Marvin's Reviews > Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America

Reading Places by Christine Pawley
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Aug 11, 2010

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bookshelves: midwest
Read in August, 2010

This historical monograph, ostensibly a case study of a regional library program, including a bookmobile, in Wisconsin's Door Peninsula in the early 1950s (before the area became widely known as a resort area) is, in some ways a peculiar book. The case study itself takes up relatively little space in the book; instead, every aspect of the case prompts a contextual exposition: analysis of the ethnic makeup of the peninsula's residents yields a history of immigration; there's a history of immigration going back to early America; we learn about Wisconsin Progressivism & the history of Wisconsin's Legislative Reference Library, about women's clubs, the professionalization (& feminization) of libraries, & lots & lots about the history of reading & print culture. That would not seem to be a formula for success, but the author has mastered an impressive range of secondary literature & summarized it in a way that worked well for me. At the heart of the book are questions that were apparently at the heart of the library profession at the time: Who are libraries for (children or adults, women or men) & where should they focus their efforts (collections & programs)? Should collections be built to serve the interests of users or should they reflect elite professionals' notions of what patrons need to become better citizens? Should readers' weakness for fiction be discourage or encouraged as a way to induce them to read "better" material? The Cold War aspect alluded to in the title really gets very little attention. But to the extent that it does, the questions it raises about reading and libraries, like the other questions this book raises, interested me. But then, since, as the author points out, we enjoy reading about ourselves, my interest was no doubt magnified by my fond, vivid memories of bookmobile visits in the late 1950s or early 1960s to my small (pop. 350), rural village in northwestern Ohio. (My mother tells me that she thinks it only came for one summer, though my probably skewed childhood memories make it seem more long-lasting than that.) I often credit the series of Landmark biographies that I checked out from the bookmobile as stimulating my interest in history. And they, no doubt, would have met with the approval of elite professional librarians of the day, though that series is not mentioned in this book (perhaps, since the series seems to have originated in 1950, they were a little too late to be a part of the Door program). Quite apart from my personal interest and the particular Door Peninsula story, I learned a lot about the general history of reading, literacy, and libraries.

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