries,
school libraries. And it has become a huge part
of our public program funding. Many millions of dollars
now over these five decades. And many thousands of grants. I just checked with
Wayne before I came up; it is true to say there
are now 120,000 libraries in the United States. Many of those are school libraries,
but still, that’s a big number. Additionally, in 2012 the American
Library Association reports over 92 million people attended the
nearly four million programs offered by public libraries. Extraordinary scope of the work
of this cultural sector that’s so important to the Endowment,
so important to the country. So it’s with special pleasure that
I introduce Wayne Wiegand today to talk about his wonderful
book, “Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the
American Public Library.” This is also particularly
interesting to us and important to us because we gave
Wayne the fellowship that permitted him
to write this book. And it’s always a great pleasure
for us as we fund fellowships to see a book actually come out
of the recesses of the library, probably, or the study after years
of labor and intensive research. And here we have a wonderful
example of the productivity of NEH’s terrific research program. I’ll read to you just briefly from
the application, which was in 2007. “For generations, American public
libraries have done three things very well — made information
accessible, provided cultural space for the construction of community, and furnished billions
of reading materials. Yet for all those years, people in the library field have
concentrated mostly on the first. I intend to write a
comprehensive history of the American public library
since 1850 that will take a library in the life of the user perspective. The study will harness
numerous humanities scholarship on the public sphere, and
the social nature of reading. To demonstrate multiple roles these
ubiquitous institutions have played and continue to play in
their host communities. And he made good on this
promise and this proposal. So I’m especially delighted to
be here to introduce him today and to say that additionally this
is very near and dear to my heart as an expression of the kind
of leading edge research that the NEH is trying to
advance and encourage now. Which is research that is
accessible to the public and about public dimensions
of our lives. This book fits every particular
of that new emphasis in NEH. So it’s a great honor to
introduce Wayne Wiegand to talk about “Part of our Lives.” Wayne? [ Applause ]>>Wayne Wiegand: Oh, dear. My talk is gone.>>Uh-oh. [Laughter] I’ll tell you
a little story about that later.>>Wayne Wiegand: Of
course I’m going to thank the National
Endowment for the Humanities for the fellowship they
gave me in 2008-2009. It did enable me to
complete this book. But it wasn’t 15 minutes
after I got the notice that I got the NEH fellowship that
I walked into my Dean’s office, Larry Dennis, Florida State
University College of Communication and I said, “Will you match this?” And he said, “Yes, you may
have the entire year off.” So Larry, please stand up. I want to thank you
formally for that. [Applause] And in the
course of my remarks, you’re going to see three trailers from a forthcoming documentary
entitled “Free For All.” That two San Francisco
filmmakers are putting together. It should be ready
by February of 2017. But those trailers and that
documentary have also received funding for the National
Endowment for the Humanities. So I want to thank
the National Endowment for the Humanities for that. I’ve been privileged to serve as historical consultant
for that documentary. And when it comes out, I encourage
all of you not only to see it, but also to encourage
your public libraries and library communities to view it. I have a huge goal here today. To persuade you to broaden your
thinking about libraries in general, and public libraries in particular. I’m motivated in large part
because of conclusions that emerged from research on a book
I’ve recently published, “Part of Our Lives:
A People’s History of the American Public Library.” My goal in that book was to find out historically why people love
these ubiquitous civic institutions. And love them they do. A 2013 report by the Pew
Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project noted that in the previous decade
every other major institution — government, churches,
banks, corporations — had fallen in public esteem. Except libraries, the
military, and first responders. The study also found that
91% of those surveyed over 16 years old said
libraries are “very” or “somewhat” important
to their communities. And 98% identified their
public library experiences as “very” or “mostly” positive. Another Pew study found 94% of parents believe libraries are
important for their children, 84% said because libraries develop
a love of reading and books. In my historical narrative, I
didn’t take the conventional user-in-the-life-of-a-library
approach. Rather, I took a
library-in-the-life-of-the-user perspective. Because I wanted to trace the
history of the public library not so much by analyzing the words
of its founders and managers, but mostly by listening to the
voices of people who used them since the middle of
the 19th Century. Thus, instead of a top-down view, “Part of our Lives” adopts
a bottom-up perspective that features the voices of
generations of public library users. Largely because of recent
technologies, uncovering many of these voices was not difficult. Time consuming, yes. But not difficult. Some are published in
