About Common Place

In August 2018 I made a resolution to write a book about early public libraries in New England. Little did I know at the time the project would take over four years to see fruition! The preface to Common Place notes what initially piqued my interest and how over time my ideas for the book evolved as a result of my research and later visits to the sixteen case study libraries throughout New England.

Readers may wonder how and why I selected the case study sites. The book goes into this question a bit, but I will explain further here. I knew at the outset that I needed to identify at least two libraries in each of the six states in the New England region. I also decided the case studies would cover libraries in towns and small cities rather libraries in large metropolitan areas. There were two main reasons for this: first, public libraries in smaller locales often play an out-sized role, in some cases being the sole socio-cultural institution and an important “third place;” second, large libraries in major cities have been more extensively covered, including in some books contained in the Common Place bibliography.

A few libraries (Franklin, Salisbury and Peterborough) made the list due to their historic significance. Some were selected because they are located in distressed localities (Norwich, Lisbon, Athol, Turners Falls and Holyoke) and I wanted to explore the book’s thesis of a connection between public libraries and levels of well-being. A few (the two in Maine and two in Vermont) were pretty much selected at random. The library in Lexington was suggested by my advisor as a premier institution with strong leadership serving a large, albeit endowed town. Finally, the library in South Amherst was selected because it is a branch facility (the sole example among the cases), is situated in a well placed location and the neighborhood library right up my street which I use for books and as my election polling place.

Major Themes

Readers will note that “civil society” figures prominently in Common Place. This is because all of the first public libraries were established through civil society – and not local government efforts. This is significant and given the strength of civil society in America, as opposed to Europe, may account for why this social institution was first established here. As the book details, this is inline with the deeds of Benjamin Franklin and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. What many people do not realize is that many public libraries are run today by non-profit civil society groups. As a region, New England has the most of these, but in terms of states Pennsylvania has the highest proportion at over 85 percent of all public libraries there. Perhaps this a partly a legacy of Franklin.

I tried but failed to learn why some libraries are run by civil society and others by various types of local government bodies, or why some states in New England have considerably a higher proportion of non-profit run libraries. In terms of these, New Hampshire borders Maine but only has 3.2 percent vs. Maine’s 61 percent of all public libraries in the state. I found nothing in the literature, my advisor was mystified although she has lived her whole life in New England and knows the public library scene there very well. I asked the State Librarians in Vermont and Connecticut if they had any idea why this was, and neither did. I had hoped that the State Library in Pennsylvania would have an answer for that state but they did not. I need to check with Maine.

It is clear that in states where public libraries developed later, most all were established by local governments. Virtually all of the libraries across America supported by Andrew Carnegie are governmental. I suspect the answer why some states have a high proportion of non-profits lies in some combination of history, tradition, and obscure aspects of state-level legislation. My investigation of Pennsylvania did reveal that the state has many small public libraries in rural areas. As in others states, these were presumably founded by civil society associations and many have remained non-profit run.

This history can be contrasted with France, the other nation born through revolution in the late 1700’s. Unlike America’s, France’s revolution was internal; only the nature of the government changed. In 1794 a decree was issued by the new regime which transformed municipal libraries into public libraries. The book collections had largely been confiscated from elite libraries during the revolution. This was four years after the public library in Franklin was established but the difference is profound. Whereas in America the earliest public libraries were being established by civil society, in France (and Europe writ large) they were established by the government. In Great Britain, for example, only in 1850 was the Public Libraries Act passed by Parliament, and only permitted larger towns to support the establishment of libraries through taxation. The Act was amended in 1866 to also allow smaller localities in rural areas to support public libraries, but many struggled. The role of civil society is what sets America apart in terms of why and how public libraries were established and run even today in many areas.

As a Foreign Service Officer with USAID one of my assignments was to promote democracy and good governance. I did this in Mozambique and Colombia for a total of six years. I was also USAID’s Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Advisor, including the period of 9/11 and its aftermath. Through this work I gained a tremendous appreciation for civil society. Today, as a consultant, I work with these organizations in Niger. My bias at the beginning of the research was that public libraries run by civil society non-profits would be more attuned to the local community and its patrons than government run institutions.

Coincidentally, half of the case studies are non-profit and the remainder run by town or municipal governments. As a result of my research I have to say the jury is still out on whether one form of library governance is better than another. Common Place mentions that of the sixteen public libraries examined in detail, three (none are named) are weak. One is a non-profit, and its problems lie with its founding story and the subsequent history of weak accountability to community residents. I attribute the problems with the two government run libraries to some degree of neglect by the respective towns and weak leadership by library staff and/or the boards.

On the other hand, the several outstanding libraries in the case study sample are run by both non-profits and local governments. A standout among the first group is the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, VT which has the highest patronage on a per capita basis of any public library featured in Common Place. The case study notes how it fought for its independence from local government control. Others notable non-profits are located in Biddeford, Ashaway and Holyoke. Among the local government run libraries, those in Franklin, Peterborough and Lexington all stand out. The library directors are all knowledgeable and committed. The town-led library board and other civil society support groups in Peterborough are unmatched in my sample, and have to be among the most committed anywhere in America.

Another main theme in Common Place is the relationship between public libraries and social well-being. I was led to investigate this after considering Robert Putnam’s seminal work involving social capital, published as a book in Bowling Alone. I noticed the states in New England which had high levels of social capital based on the index Putnam developed also tended to have high levels of public library support and use according to the annual IMLS surveys. If there was a correlation here, perhaps there also would be between public libraries and social well-being. Sure enough, there appears to be, as well as for economic opportunity, per IMLS research, community health (see Section III of the book and Appendix III).

