FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS. On the first page of Wayne A. Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, a stunning statistic from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Internet and American Life Project: 91 percent of respondents over the age of 16 said that public libraries were “very” or “somewhat” important to their communities; 98 percent identified their public library experience as “very” or “mostly” positive; and 94 percent of parents believed that libraries were important to their children. The report also grouped the library with the military and first responders as the only major institutions not to fall in public esteem over the previous decade. 

It’s worth pausing for a second to ponder this baffling consensus. In the polarized and paranoid America of the 21st century — these days I picture Uncle Sam with one hand on his concealed weapon, his other hand on his wallet — it’s hard to imagine 90 percent of us agreeing on anything, much less coming together to support an open, tax-funded, socialistic institution devoted (at least traditionally) to the distribution of books. 

On the other hand, Pew’s more recent study, 2015’s ominously titled Libraries at the Crossroads, captured a decline in public library usage between 2012 and 2015, from 53 percent to 46 percent reporting that they had visited a library in person during the past year. 

This gap between respect for the public library’s importance and actual library usage strikes a chord with my own experience. I have a stake in all this, I should say. I have been employed by a public library system since 2007 and read much of Wiegand’s book in a Carnegie building in downtown St. Louis, a building that has recently undergone an expensive renovation. The renovation won numerous architectural awards and I’m pretty sure that at least 90 percent of the people who walk through here on guided tours agree that it is a beautiful place. Almost every weekend we see couples getting wedding photos taken on the front steps, and there is even the occasional fashion model striking poses by the LED-lighted shelves that really do make the books sparkle, as the tour guides say. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said that this beautiful building doesn’t sometimes feel cavernous and empty, my fellow employees and I and the few patrons like ghosts lost in the stacks.

If the idea of the public library is somewhat more popular than the library itself at this point, we have a rich tradition of library use to thank, one that is deeply researched and illustrated with great anecdotal liveliness by Wiegand. Part of Our Lives traces the development of the American public library system from two early models in the late 18th century. The first strain was the social library, a club-like guild funded with membership fees and stocked with useful and practical knowledge, mainly pamphlets, for scientists and tradesmen. (Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, which followed this model, went on to become the reference library for the framers of the Constitution.) The circulating library, on the other hand, was the social library’s demotic double, operated out of coffee houses, railroad stations, newsstands. These libraries emerged in the 19th century as a rival to the social library model, charging rental fees for the goods the public actually wanted: the new, morally suspect genre of long-form writing called novels. 

An 1890 satirical “Fiction Song” published in the Library Journal shows the resistance to fiction among the newly legitimized class of librarians:

Here are thousands of books that will do you more good
Than the novels, oh, novels, oh, novels!
You will weaken your brain with such poor mental food
As the novels, oh, novels, oh, novels!
Pray take history, music, or travels or plays,
Biography, poetry, science, essays,
Or anything else that more wisdom displays
Than the novels, oh, novels, oh, novels!

In Wiegand’s telling, the debates over fiction define much of the early history of the public library, and one of the great achievements of this book is to make a real case for popular reading and the profound meaning it has had for people (particularly women, immigrants, and people of color) in the developing American experiment. In this sense the book lives up to its subtitle, “A People’s History,” focusing on the meaning of the public library in the lives of its patrons. While professionals such as Denver library director John Cotton Dana (sounding like an early David Shields in 1906) denounced the “silly, the weak, the sloppy, the wishy-washy novel … the crude hodge-podge of stilted conversation, impossible incident, and moral platitude,” these patrons were checking out fiction in astonishing numbers, and Wiegand builds a convincing argument that popular fiction helped marginalized citizens to construct identity, deal with confining gender roles, and build a sense of empathy and community with others in a rapidly changing world. But for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, library professionals spent a lot of time wringing their hands over the morally damaging effects of wildly popular serial fiction writers such as Oliver Optic and E.D.E.N. Southworth. Optic was the pseudonym of William Taylor Adams, a Massachusetts schoolmaster and congressman whose tales used slang and featured members of the lower classes. Southworth, who began writing fiction to support her family after her husband abandoned them, wrote novels that often (understandably) featured tough heroines in difficult circumstances. But at this remove it’s hard to understand what the library profession found so threatening in these adventure tales. (Given the fact that Southworth’s books seemed to be more widely condemned, I’m guessing that her empowered heroines threatened the male ruling elites and the librarian class that served them.) Even Melville Dewey himself considered fiction “the deadly enemy of mental power,” which is why there is no call number for fiction in the widely used Dewey Decimal Classification, paradoxically making fiction much easier to find for most patrons. 