memoirs, autobiographies and biographies of the famous. Some in manuscript collections in public library archives
across the country. The vast majority, however,
are fixed in thousands of U.S. newspapers and
periodicals digitized since the 1990’s into
huge databases. Thank you again, National
Endowment for the Humanities. By using public libraries as a
search term, I found thousands of voices in letters to the
editor, thousands more quoted in stories reporters wrote
about local libraries. And almost all of those
newspapers I read here in the Library of Congress. Some of you watched me
look at those databases. And I would get so excited
I’d have to stand up and walk out of the room just to
walk off some of the energy. That’s why I was moving
around a lot. As I analyzed this
data, I was surprised at how quickly it organized
into three main categories. In no particular order, people
have loved their public libraries for the useful information
they made accessible, for the public spaces they provided,
and for the transformative potential of commonplace stories
they circulated that helped users make
sense of their world. First, a few historical examples
that comfortably fit the category of information as we currently
define it in librarianship. While sitting at a Cincinnati
public library desk in 1867, Thomas Edison would get excused
from duty under the pretense of being too sick to work. And invariably strike a
bee-line for the library, where he’d spend the entire day
and evening reading such works on electricity as were to
be had, a friend recalled. In 1899, Wilbur and Orville Wright
came upon an ornithology book in the Dayton Public Library
that rekindled their interest in human flight, one of
their biographers writes. “By the time I was 12 or
14,” Harry Truman recalled, “I had read every book in the
Independence Public Library, including the encyclopedias. These books had a great
influence on me.” In a Detroit public library
reading room in the 1950’s, a teenaged female pored over
comedians’ printed monologue. She appeared in short
monodramas written by herself without makeup, and
hardly any props. Lily Tomlin’s biographer
later noted, “conjuring up not only
the personality of the characters she portrayed,
but also that of unseen people with whom she was talking.” About the same time in
Hot Springs, Arkansas, 10-year-old William Jefferson
Clinton discovered the Garland County Public Library. “I’d go there for hours,
browsing among the books. Especially those on
Native Americans.” In 1971, 10-year-old Barak Obama
returned to Honolulu from Jakarta. “First place I wanted to be was
a library,” he later recalled. Often he had a specific
information need. “One Saturday with the help of
a raspy-voiced old librarian who appreciated my seriousness,
I found a book on East Africa.” Obama wanted information
about Kenya, birthplace of his father,
a Luo tribe member. The Luo raised cattle and lived in
mud huts and ate cornmeal and yams and something called
millet, the book said. Their traditional costume was a
leather thong across the crotch. Shocked by what he read, Obama
left the book open-faced on a table and walked out without
thanking the librarian. All these people had information
needs an American public library met. And the anecdotes I’ve read nicely
fit the traditional discourse of librarianship that focuses
primarily on information. In many respects, the
professional discourse functions like a big intellectual sandbox. Plenty of room to play with ideas,
but one nonetheless with limits. A social boundary, if you will, in which the profession’s leaders
employ a formal way of thinking to educate and enlighten members
who then implement what they learn. To improve professional service
for the public’s greater benefit. For librarians, that translates into services they
institute and maintain. And collections, spaces, and
resources they make accessible. For most of its history, librarianship’s discourse
has focused on what in the 18th Century was
called useful knowledge. In the 19th and 20th Century
was called “best reading” — that’s a phrase that’s still in the American Library
Association’s official motto. And in the late 20th, has
morphed into information. This focused term gives
particular meaning to the phrase, “access to information” that to
this day dominates the profession’s thinking and automatically
imposes boundaries on its intellectual sandboxes. But the American public library
is a unique civic institution. Because unlike other civic
institutions like courts and schools, people
don’t have to use it. As a result, over the generations
users have heavily influenced the process of shaping library
collections and services. Librarianship’s discourse,
however, does not address in any direct way this
kind of bottom-up pressure. And for me was not
comprehensive enough to explain what I was discovering
about the library as a place. And the transformative power
of stories, users withdrew from libraries over the generations. So to explain my findings,
my challenge became how to expand beyond the
professional discourse, how to see outside the boundaries of librarianship’s
limited sandbox of ideas. How to craft a framework
that accommodated and explained the voices of
library users I was uncovering in my research. To illustrate the importance
of library in place, let me introduce you to Rickie. This is one of the trailers.>>I live in San Francisco, and
I’ve been here for about a decade. And I’m current unemployed
but I do go to school. My apartment is about this big. And I don’t have any
room for a desk. And so I come to the