The table in Appendix III illustrates the well-being and economic opportunity correlations, both between high scoring and public library rich states in New England, such as Vermont (especially notable given the very high percentage of rural library systems), and two low scoring states. (Poor West Virginia; Senator Manchin take note!) Ohio is included because it has the highest per capita public library expenditure and library use per capita of any state. However, in Ohio library programs per capita are not high; the state has half the number as Vermont. In any event, the Ohio figures do not illustrate a strong correlation between public library support and use, and well-being, economic opportunity or social capital. This may be explained by the low number of programs per capita, or the high number of persons per public library system.

In its recently published study, the IMLS also examined discrete aspects of social well-being, and community libraries and museums – see (https://www.imls.gov/publications/understanding-social-wellbeing-impacts-nations-libraries-and-museums). The research found the presence and usage of public libraries to be positively associated with multiple dimensions of social well-being, particularly community health and school effectiveness (Horace Mann would not have been surprised at the latter finding). The study also hints that these social institutions serve as “third places,” serving as “…crucial threads in the broader social and institutional fabric of places that promote human flourishing.”

The author spoke with the IMLS researchers and asked why they did not compare library/museum support and use with social capital levels. They replied it was a conscious decision not to do so given the several different index measures of social capital developed since Putnam’s original work (it is a long, political story). The author responded by noting none of these new indices improve upon Putnam’s index, which should have been used by the IMLS.

As Section III of the book notes, correlation does not establish causation. We do not know if high levels of public library support and use lead to better well-being, more economic opportunities and/or higher social capital, or whether the reverse is true. However, The IMLS study results for which they found a positive association hint at some degree of causality in terms of the former. Ideally this will be examined further in the future.

A final major theme covered in Section III of Common Place (pgs. 175-178) is the role of the public library in life-long learning. Public surveys indicate that over 75 percent of adults feel the label of “life-long learner” applies “very well” to them. Nearly 100 percent of those surveyed who had used a public library in the past twelve months felt the label applies at least “pretty well.” Thus, it appears there is a strong correlation between public library use and interest in life-long learning.

Although this may seem obvious, most public libraries do not explicitly address this adult interest. Among the Common Place case studies, the Peterborough, Cary and Scoville public libraries do. In the future, however, more can and should be done. As the commentator Nicholas Kristof recently noted in his NYT column about India’s “Barefoot College,” it’s founder, Bunker Roy, says “The illiterates of the 21st century are not those that cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn and relearn.”

Getting Published

Once I had a draft manuscript in mid-2019 I began submitting it to possible publishers. Common Place is an odd-duck work, part history, part social commentary with a focus on New England but with themes which are national in scope. Many of the roughly two dozen publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Roughly half of these were academic publishing houses affiliated with a university. Those located outside the northeast told me the book was outside their geographic sphere of interest. I had assumed that universities with both a publishing house and a school of library science would likely be interested but this proved not to be the case.

One local academic publisher was quite interested but insisted the book needed to be a “lighter” read, an idea which I declined to go along with. Another did have a library science degree program but it turned out a reviewer (whom I had recommended) had her own public library book oriented to professional librarians coming out and she recommended against acceptance of Common Place. The publisher therefore declined even though the second reviewer recommended acceptance. At the suggestion of my advisor, I submitted the manuscript to the American Library Association but they declined, feeling the book was too oriented towards a general audience.

By mid-2021 I felt I was running out of options, but I learned from another local author about a publisher right here in my own Amherst backyard – Levellers Press. The all-digital, union shop was founded in 2009 by the worker-owners of a commercial services business, Collective Copy. I meet with the Press’s co-founder, Steve Strimer, to discuss my project and learn more about Levellers. From that meeting it was clear there was a solid alignment of interests and values. However, Steve explained that given the small size of the press, they typically publish only two books per year, one in the spring and another in the fall. Two books were already in line, meaning Common Place would not be published until the fall of 2022. No matter, after talking with Steve I knew the book would be in good hands and made it worth the addition 15-month wait for publication.

I used this time to update the case studies with the assistance of the sixteen library directors, as well as utilize most recent well-being and economic opportunity data, discuss the newly completed IMLS study on well-being and museums and libraries, and also prepare an epilogue to the book which covers more recent developments; e.g., the new presidential administration, the pandemic and its effect on public libraries, as well as touch on the emerging controversy over book banning in school and public libraries.

A final note: I had planned to price this book at $18.76, which may seem an odd amount but this is the year in which the American Library Association was established. However, due to the printing costs associated with the numerous color photos in the book, my publisher suggested a somewhat higher price. In any event, after covering the project costs associated with writing Common Place, I plan to contribute a portion of any profit to the Freedom to Read Foundation, an organization founded in 1969 and affiliated with the ALA which promotes freedom of speech and the press. FTRF was just awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Festival’s 2022 Innovator’s Award (see https://www.ftrf.org/default.aspx).

Artisan Bookmarks from Niger

In the “About the Author” section I note my past work involving international development. I still work in this field including in the West African country of Niger – the least developed country on the planet according to the UN. Over 40 percent of households live on less than $2 per day. To make matter worse, a recent story in the Washington Post noted Niger is projected to be afflicted more than any other country in the world by excessive heat due to climate change.

During a recent three month work stay there I came across the handcrafted metal bookmarks pictured above. I brought several back with me for holiday gifts to family and friends. They are both beautiful and functional and come in various styles, four of which are shown. They work with both hard cover and paperback books. One side of the blade that slips inside the book and marks the page is etched with a design and the other side is blank. Here, initials can be monogrammed for a personalized gift. Each comes in a handmade cloth sack. It occurred to me to make these unique objects available to other book lovers. Let me know if you are interested.