Impertinent Questions

Impertinent Questions with Wayne Wiegand

HUMANITIES, Spring 2016, Volume 37, Number 2

Wayne Wiegand describes library paste—you remember the smell or taste from childhood—as an important part of the social glue that holds communities together. The author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press, sees our libraries as much more than repositories of books. Libraries, he shows, are places where immigrants become Americans, communities debate their values, and local people confront national issues. Wiegand, who received an NEH fellowship of $50,400 to work on the book, joins us for this edition of IQ.

Who would you nominate to be the Great American Library Hero—Ben Franklin, the founder of the Library Company of Philadelphia, or George Ticknor, one of the brains behind the Boston Public Library?

For me, it would be between Ticknor and Thomas Fountain Blue. Ticknor championed the circulation of popular fiction, which established a precedent that helped draw millions of users to public libraries. But I’m choosing Blue, the son of slaves who directed the two African-American branches of the Louisville Public Library system in the early 20th century. In a segregated society, Blue turned these branches into community centers by sponsoring all sorts of educational programs that had little to do with circulating books. He was a pioneer in a movement that has made public libraries community anchors.

Why should library lovers be grateful for Boston’s 1852 City Document No. 37?

It outlined the governance structure most public libraries have subsequently adopted, making control of this community institution largely a local matter, and it mandated that the public library be free to all local citizens, that it circulate books for home use, and that it acquire all kinds of reading materials, including popular fiction (the latter has driven circulation rates since day one). Joshua Bates, a British banker considering a loan to Boston, was so impressed by the document that he donated $50,000 to this noble experiment.
Circulating libraries (trashy novels) or subscription libraries (wine was served): Which most influenced modern American public libraries?

I would have to go with circulating libraries. I take issue, however, with “trashy” as a descriptor. I found that the plots in commonplace fiction that libraries circulated mostly had positive influences on readers, including the likes of Ronald Reagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Pete Seeger.
Public libraries have either restricted or outright censored materials. Looking back, which book fights are noteworthy?

During World War I, many librarians pulled German-language materials off the shelves or even burned German books in library furnaces. In the McCarthy era, many librarians refused to acquire books being challenged by people worried about Communist influences. More recently, books like Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate have challenged the religious principles of certain groups. Because they are local institutions, public libraries have always been subject to local pressures.

We all know Melvil Dewey’s name because he invented the Dewey Decimal Classification. What else did he do?

Some have described this library pioneer as a “crackpot genius.” He was. Besides the DDC, he started the nation’s first library school, and graduated hundreds of students (primarily women) who subsequently instituted the uniform practices he favored in the Carnegie libraries that were expanding across the country. He also started a supplies company (the Library Bureau) that manufactured library furniture (e.g., the circulation desk) and appliances (e.g., the card catalog) that homogenized users’ library experiences coast to coast. Finally, he published acquisitions guides librarians are still using to select materials for their institutions. His shadow hangs over most of contemporary librarianship.

During the years of Jim Crow and desegregation, some librarians showed great courage. Is there anyone you particularly admire?

The people I most admire are the black kids who risked their lives to challenge Jim Crow in public libraries. Generally, library managers and American Library Association (ALA) officials tiptoed around the issue of race, partly because they knew their influence over local libraries was limited. That said, I much admire E. J. Josey, who fought an ALA bureaucracy that resisted change; Eric Moon, the Library Journal editor who kept the issue in his magazine’s pages; and Clara Stanton Jones, the first black ALA president, who refused to be soured by her own experiences in segregated southern libraries.
My favorite photo in your book shows women WPA workers setting off on horseback to deliver library books into Kentucky’s “hollers.” How were bookmobiles, boat mobiles, and “footmobilers” important?

“We’re rich! We’re rich!” a Kansas woman shouted to her husband in 1960 when a bookmobile pulled into their farmyard. “This bookmobile is a bright spot in our lives,” said a New Mexico forest ranger’s wife that same year. “We live for the time it comes; we need the reading to keep us sane.” This is how patrons of these transient libraries have responded since public libraries began to institute these services in the late 19th century. They are still highly valued.

Funniest questions posed to librarians? I like the request from a young boy at the New York Public Library: “My brother wants ‘The Three Mosquitos,’ by Dummass.”

In 1961, at the New York Public Library’s 96th Street Branch, a patron asked a librarian: “Do you know how to take an enema?” Because he was not satisfied with his pharmacist’s instructions, “he plied me with detailed questions,” the librarian reported, “until there was nothing left to ask.”

Most poignant?

In the 1930s, the Atlanta Public Library’s African-American branch was one of the few places in this segregated city where blacks felt safe and welcome. Ten-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. came to the library several times weekly. “He would walk up to the desk and . . . look me straight in the eye,” Director Annie Watters later recalled. “Hello, Martin Luther,” she responded, always calling him by his first and middle names. “What’s on your mind?” “Oh, nothing, particularly.” For Watters, that was the cue King had learned a “big word.” They would then have a conversation in which King used the word repeatedly. Another game involved poetry. King would stand by the desk, waiting. “What’s on your mind, Martin Luther?” Watters asked. “For I dipped into the future, far as the human eye could see,” he responded. Watters recognized the Tennyson poem, and finished the verse: “Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.” I like this story because it shows the value of public library as place.