library to do my homework. But it’s also just a great resource. I like to come to the gallery and
see what shows they have going on. I come to lectures, I come
to see films that they do. Mayoral debates, I’ve been here
for a couple of those as well. I mean, the reason that I’m here is
because I think it’s just important for people to understand. [ Silence ] So when I first moved to San
Francisco, I told you I was broke. And I was literally starving. And I had a place to live,
but the library kept me warm. And it didn’t — I’ll get it
together here in a second — There was a truck that
came outside once a week and we could go and get food there. And like I said, they had computers
so that I could work on my resume and I could apply for jobs. And did I mention that
it was warm here? So it’s been there for
me when I needed it. It’s a valuable resource. And oftentimes I think that people
see the library as some place for kids or some place
for homeless people. And there are just
normal people like me that might need it as a resource. So I’m grateful that it’s here.>>Wayne Wiegand: And
from my narrative, I quote a few more anecdotes. During the summer of 1939 at Atlanta
Public Library’s African-American Branch, one of the few places in
the city where Blacks felt safe and welcomed, 10-year-old
Martin Luther King Jr. came to the library many
times during the week, Director Annie Waters
later recalled. “He would walk up to the desk
and look me straight in the eye.” “Hello, Martin Luther,” she
would respond, always calling him by his first and middle names. “What’s on your mind?” “Oh, nothing particularly.” For Waters, that was a cue that
King had learned a big new word. And then they initiated
a conversation in which King used
the word repeatedly. Another game involved poetry. Again, King would stand
by the desk waiting. “What’s on your mind,
Martin Luther?” Waters would ask. “For I dipped into the future far as the human eye could
see,” he responded. Waters immediately recognized
the poem and finished the verse, “Saw a vision of the world and
all the wonder that would be.” When the Cincinnati Public Library
opened a piano room in 1955, among its first visitors was
12-year-old Jimmy Levine, as he wrote his name in pencil
on the room sign-up sheet. Eight visits later, he changed
his signature to J. Levine. And finally James Levine. When he gave a concert for 150
children in the children’s room in 1957, he’d already performed
as a Cincinnati symphony soloist. Today he’s the New York
Mets’ artistic director. In 1969, the Gary, Indiana Public
Library sponsored a local talent contest at which a group soon to be
known as the Jackson Five competed. Although they didn’t win, little
Michael was an audience favorite. Okay, I’m going to bring it home
to the District of Columbia. In fiscal year 1914-1915, the District of Columbia Public
Library reported auditorium meetings of the Housekeeper’s Alliance
on Parcel Post, attendance 3307. Women’s Single Tax League, six
meetings, average attendance 164. The Washington Readers
Club, 381 attending. Intercollegiate Socialist Society, two meetings, average
attendance 188. German Readers Club, two
meetings, average attendance 312. The Wanderlusters, 413 attended
a lecture on Our Common Birds. And the Washington Theosophical
Federation, 348 attendees. Groups using its study rooms
included the American Racing Pigeon Association, the Capitol
Poultry and Pigeon Association, the National Catholic Women’s
Art Circle, the Painters and Decorators Union, a variety
of suffrage organizations, and three different
chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Ten years later, Chevy
Chase branch of the District of Columbia Public Library. The Woodbine Circle of the Chevy
Chase Methodist-Episcopal Church hosted a fashion review of
the latest women’s wear, from sport costumes and
afternoon dresses to hosiery and lingerie, 225 attended. Readings, chorals, and orchestra
music supplement the review. No report on whether men
were allowed to attend. In World War II at the District
of Columbia Public Library, the Petworth Branch became
a site for Government Girls. These were women who came to D.C.
for wartime work, to gather in front of burning logs in the fireplace
and listening to Victrola concerts. Much of the edge of the loneliness of the first Washington
Sunday afternoon for the Government Girl has
been taken off by attendance at these concerts, and much
pleasure has been afforded her on succeeding Sunday afternoons,
the Washington Post reported. Instead of an austere
resort of the literati, the District of Columbia Public
Library reported in 1842, listen carefully, “The libraries
are now becoming community centers through their use as a meeting
place for air raid workers, Red Cross workers, and
other civil defense workers. In 2005, the Washington Post carried
an article by Eric Wee that focused on the District of Columbia
branch library in one of Washington’s poorest
neighborhoods. In it we reported that “Every Tuesday night a homeless
man named Conrad Cheek entered the library and set up
his chest board on one of the tables in the
children’s room. We immediately noticed the
transformation taking place. No more ignored pleas for this
homeless man, no averted glances. During the next hour, people
will look him in the eye. They’ll listen to his words. In this down-at-the-heels
library, he’s the teacher. Among his students was
9-year-old Ali Osmond [assumed]. As we watched this interaction,
Ali’s mother explained that her son’s confidence had
soared after playing with Conrad. That he was now bragging to
friends about being a chess player. We owe it all to Mr.
