Part of our Lives
I imagine you have some mighty fine public library memories. I
certainly do. I remember leafing through books in a sunny albeit old
fashioned (Carnagie style I believe) children's room and standing on
tiptoe to place them on the check out desk. More recently I cherished
the chance to take my own children to pick out books and attend
programs. One of the places that is home in my heart is the Orono
Public Library where I volunteer in the children's wing; take out
stacks of books, many acquired from other libraries through the magic
of interlibrary loan; and attend programs, both adult and juvenile,
including my beloved free writing class. And I know that if you set
me down in just about any library in this country I would be able to
access its treasures easily.
Many of us, however, know pitifully little about the evolution
of the institution we are so enamoured of. We tend to image libraries
within a limited time and place framework. This is really too bad.
American library history is much more exciting and controversy filled
than the novels generations of librarians have snubbed in favor of
more "wholesome" and instructive reading. Fortunately Wayne A.
Wiegand's Part of our Lives: A People's History of the American Public
Library is a wonderful way to correct this deficit.
"...History shows that the reasons Americans have loved their
public libraries fit into three broad categories: for the useful
information they have made accessible; for the public spaces they
provided; and for the power of reading stories they circulated that
helped users make sense of the phenomena in the world around them."
Wiegand chose to analyze libraries from a bottom-up "library in
the life of the user" rather than a top down "user in the life of the
library" perspective. He sought out not the voices of the experts,
but those of a wide range of patrons. In chapters organized around
the challenges faced by patrons and their librarians in different
eras, he portrays libraries as evolving organisms transformed by local
communities and, in turn, transforming their members.
Some of the insights you will glean in the pages of Part of our
Lives may sadden or anger you. Many will leave you with a sense of
pride and optimism. Some will leave you laughing out loud, even if
you are in a (gasp!) library.
*Librarians and their patrons have not always agreed on what
constitutes good reading. The former have exerted a lot of time and
energy in trying to direct the latter from what they considered
frivolous or maybe even dangerous, say romances or children's series,
to what they would consider more wholesome and substantial.
(As a child, I never saw my beloved Nancy Drew on the library
shelves. The keepers of the kingdom evidently shared my English
professor mom's assessment of her series' literary value and fear the
books would warp kids' reading tastes. I purchased every volume from
the local department store. Fast forward to my time between high
school and college when for three years I was a live in mother's
helper in East Boston. And a librarian. The public school my older
charge attended did not have enough money to afford a librarian.
Francine suggested right in that assembly that volunteers keep it open
and offered me. At first with two moms and then on my own I kept open
what for many kids was the only source of reading material. We were
celebs to the parents and kids. When I saw that there were no Nancy
Drews or Hardy Boys I went a circuit of churches, asking congregations
to donate volumes they no longer needed. The kids were thrilled. When
a child returned a volume a pal was nearly always at his/her elbow to
snap it up. Youngsters written off as non readers were enjoying and
discussing these books. Reading Part of our Lives assured me that
they and I were in good company. Sandra Day O'Conner, Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley
Chisolm counted themselves among Nancy's chums.)
*libraries have been called on to be protectors of the right to access
materials not all people are comfortable with. But no one has ever
been able to define censorship. Books that were on open shelves in
some libraries were sequestered in restricted access infernos or
simply not purchased in others. Books that were outright banned back
in the day are sometimes now considered classics.
*Access to libraries has not always been equal to all people.
Segregation in the South with either inferior or simply no branches
for blacks is a classic example. Likewise, often collections have
shown a white, male, middle class, heterosexual bias leaving many
patrons unable to find characters in books who mirror their life
Part of our Lives is a delightful blend of narrative and
background. It also has the great strength of being able to elicit
memories for probably most of us. One of the hallmarks of deeper
reading is that very satisfying integration of text and experience
that enhances the understanding of both.
As I read the book I kept encountering tidbits I just had to jump up
and share with people around me. My favorite was how Melvin Dewey of
Dewey Decimal fame had advanced women's interests over a century ago.
As chief librarian at Columbia College, he designed a formal library
education program. Some people were up in arms when they learned that
he planned to admit women. He was denied use of classrooms. He
admitted the first class, in which women were well represented, to a
storeroom over a chapel. It pleased me no end to be able to inform a
dear friend who teaches women's studies about this.
On a personal note, I had amost amazing weekend! It was my third
Bearfest, the annual dance marathon where UMaine students and I strut
our stuff to raise money for Children's Miracle Network. The dancing
was so much fun. The students were great company. The people running
the show surely fed us well. There's nothing like making your own ice
cream sundae at two in the morning! When it ended at 5:00 a.m. did I
crash? Nope. I walked to church where I attended Sunday school, sang
in choir, and pitched a fund raising idea (to help refugees) at
A great big shout out goes out to my fellow dancers and the folks who
planned the event. You're simply the best!
Julia Emily Hathaway
Sent from my iPod