April 23, 2018

National Endowment for the Humanities Honors “What Middletown Read”

Muncie Public Library ledger Courtesy of Middletown Reads Project

Muncie Public Library ledger
Courtesy of What Middletown Read Project

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the agency recognized 50 of the top projects it has supported over the course of its history. Included on that list was What Middletown Read, a digital humanities project focused on Muncie, IN, that brought the patron, book, and circulation records of a turn-of-the-20th century public library into the 21st.

Twelve years ago Frank Felsenstein, Reed D. Voran Honors Distinguished Professor in Humanities and Professor of English at Ball State University, wanted to take his book history class to Muncie Public Library to learn about archival research. But the Carnegie Library, home to the local history and genealogy center, was closed for renovations. He asked if the library had any materials he could show his students instead.

Felsenstein remembers being shown boxes of materials that had been stored up in the library’s attic. Library Director Ginny Nilles, on the other hand, recalls that the boxes had been wrapped and stored in a warehouse. But there was no dispute about the value of the boxes’ contents. When Felsenstein opened them, he found books of accession, patron, and circulation records, all written by hand. By his account, Muncie Public Library had saved “the records of library transactions—approximately 175,000 borrowings—covering most of the period from 1891 to 1902.”

This serendipitous find seemed ripe for further exploration. Together with James J. Connolly, the director of the Center for Middletown Studies, and John Straw, assistant dean for digital initiatives and special collections at Ball State University Libraries, Felsenstein developed a project to digitize and catalog the records, create a searchable database, and put these valuable library records into the hands of researchers. The database launched six years later, and Felsenstein and Connolly cowrote a book, titled What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City (Univ. of Massachusetts), published in June of this year.

A Significant Find

In the 1920s, Robert and Helen Lynd conducted a landmark sociological study of Muncie, entitled Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. Today, Felsenstein said, Muncie is considered to be the most studied small city in America. But even for a city like Muncie, these detailed public library circulation records are a rare find. Library historian Wayne Wiegand, an early consultant to the project and the architect of the Main Street Public Library Database, as well as the author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, Oct.), described the records of “who read what when” as “the missing link in American public library history. Because knowing that,” he added, “gets us so much closer to understanding ‘why.’”

To date, the project team has matched about 2,600 patron records to data from the 1900 U.S. Census and Muncie city records, making it possible to explore reading habits across different socioeconomic groups and make connections to people’s lives in and outside the library. Said project co-director Connolly, the database “opened up a whole vein of activity related to print culture that I didn’t envision when I began this project.”

The What Middletown Read database has become a valuable resource for both scholars and the community of Muncie.

“My grandparents and their parents lived in Muncie and their reading history is part of the record documented in What Middletown Read,” said Ginny Nilles, director of the Muncie Public Library. “Indeed, a distant relative, Kate Wilson, was librarian during the time period…. For me personally, a project like this brings the past a little closer. I wonder what my grandmother thought about as she read certain books; books I’ve also read. It provides a perspective on literature…how little of it will stand the test of time. And it helps bring the history of my community alive.”

Imaginative Lives

Connolly describes What Middletown Read as “one of the small number of projects that begins to give us a glimpse of what the imaginative lives of ordinary people are like.” In the book, he and Felsenstein explore the reading culture of Muncie parallel to the city’s rapid growth and industrialization. They examine the community members’ penchant for popular fiction, and explore the aspirations and enthusiasms of individual residents, as revealed by their reading habits.

For instance, Edward Noland, who in 1900 was working as a gravel roofer, checked out Wonders of Electricity and Electricity for Everybody: Its Nature and Uses Explained—and renewed Electricity for Everybody seven times. By the 1910 Census, he listed his occupation as a roofing and heating contractor.

Rosa Burmaster and Maude Smith, friends from high school, were charter members of the Tourist Club of Muncie, which likely met to discuss and share travel writings. Maude borrowed books such as George Edward Raum’s Tour Around the World and Rosa checked out Washington Irving’s El Alhambra.

A Model for Digital Humanities

From day one, the project to digitize the Muncie Public Library’s records was a collaborative effort between Muncie Public Library, the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, and Ball State University Libraries. Project codirector Straw termed the What Middletown Read project “a model for how resources can be built.”

In an email to Library Journal, NEH communications outreach specialist Mackenzie Shutler said the organization selected this project for its 50th Anniversary website because it exemplifies “how archives can stimulate new research” and “brings humanities into the public square.” Twelve years after the initial discovery of the Muncie library records, the original members of the project are still moving forward. Felsenstein is corresponding with scholars who are finding new uses for the Middletown database in their research. Connolly is thinking about ways to visualize and explore the data beyond the database. Muncie Public Library is now digitizing its historic court records. And Ball State University Libraries continue to maintain the database as a scholarly resource and—as codirector Straw says—an “example of how digital scholarship should be done.”

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  1. Jane Gillespie says:

    This is in direct violation of the ALA Code of Ethics. “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”

    • Bill Miller says:

      That was my immediate thought also, but perhaps, because all of the individuals involved are long dead, the right to privacy no longer applies?