Conrad, his mother said. We love him. Inside the library, we reported,
they call him Mr. Conrad.” Notice all these very
meaningful experiences occurred in a place we call library. But to categorize them as
information gathering fails to capture their significance in the
lives of each of these individuals. My analysis of library
as place grows out of a scholarly literature
often labeled “public sphere,” a rich repository of ideas that
can deepen our understanding of the multiple reasons why
people love their public libraries as community places. Now let me turn to the
transformative potential of commonplace stories public
libraries have circulated by the billions for generations.>>My birthday was yesterday,
and I am 95 years old. I started to use the library,
I would consider, well, at 13 years old, you know? I was born in [inaudible] Russia. We left and we started from scratch. And my English was zero. But the area library was
a couple of blocks away. And that’s how it started. That library was everything to me. We couldn’t afford to buy books. Books were always expensive, and
there were so many other needs, it was library, library,
library all the time. And it didn’t cost anything. But the library fills a
certain place in my life to satisfy certain needs. [Inaudible]. And you just can’t live
all the time with bad. You have to balance it. And my balance was mostly
to see something beautiful. And so I would go to the library
and spend a couple of hours. But when I come out on the street,
I’m a completely different person. It gave me such a relief,
as the French would say, [speaking French], you know? [ Silence ]>>Wayne Wiegand: And more
anecdotes from my narrative. In a 2008 interview, 88-year-old
Pete Seeger recalled an early life reading experience. “At age 7, a librarian recommended
me a book about a teenager who runs away from his
stepfather who’s beating him. And is adopted by a middle-aged
Indian whose tribe was massacred and whose wife was sold into
slavery, and is living alone.” That he remembered this
so vividly 80 years after reading it is testimony
to the power of stories. And in Seeger’s case, a New York
Times editor noted upon his recent death, “Fitting for someone who went
on to engage issues of conscience.” In 1984, President Ronald
Reagan wrote the daughter-in-law of Harold Bell Wright, whose
bestselling 1920’s religious novel, “That Printer of Udell’s”
Reagan read as an adolescent in Dixon, Illinois. Wright was no favorite of
contemporary literary critics. H.L. Mencken called him “a liberated
yokel from the cow and hog states.” Another critic was equally harsh. “Harold Bell Wright
supplies more negative data on the literary quality of the taste of the fiction-reading public
than any other author.” No matter to young Reagan, however. Shortly after reading the
book he declared himself saved and was baptized. The novel’s protagonist, Reagan writes daughter-in-law 60
years later, served as a role model that shaped his life ever since. It’s highly likely the copy of “That
Printer of Udell’s” Reagan read came from the Dixon Public Library,
which he visited twice a week in the early 1920’s, mostly
to check out Frank Merriwell and Sherlock Holmes stories, Tarzan
novels, and books by Horatio Alger, Zane Grey, and Mark Twain. Many of which he read on
the library’s front steps. “I’m a sucker for hero
worship,” he later admitted. For Oprah Winfrey,”Reading
commonplace stories was an open door for freedom in my life,
and allowed me to see that there was a world beyond
my grandmother’s front porch in Mississippi. That everybody didn’t
have an outhouse. That everybody wasn’t
surrounded by poverty. That there was a hopeful world out
there, and it could belong to me.” To Winfrey, the stories became “her
comfort, her solace to commune with and learn something about myself. To learn something
about other people. To learn something about the world.” In a small Milwaukee apartment
as a 9-year-old in 1963, she read a public library copy
of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” her first all-night book. The story of Francine Nolan, whose
life was full of humiliation. And whose only friends were in books
lining the public library shelves. “I felt like my life
was hers,” she said. After her father died in 1963, 9-year-old Sonia Sotomayor
buried herself in reading at her Bronx library and
the apartment she shared with her mother and brother. “Nancy Drew had a powerful hold on
my imagination,” she remembered. “Every night when I finished reading
and got into bed and closed my eyes, I would continue the story
with me in Nancy’s shoes. Until I fell asleep.” Her mind, she noted, worked in
ways very similar to Nancy’s. “I was a keen observer and listener. I picked up on clues, I
figured things out logically. And I enjoyed puzzles. I loved the clear, focused feeling
that came when I concentrated on solving a problem, and
everything else faded out.” Her reading that summer,
she admitted, was her solace and only distraction that got
her through this time of trouble. All these anecdotes point to the
power of printed commonplace stories to change people’s lives. But stories reside in
all cultural media. “If you watch television, go to
the movies, read popular magazines and look at advertisements,”
argues Richard Keller Simon, “you’re exposed to many of the
same kinds of stories as someone who studies the great books
of Western civilization. You have simply been encouraged
to look at them differently.” “Stories,” Richard Nash argues, “constitute recipes
for the imagination.” Media scholar Henry Jenkins adds, “Stories are basic to
all human cultures. A primary means by which we
structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences.” Meet Danny.>>One of the things I’d say