The golden age of public library construction took place in the early 20th century and was largely funded by Andrew Carnegie, who donated $41 million — close to a billion in today’s dollars — to toconstruct 1,627 buildings across the country. Carnegie (every librarian’s favorite robber baron) was somewhat of an old-school prescriptivist, to judge by the quote mounted in raised letters on the side of the St. Louis Public Library. “I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people,” it reads, “because they only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.” This unproven idea was very seductive to library professionals — a form of self-justification that Wiegand refers to as “the library faith.” Even bad books might keep the lower classes out of the saloons, and bad books might later lead to better ones. Although circulation numbers showed that, by the early 20th century, a large majority of checkouts were fiction, the genre continued to be held in contempt and was considered a lesser form of escape and fantasy reading, one that was holding patrons back from more useful, refined, intellectual pursuits. Wiegand documents a number of schemes to encourage “a better kind of reading,” from expanding checkout limits on nonfiction to simply refusing to order certain titles, almost always fiction and, later, comics.

These internal struggles were accompanied by more public battles around censorship. As Wiegand notes, the American Library Association brought this upon itself when it passed the Library Bill of Rights, an aggressive platform in defense of intellectual freedom, after World War II. (It also functioned as an act of savvy self-promotion because it kept public libraries regularly in the news.) These debates over, say, The Grapes of Wrath can seem quaint in an era where any imaginable depravity is a few clicks away, but the ALA continues to sponsor Banned Books Week every year, which has led to libraries being associated with a dauntless commitment to free speech. However, Wiegand points out that librarians’ handling of provocative material has always been more subtle, a process of compromise with the more conservative elements of the community. For example, the so-called “Inferno” introduced by the Boston Public Library in 1882, and widely adopted elsewhere, was a restricted area of closed stacks that often required a written rationale and a character reference from another community member. (In the 21st century, these debates have mainly migrated to the issue of online access, with most public libraries using a filtering service to avoid rampant porn use, while also allowing patrons to file requests to have a site unblocked if they believe it is being wrongly “censored.”) 

Indeed, public libraries have tended to be cautious institutions. Despite the provocative title of the Los Angeles Public Library’s 1965 exhibit Book Is a Four-Letter Word, Wiegand notes that the titles on display were all safely canonical writers such as Carroll and Twain, while more recent, riskier choices like Tropic of Cancer, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Last Temptation of Christ were kept out of the exhibit and safely deposited in the adults-only Inferno. When restrictions on these titles were later removed, librarians noted that they weren’t checked out nearly as much — a paradox unperceived by generations of would-be censors on the right and left.

More damningly to the ALA, Wiegand points out that the organization never really adopted a policy to deal with the segregation of Southern libraries until the “second Golden Age” of public libraries in the Great Society–era 1960s. Meanwhile, African American communities across the nation were either locked out of their libraries or forced to use substandard and underfunded branches. Libraries in black neighborhoods were often the first to be closed during budget crises, because municipal authorities relied on circulation statistics and weren’t able to quantify the more intangible benefits the library provided, such as a sense of community, a safe place for group gathering, and a stake in the commonwealth. Library collections were also slow to reflect immigrant and minority populations, and it wasn’t until people from these communities became librarians themselves that collections became more inclusive and people of color began seeing more realistic versions of themselves in print. (Even the Dewey Decimal Classification enshrines this Anglo, conservative bias: German Satire and Humor has its own distinct call number, 837, while feminism, racism, and LGBT issues are all crowded into 305, “social groups.”) 

That said, on a day-to-day basis, the public library is about as democratic as any institution out there. It is the place where most children first get their understanding of the public sphere, the idea of belonging to a civic institution, and what responsibility to one’s fellow citizens might mean. As an employee, it means serving whoever comes to your desk, no matter how that person might look, talk, or smell. Philip Roth, who joined a protest against the possible closure of the Newark Public Library in 1969, put it beautifully in a New York Times editorial: what he found most powerful about the library, he said,

was this idea of communal ownership, property held in common for the common good. Why I had to care for the books I borrowed, return them unscarred and on time, was because they weren’t my property alone; they were everybody’s. That idea had as much to do with civilizing me as any idea I was ever to come upon in the books themselves. 

The public library, in its incarnation as a humble neighborhood branch or a grand central library downtown, represents a greater whole, and for the lessons it teaches children about responsibility and sharing and community it probably deserves greater praise than it has received.

Wiegand comes off as a populist and a pluralist in this book, and library lovers will accordingly find a wealth of colorful detail and eccentric bit players. There’s the group of Kansas City Public Library patrons who plot military strategy on a wall map during World War I; a woman in Palm Springs who asks for her funeral to be held at the library, and waits to the last moment to surrender her beloved library card; and farmhands running across fields to greet the Bookmobile. Does Part of Our Lives also have its longueurs? Sure it does. Wiegand’s narrative strategy is to state broad trends and then give examples of how they played out across the country; he might have benefitted, at times, from a less streamlined approach. But whenever I got impatient with Wiegand, I I reminded myself how phenomenally more boring his research material must have been. This guy has not only read John Cotton Dana’s Library Primer and the monthly magazine of the National Organization for Decent Literature, The Priest; he has, by his own reckoning, screened thousands of annual library reports. I learned stuff about my own system. For example, that St. Louis Public Library director Charles Compton was presciently defending stocking comic books in 1940, and that our periodicals room was once fitted with a washstand to which soap was affixed with “strong net,” linen thread, and a chain, which still didn’t prevent the whole damn contraption from sometimes disappearing — some things never change.

