Book Review: Part of Our Lives
by Wayne A. Wiegand
Oxford University Press, 2015
The world’s foremost authority on the history of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand, has assurances to offer his readers right at the beginning of his utterly wonderful new book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library – foremost being that the library as an institution continues to rank higher than any other public institution in polls taken from one end of the country to the other. The 17, 219 public library facilities in the country, serving 210 million Americans every year, circulating 2.2 billion items (books, tapes, CDs) every year (as of 2012, and the numbers just keep going up) – all for roughly $42 per person per year – continues to stand in the public mind as one of the very rare public institutions that’s a more or less unalloyed public good. Wiegand doesn’t believe the customary line so many sociologists take when it comes to libraries, that one of their principle worths is as the means for the public to educate itself. Instead, he looks at the all the dozens and dozens of other invaluable roles libraries serve: as community centers, as study halls, as trysting places, as agents of empowerment, and as purveyors of knowledge – however imperfectly, as in many of the priceless anecdotes Wiegand relates:
Sometimes an inability to answer reference questions led to unwanted results. At NYPL’s Cathedral branch, a father of three asked a librarian in 1958 for a book on the “rhythm method of birth control.” The library’s copy was missing, the librarian said; so were other branch copies “Months went by, with the man coming in every so often to ask” about his reserve. One day, however, “he canceled it; his wife was pregnant.”
In fact, although Wiegand is uniformly comprehensive and insightful on all facets of his “people’s history” of the public library (he takes his inspiration for the phrase from Howard Zinn, but unlike A People’s History of the United States, Part of Our Lives manages to trundle along without barking errors of fact and interpretation on every tenth page), he’s clearly enjoying himself most thoroughly when he’s combing through old newspaper letter columns and articles full of contagious stories from the life of the library. He writes of the wide variety of items found in books where they were pressed into service as bookmarks, for instance: locks of hair, dress samples, and even a dried human ear found in a medical book (“probably placed there,” he optimistically adds, “by a medical student”). He explores the bane of librarians, marginalia, noting a story from an 1858 newspaper: “Sometimes a passage of poetry will have ‘How beautiful!’ written in a feminine hand in the margin, or a proposition be flanked by ‘True,’ ‘Right,’ or ‘Doubtful.’” And he never tires of telling stories from the front lines:
Circulation desk encounters continued to provide librarians with humorous experiences. At an NYPL branch in 1903, for example, a small girl handed one librarian a note: “Please give this girl ‘East Lynne.’” “East Lynne isn’t in,” the librarian responded, “won’t anything else do?” The girl took the note, ran outside, and came back minutes later with another that read: “ … or any other sad novel.”
Part of Our Lives will entertain readers this way wherever it’s read, but readers in the United States will likely have additional reactions. It will spark their favorite memories of the public libraries they visited while growing up, and it will turn their thoughts in the direction of their current favorite public library, perhaps to sign up for a class or join a discussion group – or just check out a book. Long-neglected library cards will be dusted off and returned to use as a result of Wiegand’s bracing, funny, thought-provoking book, and that’s a very good thing.