the library offered me was that it was a place where I could
actually [inaudible] American pop culture. I grew up in an immigrant
household, so I was — the library for me was always the
place where I could get free media. When I was a teenager,
I was really big into punk rock culture
and the music scene. And I couldn’t afford records, so
I was always going to the library. Whereas my friends were able
to either buy their records with their parents’ money. Or, worse yet, steal it. I’d always go to the
library and check them out. When I was a teenager — I think I
might have been like 15 years old, I had heard about a film
called “A Beautiful Thing.” Which is based on a play. And it’s a gay film. I remember going to the library
and looking up in the catalog and making sure nobody saw me. And I went to the stacks
and found it, I kind of hid it underneath a
stack of books, like sandwiched between a stack of books. And I checked it out. I took this video home, had
to hide it from my parents. And I remember watching this film
and it was so powerful to me. It was a love story between
two young British teenagers. And for me it dropped a
certain anchor down where on an emotional level I didn’t feel
like I was floundering, somehow. So that felt really good. And I remember playing that cassette
tape, that VHS tape over and over and over again late at night
when everyone else was sleeping, I’d sneak out to the living
room and I’d play this video that I had borrowed from the
library, like at least once a night for three weeks in a row. Sometimes repeating certain
scenes over and over again. Just because for me,
they really spoke to me. And then I would renew it. [Laughter].>>Wayne Wiegand: That public
libraries have always played a primary role in making
stories accessible to millions of users is obvious. Ever since the Boston Public
Library opened in 1854, fiction, a particular form of story,
consistently averaged 66 to 75% of public library circulation. By force of demand,
then, every generation of public library users has insisted
on a set of stories acceptable to a majority of community members that contained messages they
wanted to hear, read, and view. The latest public library
circulation statistics I’ll detail in a minute show that they still do. Reading scholars have clearly
demonstrated the capacity of commonplace stories to
stimulate reader imagination, construct community
through shared meaning, and demonstrate moral achievement. In the free-will act of reading,
they note, readers move into and out of the text and thus appropriate
meaning relevant to their own lives. Because readers can control it, the act of reading stories becomes
dependably pleasurable, empowering, intellectually stimulating,
and socially bonding. And it’s in the act of
reading stories that social and cultural acts of
defiance can take place. If cultural authorities
— like H.L. Mencken — lack the power to check
voluntary reading for interpretations
legitimatized by dominant cultures, ordinary readers construct
their own meanings. Sometimes as groups,
sometimes as individuals. Most often, public libraries do a
good job of supplying information and stories, as is
evident from Seeger’s, Reagan’s, and Winfrey’s remarks. Sometimes they don’t, however. Let’s see — In October of 1912, the District of Columbia Public
Library banned Horatio Alger, Oliver Optic, Nenthy and the
Elsie-Pansy [phonetic], Old Sleuth, Nick Carter, College Sports,
Jack Ranger, Boy Hunter, Motor Girl, and Dorothy Dale series. For “tending to institute
false ideas in the minds of growing youth.” The Christian Science
Monitor was confused. “It is impossible to
see where and why and how the censors have
drawn the line,” it argued. But that kind of sentiment
existed well into the 20th Century. Although in 1963 most American
public libraries had Nancy Drew on their shelves, the New
York Public Library did not. Their librarians considered
series fiction trash. Instead, Sonia Sotomayor
got her copies of Nancy Drew from her mother for good behavior. The New York Public
Library did not drop the ban on series fiction until 1976. In 1960, most public libraries
in the south were segregated. This is a photo of two beefy
white policemen carrying a thing African-American teenager out of
the Albany Georgia Public Library in the summer of 1962. She had gone into the library, sat
down, and began reading a book. And she wasn’t welcome there. Pulp paperback titles from the
1950’s and ’60s that many gays and lesbians read voraciously and considered survival literature
were never reviewed in book lists, listed in fiction catalog, or
acquired by public libraries. What public libraries often gave
them instead was misinformation. “Because, she believed,
libraries are the place where we can be most
anonymous and delve deeply into areas we wish to
uncover in secret.” One 15-year-old later recalled, “It
was to the library I turned in 1969 to uncover the meaning
of my lesbianism. And what I found was not
echoic of my experience. Rather, those books
frightened me and convinced me that this was not lesbianism I was
experiencing, but something else.” Let me just — don’t focus on
this now, because I’m going to a different subject, alright? I don’t have a blackout capacity
here that I have on some. Okay, remember back in the
1980’s when many evangelists of information technology predicted
the demise of public libraries by the turn of the century? They were wrong. Dead wrong. In 2012, which is the last year for
which we have national statistics, the United States had more
public libraries than ever — 17,219, including branches
and bookmobiles. And over 3,000 more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants
in the country. While the number of visits
declined slightly in 2012 from 1.52 to 1.5 billion — bear in mind, though the recession forced