Considering its scope and reach, Part of Our Lives is remarkably lively, and Wiegand invests even the really inside-baseball material with human drama and interest. 

And he has emerged from all his grim reading with optimism intact. In a late chapter he neatly compares 1970s information futurists, who glibly predicted that the public library would become obsolete in the digital era, with the early leaders of social libraries, who extolled useful knowledge at the expense of commonplace reading. Both strains of librarianship, he argues, have misunderstood the central mission of the public library and the key reason that people have kept returning to it over the years. Wiegand very sensibly finds that people come to the library to borrow and share the common stories that delight them and help them to understand their places in the world, as well as to foster a sense of community through gatherings, programs, and dialogues.

As much as I agree with Wiegand on these matters, he also sometimes writes from the elevated perspective of a library researcher rather than a grunt in the field. The homeless make cameo appearances in this book, drying their socks on the radiators at Boston Public and “performing their morning ablutions,” causing staff in Chicago to open their windows to the winter cold just to air the place out, but they are presented as a gentle nuisance, not the core clientele they have become for many urban libraries. In the past year, I’ve seen two of our regular patrons arrested for heinous crimes, both probably the result of untreated mental illness. As of this writing, our department’s most loyal patron, a sweet man who used to spend all day at one of our reading tables but did not bathe and was periodically overtaken by real bugs, has not been seen for two weeks; I have to hope that he has been institutionalized somewhere. Again, this is part of the beauty of the library to me, its willingness to accept and shelter all bodies who enter its doors, but I think the library could do more to embrace its status as a social services institution. (There’s also a patron here who pushes all the chairs back in their places in our central reading room — a touching display of respect for one of the few places, I suppose, that respects him.) 

Once, when I told someone at a party what I did for a living, she said, “Oh, so you’re like a human Google?” It touched a nerve. There’s the inevitable fact that the traditional reference librarian has been supplanted by more expedient, if not necessarily deeper or more accurate, technological tools; the patrons with the most interesting questions are generally finding other ways to answer them. On bad days the work can feel awkward and convoluted, not to mention that much of the phone reference work does involve Googling stuff for folks beyond the grid — an elderly cinephile in assisted living, a mentally disabled disaster movie fan from the country, a blind woman obsessed with the Kennedys. These patrons are worthy of our attention, but I’m not sure that, moving forward, they form a solid demographic. Wiegand tells some funny stories about reference librarians dealing with the 1920s crossword puzzle craze, overwhelmed by calls during 1950s quiz shows, and reluctantly settling barroom disputes. It’s consoling to think it was ever thus, but it also doesn’t answer how the public library will fulfill a crucial civic function if demand for traditional reference service and cultural objects — print books, CDs, DVDs — continues to decline. I don’t feel like I have the time for these things that I once did, and I am surrounded by them every day. Some large-scale re-envisioning may be required to keep the institution vital in the long term. 

These tremors of anxiety are probably healthy. I work with a lot of smart people who care deeply about the library and are trying to reinvent it to better reflect our era. We have a recording studio open to the public; we offer a variety of databases, streaming media, and e-books through our website; we blog and engage on social media; and we offer book clubs, writing groups, concerts, and community discussions to entice people away from their screens. Other public libraries have adopted innovations like 3D printers, maker spaces, and tool and seed libraries. Some even lend out humans — like the plot of a new Gene Wolfe science fiction novel called The Borrowed Man.

Over the past few months, we had a Maurice Sendak exhibit up in the library, and the kids came in droves to follow the monster tracks up to a reconstruction of Max’s bedroom. It was something to see all their hands shoot up when the children’s librarian asked how many knew the story. If there’s one lesson in Wiegand’s history, it’s that the American people have grown to love their libraries because they see themselves reflected there. The library is a part of their lives because it has adapted, over time, to what they want and need. And our mission is to stay central and involved, to add new chapters to Wiegand’s rich and multifarious history. It’s a tough task, but the library’s core strengths are pretty resilient ones, and there are plenty of inspiring examples to draw on in this elegant and often beautiful book. Despite all my doubts, I’m a believer, and I relate to that lady who decided to have her funeral here: the public library is the closest thing I have found to a church. 

“Human Google” is probably not the worst phrase for it, in the sense that American public libraries still support the kind of searching that is tangible and collaborative and unfolds in a physical space imbued with communal memory. Millions of us have come through public library doors to find purpose, shelter, story, a sense of belonging, and much, much else. As Part of Our Lives reminds us, this legacy deserves the investment of hard work and imagination that will be required to keep the doors open.

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Eric Lundgren is the author of the novel The Facades, which was named a best book of 2013 by Publishers Weekly and a finalist for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize.