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Reading Places

Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America

Christine Pawley
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Reading Places
    Book Description:

    This book recounts the history of an experimental regional library service in the early 1950s, a story that has implications far beyond the two Wisconsin counties where it took place. Using interviews and library records, Christine Pawley reveals the choices of ordinary individual readers, showing how local cultures of reading interacted with formal institutions to implement an official literacy policy. Central to the experiment were wellstocked bookmobiles that brought books to rural districts and the oneroom schools that dotted the region. Three years after the project began, state officials and local librarians judged it an overwhelming success. Library circulation figures soared to twoandahalf times their previous level. Over 90 percent of gradeschool children in the rural schools used the bookmobile service, and their reading scores improved beyond expectation. Despite these successes, however, local communities displayed deeply divided reactions. Some welcomed the bookmobiles and new library services wholeheartedly, valuing print and reading as essential to the exercise of democracy, and keen to widen educational opportunities for children growing up on hardscrabble farms where books and magazines were rare. Others feared the intrusion of govern ment into their homes and communities, resented the tax increases that library services entailed, and complained about the subversive or immoral nature of some books. Analyzing the history of tensions between various community groups, Pawley delineates the longstanding antagonisms arising from class, gender, and ethnic differences which contributed to a suspicion of official projects to expand education. Relating a seemingly small story of library policy, she teases out the complex interaction of reading, locality, and cultural difference. In so doing, she illuminates broader questions regarding libraries, literacy, and citizenship, reaching back to the nineteenth century and forward to the present day.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-057-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 Literacy: Debates and Dangers
    (pp. 1-32)

    One evening in early November 1952, Jane Livingston, director of the Door-Kewaunee Regional Library, and assistant Andy Kroeger drove the county bookmobile south from Sturgeon Bay to a meeting at a tavern with some furious inhabitants of the township of Montpelier in Wisconsin’s Kewaunee County. “There were people down there having a royal fit,” Livingston later recalled in an interview, “because a library book had some pretty frank language—an adult book.”¹ In Montpelier, anxieties about reading “bad books” was a symptom of a more general community opposition to an experiment in providing public library services in rural Door and...

  6. 2 The Geography of Rural Reading
    (pp. 33-66)

    Jane Livingston, Director of the Sturgeon Bay Public Library, moved to Door County in 1945. Born in 1915 and raised on a farm in central Wisconsin, like many other young women of her day Livingston at first planned to become a teacher. This in itself was no easy proposition. During the Depression, “getting an education was a real achievement,” she later recalled. The state teachers college at Stevens Point was just twenty miles from her parents’ farm, and she traveled home every weekend, she said, for her mother to hand her the money that would see her through the next...

  7. 3 Reaching Readers with the Wisconsin Idea
    (pp. 67-111)

    Progressive Era institutions systematically channeled reading materials to particular groups of people. Organizations like schools, libraries, women’s clubs, and extension agencies cooperated to foster literacy and encourage community participation, especially among immigrant and native-born members of the working class. Through programs of library outreach, Americanization, and, later, adult education, these collaborators institutionalized the distribution of print to those they considered in particular need, sometimes drawing on expert advice from the researchers and professionals populating the developing universities. In Wisconsin, the practice of tapping into university expertise on behalf of all the state’s inhabitants became known as the Wisconsin Idea.


  8. 4 Reading—for Whom, and What?
    (pp. 112-152)

    From early in its history, the WFLC had maintained a close relationship both with the Wisconsin Library Association (WLA) and with the Wisconsin Library School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. WFLC founders Lutie Stearns and Frank Avery Hutchins were heavily involved in the establishment of the WLA, and the WFLC Secretary also had the title of Director of the Library School. The close ties generally enjoyed between the professional library community and the WFLC must have helped the Door-Kewaunee Regional Demonstration project get off to a good start. Yet most Commission board members were not themselves librarians.² These...

  9. 5 Children, Teachers, and the Rural School
    (pp. 153-176)

    On a cold winter’s day in the early years of the twentieth century, a hired hand at four-year-old Hazel P.’s southern Door County farm taught the little girl to read. The two sat on the kitchen floor while the young man wrote out the letters of the alphabet, and Hazel repeated them after him. Lacking paper and a pencil, he improvised with a bar of Bon Ami soap and the black surface of the kitchen range.

    To those raised in a culture where paper is a disposable commodity and pens and pencils are readily to hand, it is hard to...

  10. 6 What to Read: Children’s Choices
    (pp. 177-204)

    The Regional Library was refreshing the stagnant pool of print resources on the Door Peninsula in an unprecedented fashion. Suddenly, residents were awash in reading possibilities, as never before. Moving so rapidly from a situation of print scarcity to print abundance raised questions of choice that teachers and children had rarely confronted before. Among the aims of the Demonstration was to bring “good” reading—reading that not only extended their mechanical abilities but also introduced principles of literary taste and the organization of information—to the children of the two counties. To what extent were children free to select books...

  11. 7 Women, Print, and Domesticity
    (pp. 205-234)

    If for Door Peninsula schoolchildren, the bookmobile’s visits generated a party-like atmosphere, their mothers, too, found visiting the library could be the high spot of the week. Not only did it provide them with a constantly changing supply of books and magazines to take home, but it gave them an opportunity to socialize with neighbors as well. A bookmobile stop could last anywhere from a half hour to two hours, and during that time neighbors might greet each other for the first time since the previous library visit. “In the wintertime [it] was nothing for Mrs. Jones to pick up...

  12. 8 Winners and Losers: The Referendum and Its Aftermath
    (pp. 235-258)

    True to its determination to make the project a democratically based joint venture between the state and the local residents, the plan for the Regional Library Demonstration provided for voter feedback in the form of a referendum in the fall of 1952. Voters were asked to consider the question, “Shall Kewaunee [or Door] County continue to participate in the Door-Kewaunee Regional library or some similar library?”¹ Although the results would be nonbinding, county supervisors were widely expected to base their decision about the library’s future on the referendum as a statement of the people’s will. Both before and after the...

  13. 9 Epilogue
    (pp. 259-282)

    With the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952, many conservatives hoped to see Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled back. In fact, Eisenhower largely maintained the status quo with respect to government programs, neither retreating, nor pressing for new initiatives. In the case of libraries, though, he presided over an expansion of government when, in 1956, with passage of the Library Services Act (LSA), federal assistance to libraries at last became a reality. The LSA was designed to improve library access specifically in rural areas. In 1956 the U.S. Office of Education had conducted a study that showed that...

  14. Appendix 1. Wisconsin Free Library Commission Statistics
    (pp. 283-286)
  15. Appendix 2. The D-K Database
    (pp. 287-296)
  16. Index
    (pp. 297-326)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 327-328)