libraries to reduce hours by 2%, and more patrons were
downloading library e-books from their home computers, the decade nonetheless
showed a 21% increase. That same year, 93 million Americans
attended a public library program. A one-year increase of 4%, and
an eight-year increase of 38%. Sixty-five million
attendees were children, a nearly 4% increase
from the previous year. And a 24%increase from
the previous decade. In 2012, public libraries circulated
2.2 billion items, including audio and video materials and 3-books,
a 28% increase from 2003. Circulation per capita showed
a ten-year increase of 17%. Public libraries also
provided users with access to 250,000 internet-ready computers, 100% more per capita
than a decade earlier. For generations now, library and
government officials have argued that the public library’s most
important role is to provide access to useful information that
develops intelligent consumers, creative entrepreneurs,
and informed citizens. The kind of information Thomas
Edison pursued in his public library that many argued people can now
retrieve on their computers. At home. Public library
users, however, show a different set of priorities. For them, the tens of thousands
of spaces public libraries provide for many purposes, and the billions of commonplace stories
they circulate in a variety of textual forms, are at
least as important as — perhaps even more important
than — access to information. And for a variety of reasons. In her book, “The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make
Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter,” Susan Pinker harnesses research
in the fast-developing field of social neuroscience
to demonstrate that substantial benefits
accrue to those who experience high levels
of face-to-face contact. Including improved vocabularies,
an increased ability to empathize, a deeper sense of belonging. And perhaps most important,
a longer life span. Neuroscientific research
that focuses specifically on the social nature of
commonplace reading comes to similar conclusions. “Fiction,” notes research
psychologist Keith Oatley, “is a particularly
useful simulation. Because negotiating the social world
effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up
myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations
can help us get to grips with complex scientific
problems, so novels, stories, and dramas can help us understand
the complexities of social life.” As I pondered these conclusions from
the field of social neuroscience, I wondered if the face-to-face
contact American public libraries make possible in so many ways
enables users to live longer, happier, and healthier
lives than non-users. This is a researchable question. And if they do, why? Answering that question
requires librarianship to expand way beyond its traditional
focus on information access in order to explore the community
building and personal benefits that public libraries place in
the sociability that reading, viewing, and listening fosters. For generations now, adolescent
series fiction and adult westerns, romances, horror, and science
fiction novels have driven public library circulation. And they still do. Through commonplace stories
like these that they circulate by the billions, American public
libraries have helped empower, inform, intellectually stimulate, and inspire their readers,
viewers and listeners. Just like they did for
Pete Seeger, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor. Tens of thousands of spaces they
make available to their patrons, they have helped construct
community in multiple positive ways through the billions of face-to-face
encounters they nurture. Just like they did for Martin
Luther King Jr. and Conrad Cheek. In my lifetime of research
into American library history, I’ve read thousands
of statements like, “Public libraries are not just
warehouses of books anymore.” If “Part of Our Lives” accurately
represents public library history, they never were. Yet for effect and contrast,
journalists often parroted and reinforced this myth by
drawing on these stereotypes and on their own limited
public library experiences. If I had a dollar for every time I
came across a statement like this in my research, I’d
probably make more money than the royalties this
book will generate. I’ve also read hundreds of sweeping
predictions concerning the future of these ubiquitous institutions. Of those grounded largely
on a particular definition of useful knowledge in the 18th
and 19th Century, on best reading in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and
on information in the 20th and 21st, of those that ignored the power
of library-supplied stories, millions now read, view, and
listen to daily, and the library as place billions now visit
annually, none proved true. I urge you all to keep that in mind
as you ponder today’s predictions about and plans for
tomorrow’s public library. Access to information,
library as place, and the transformative potential
of reading commonplace stories. I hope conclusions I’ve drawn from my historical
research have persuaded you to broaden your thinking
about libraries in general. And public libraries in particular. The naysayers largely ignorant of this library history
are still with us. It’s all on the internet,
hype many evangelists of information technology. Libraries are dinosaurs, grouse
officials looking to cut budgets. I argue here that to combat
this limited thinking, we have to extend our scope beyond
information access to include, from a user’s perspective, deeper
analysis of the library as place. And here I want to
show you the lobby of the Toledo Lucas County
Public Library the night that a Harry Potter
novel was released. And take a look at the
