Saturday, May 14, 2011
What Middletown Read
High on the list policies promoted by the American Library Association (ALA) are those that protect the privacy of library users. Due to the efforts of ALA, most states have enacted laws that provide that privacy. These policies are frowned on by some library history scholars, however, because they prevent research about who used libraries and how they used them. When researchers are able to discover library records which they can use to identify library users and what they read, they are, to put it mildly, ecstatic. Little did the users of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library between November 6, 1891 and November 5, 1894 (with one small gap) realize that one day their reading habits would be made known to the entire world through a project labeled "What Middletown Read". The library records which contained the information were re-discovered in Muncie's City Building in 2003 where they had been moved when the new Carnegie library building (shown on the postcard above) opened in 1904. Through the cooperative efforts of Ball State University and the Muncie Public Library, the handwritten circulation records for the 1891-1894 period have been converted to a searchable digital database. The Ball State University partners include the Center for Middletown Studies and the Ball State University Libraries. Noted library historian Wayne Wiegand wrote this about the database recently: "I'm betting this database will become a major resource for American library history research in the next decade. Because it will draw the attention of book and library historians across the globe who will now be able to study the reading practices of everyday people using one particular (but symbolically very important) American public library in great detail, we will all benefit. Together, we will expand our understanding of the community places of public libraries, which will then help us explain to evangelists of information technology and bureaucratic bean counters why these civic institutions are so essential to their host communities, and so important in the everyday lives of the people who use them." Did I say ecstatic.