diversity of that audience. [ Silence ] The complex dynamics that are taking
place in that room are something about which we still know very
little in our library profession. Or this one. That’s my son, Andy, reading
to my grandson, Teague. Unfortunately, I don’t have
a copy of me reading to Andy from 30 or 40 years earlier. But Teague picked that
book out of the library. He is fully capable of reading it. But he wanted his dad
to read it to him. It’s about sports, and it’s
a subject on which they bond. We do not have longitudinal studies
to help us explain the dynamics of that particular act
of reading over time. And what role the public
library has played in whatever benefits
accrue as a result of that. I’m going to leave
that on there for — So I argue here that to
combat this limited thinking, we have to extend our scope beyond
information access to include from a user’s perspective deeper
analysis of library as place. And the role of commonplace stories. By doing so, my historical research
demonstrates we can document hundreds, if not thousands,
more ways these incubators of personal happiness and
informal self-education contribute to the daily lives of our
patrons as individuals and as members of their community. And we can show much more clearly
how they function as active and effective agents in the
construction of that very community. Thank you. [ Applause ] I shall be happy to answer any
and all questions you might have. [ Silence ] Yes?>>When you emphasize that
libraries and librarians really need to do more anecdotal evidence,
Eileen Cooke — you remember Eileen? — as the Washington
ALA Office Director, she always told us anecdotes
for what improves your budget. And I think a lot of librarians
did in fact follow that advice. So it’s not — I guess
I’m arguing with you. It’s not really such
a silly statement.>>Could you repeat the question?>>Wayne Wiegand: I’ll
try, I’ll try. Eileen Cooke, ALA’s Washington
Director, told people, “Use anecdotes in arguing
for better budgets.” And I’m not disputing that. If you look at contemporary calls
for evidence of productivity, the word “outcome” explodes. And the anecdotes don’t necessarily
address how people want the answers to outcome questions framed. I argue that’s a wrong
way of thinking. And in part there are certain things that we can’t attribute
numbers to very easily. Ask me how much I love my son? On a scale of 1 to 10, 1
being lowest, 10 the highest. What do you think I’m going to say? Okay, now the only way I
can describe that love is in metaphors and similes. And, you know, perhaps
a poem you and I share. Which gives me the vocabulary
to express that emotion, okay? And that’s what’s happening
with the reading and with the library as place. We can’t — libraries traditionally
have cited circulation statistics as a measure of their value. Doesn’t go deep enough. So I hope that someone, some folks
develop research methodologies that allow us to do that, to answer
those outcome kinds of questions. Which are very much
framed by social science — statistics and social
science methodologies. I’m not disparaging that, mind you. But honing in just on those,
you lose that and that. So I’m not disagreeing with you. And history, by the way, what is
history other than an accumulation of anecdotes that one human
being assembles into a story. And then tries to persuade others. Which is exactly what
I’ve tried to do here. The difference in that particular
book is that I have been selective in particular kinds of anecdotes. I’ve looked for anecdotes on
libraries’ place, and I’ve looked for anecdotes on commonplace
reading. And that’s the stuff
that came back to me. It just hit me. Yes, sir?>>I was struck by the sign
in front of the library where the young Black woman
was getting escorted out. It said “Carnegie.” Having spent many summers
in Carnegie [inaudible], I was wondering if research showed
anything interesting with regard to external funding other
than just public tax funding, more global money to fund
and operate public libraries? Is there any difference,
from your perspective?>>Wayne Wiegand: No, I — bring
that question back to me again? Because I didn’t quite
catch what you’re asking.>>Apparently Andrew Carnegie
gave away a lot of money to fund public libraries.>>Wayne Wiegand: He gave
money to put buildings up, that was the money he gave. Right, so a community would
apply for a Carnegie grant. His minions would evaluate
population, etcetera. And then he’d give them a
grant to build a library.>>My question is, does that
external stimulus make a difference?>>Wayne Wiegand: Oh,
yeah, now I got you. Okay. Absolutely. Without Andrew Carnegie, we
would not have 17,000 public libraries today. He gave 1600 public
library buildings — in this country, stimulated other
philanthropists to do the same. Enoch Pratt in Baltimore,
for example. And it expanded the
number of public libraries. And then it became — if your community didn’t
have a public library, it was somehow culturally backward. So absolutely, Andrew
Carnegie had a huge influence on the public library movement. But then so did the Great Society
programs have a huge influence on the public library
movement in the 1960’s. Yes, ma’am?>>So as much as I hate to say
this, I think it’s really good that you have Ronald Reagan
as one of your examples. Because he is such
a conservative icon. And when I went through the list
of all the other ones you have, there aren’t that many people who
grew up to be conservatives or, you know, be the poster
boy the way Reagan is. And I’m just wondering if it might
be a good idea to balance that?>>Wayne Wiegand: You’re
asking for balance?>>Yeah.>>Wayne Wiegand: Yeah, and I
could put more conservatives in. Newt Gingrich is a
lover of libraries. And I think while he was
Speaker of the House, was a Friend of the
Library of Congress, right? Yes, sure, I can do that. Only got so much time, though. And there are certain stories
that just tug at my heart. You know, how could I not put the
Martin Luther King story in there?>>Other questions? We have time. Please.>>What did you see
as the difference between archives and libraries? And why perhaps have archives not
had as much of a personal connection with those communities as libraries? Certainly in the last 20
years, archives are trying to expand their reach and
their interest in the public. But it always gives much
different situation.>>Wayne Wiegand: Yes. And I don’t know that I’ve
got a good answer for that. I am a user of archives,
I reek of archives dust. But, you know, I’ll
say that I’m unique. Unique — I mean, how
many people are like me that do archival research? Now, I make a lot of noise. When they tried to deal with the New
York Public Library on 42nd Street in a different way, the people
like me came out of the woodwork and said, you can’t do this. And the voices are powerful
enough to attract media attention. And it backed the library
administration down on New York Public Library. But unless there’s
a compelling reason to command media attention
among archivists, I’m not so sure it’s going to — Boston tries to reduce its
public libraries’ budget. Philadelphia tries to reduce
its public library budget. New York Public Library tried to
reduce its public library budget, and the people come
out of the woodwork. And I would say the reason they come out of the woodwork is exactly
what you see in this picture. They’ve had a set of experiences which they can’t necessarily
articulate. When would you command an
audience like that for archives?>>Do you mean [inaudible]?>>Wayne Wiegand: Absolutely. And for the longest time,
genealogists were disparaged as some kind of a low-class
researcher. Not a good idea. It’s like commonplace reading. Yes, Skip?>>How much of your book is — I see it’s going to be
available on Kindle. But how much of the reference
material is available from the Kindle? Like in other words, you’ve
got obviously thousands of things you’ve researched. I’m wondering just whether
you can go to the Kindle and then get hot links to other –>>Wayne Wiegand: I
think the entire book is on the Kindle edition,
on the e-copy. But it’s pretty cumbersome
to get from text to footnote. And I’d feel sorry for
readers who have to do that. I wanted the footnotes to be
at the bottom of the page. But I was not given that privilege. So the original — when a
historian writes the first draft, it’s what I call “the
mind dump draft.” You’ve spent years
gathering this material. And you sit down in the
quiet of your study. And you process this stuff, and you
select from all this massive amount of information the stuff you
think will fit into a story. That first draft was 500,000 words. That would have been three volumes
over there, had I not been — So I sent it to Oxford
University Press at 240,000 words. They said, well, we
really like this subject. And we like the story, but we want to make it a trade book
rather than an academic book. Which means you’ve got to
pare it to 135,000 words. So I’ve got 365,000 words out there that have never been
used in this story. So there are a lot of anecdotes to
certainly convince me that place and reading is a big deal
in public library history. And it looks to be like
it is a big deal now. so I wish — if you have any
question about anything in that book for which you want a
citation, email me. And I’ll be happy to go to those
500,000 words and find them. [ Applause ]>>John Cole: Let’s
give Wayne a hand. Stay here for a second. Wayne, that was great. I knew it was a wonderful
area that you’ve elected. Not to be your concluding
area of study at all, but the telling of
stories is amazing. And I have one — something to say
about Wayne and all the material that he’s worked on
through the years, and all of the stories he has. This last year, the
Center for the Book decided to host the very first Library of Congress symposium
on romance fiction. And part of the reason was
the lack of our ability to really use romance fiction,
or to draw romance publishers to the National Book Festival. And Wayne, from the very beginning
kept hounding me and others that I was working with —
which was one of our partners, the Romance Society of America
and a couple of others — with stories from the 19th Century
about how romance fiction was such a popular mainstay of
storytelling and of reading. And to this day, Wayne and I
now have a stack of stories that we were not able
to use in the symposium. But we were able to move
romance fiction as a genre into the National Book Festival, where it was extremely
popular and it will stay. So I look forward to using
some of Wayne’s unused stories for a good cause for
many years to come. We’re going to end
with a book signing. And there are books available at
the Library of Congress discount. Wayne will stick around
to sign them. We also have some free giveaways. We put together a new
Library of Congress issue of our magazine called “LCM” just
in time for the book festival. And it’s all about
the joy of reading. And has a good description of
a lot of activities that are in the Center for the Book’s ken. And I also brought out a stack
to give away of a history of the D.C. Public Library
that I write a dozen years ago. And I was glad to see some
of those disappearing now that Wayne has hit the
D.C. Public Library plug. So there will be some of
those that you can take. But you’re going to
have to buy Wayne’s book at the discount to
get his signature. Let’s conclude with another
round of applause for Wayne. [Applause]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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