The bibliography in Common Place is extensive and diverse, ranging from recent publications to some dating from decades ago which were only available in university or state libraries. Most of the cited publications deal with public libraries or the local history of the 16 case study sites. A number, however, cover aspects of civil society, sociology or early and contemporary American values and political perspectives.
I have not annotated the entire bibliography, but rather selected publications I deem of special significance to the story Common Place tells. Some are well known and others are obscure. These annotations, which are focused on parts of the reference highlighted in Common Place are offered below in alphabetical order of the author’s surname.
Carney, Timothy P. – Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse. Carney is a conservative journalist and commentator. His book has been cited as an update of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (see below). Carney posits that many communities have become alienated with residents believing the American Dream is dead. He associates the Dream with a sense of community with vibrant local institutions and civil society organizations. He emphasizes the importance of the church. Carney and other conservatives argue that “centralizing government” is largely to blame, usurping the role of civil society. At least in terms of public libraries, Common Place illustrates this is not the case. The existence of nearly 1,500 non-profit (i.e., civil society) libraries across America has not in any way been diminished by public libraries run by local governments.
Deneen, Patrick J. – Why Liberalism Failed. The author is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. While the book is written from a conservative perspective, it was recommended by then-President Obama as part of his summer reading list. Like many conservatives, Deneen is a fan of Alexis de Tocqueville and served as the Founding Director of the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American democracy. The book focuses on the loss of meaning and community, which Deneen largely attributes to the failure of liberalism which he claims discourages civic commitments. Many others would disagree with this assertion, not least liberals.
Deneen extensively refers to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (see below), including citation of “a beautiful definition of liberty” drawn from a book by Cotton Mather. As Common Place notes, Mather was a key influence on Benjamin Franklin (and his father) – the father of the public library in America. Franklin’s practice of liberty involving the “common good” aligns well with the definition made by Mather and embraced by Deneen. As Common Place illustrates, the establishment of public libraries in America revolved around the idea of citizen association, often for the purpose of advancing the common good
Ditzion, Sidney H. – Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850 to 1900. The author of this book was a history professor at the City College in New York City. The book, published in 1947 by the American Library Association, is not available in any library in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I obtained my copy from a used bookseller; it had been in the collection of a public library located outside Glasgow, Scotland. It appears to have been checked out once. The book is a treasure to both scholars and anyone interested in public libraries and their early history in America. It is a shame it is not more widely available.
The title follows Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s use of the term “Arsenal of Democracy” in a radio broadcast in December 1940 to describe to the American people his administration’s support to the United Kingdom’s fight against Nazi Germany aggression. Ditzion begins the book with quotes from FDR concerning books and libraries, including “Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides our world, and for wo reasons: first, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society; second, …libraries are the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.” The book, more than any other, supports the contention in Common Place that public libraries have reflected and served many American democratic values since their earliest establishment. In a 1948 review in the American Journal of Sociology, the book is credited with noting one reason early libraries were established was to help inform voters. The book also supports the historical fact that America’s public library movement was centered in New England and the Middle States of the East Coast.
Ditzion writes of the importance of what was termed “self-culture,” the “rightful property of the great fraternity of workingmen.” This is another term for self-improvement which later became the primary basis for Andrew Carnegie’s largess when its came to public libraries. Whatever the term used, it underlay a practical value system of a great number of politically enfranchised farmers and workers as well as middle-class merchant-industrialists upon which the economy of New England depended. This group saw the library as a natural adjunct to self-culture as long as the books the institutions contained were “correct.”
The book also covers “the climate of democracy” and in doing so raises the question whether this climate fostered the growth of public libraries or whether libraries fostered democracy. Ditzion is ambiguous on this point while Common Place takes the position that both influences occurred in New England. In any case, democratic values such as equality were associated with public libraries from the start. Another element of democracy, voting, was a primary justification for “correct” books available to the ignorant masses from public libraries. The concern was two-fold: uninformed choices at the ballot box, and manipulation by unsavory politicians. These concerns are reflected today in the issue of “fake news.” This rationale was not confined to the lower classes as state libraries and the Library of Congress were established to support the drafting of good legislation.
While none of the very earliest public libraries were located in cities, the opening of the Boston Public Library in 1852 changed the locus of library establishment from primarily rural to urban areas. This happened for two main reasons. First, the perceived need to help the working masses to self-improve, both to increase their job productivity and to help stabilize society during a period of mass immigration and urbanization. Second, smaller cities competed to attract investment to local businesses and real estate, and the public library was a star “social infrastructure” attraction along with other typical infrastructure such a power and water. Common Place case studies of the public libraries located in Biddeford, Athol, and Norwich reflect the first while those in Holyoke, Turners Falls and Lisbon highlight the second.
Ditzion cites what he terms “cultural democracy” in discussing the relationship between early public libraries and adult education. The lyceum and Chautauqua movement are covered. As for public libraries, the book notes the key role of Melvil Dewey, an Amherst College graduate, who straddled the fields of library services and higher education. He encouraged the development of the country’s first university extension system in New York. Many librarians applauded the idea with one noted in the book believing that “more education was the best assurance of a just, free and democratic commonwealth.” The final section of Common Place discusses the importance of public libraries and adult education today and in the future as America’s population ages and the economy evolves.
The book devotes an entire chapter to the “workingman and the public library.” Ditzion notes that the idea of the library as the “workingman’s university” was widely held, especially in New England where the industrial revolution began in America. The book identifies numerous company libraries developed for the exclusive use of a particular workforce. Some of the public libraries which Andrew Carnegie supported also were generally targeted at workers, not least the first in America outside of Pittsburgh. In a speech he gave in Brooklyn he said, “The free library is the library of the working class…” It should be noted, however, that Carnegie believed in practical, often technical education and not academic fields such as the humanities. Numerous Common Place case studies document public libraries established to benefit workers, including Biddeford, Ashaway, Holyoke, Athol, Turners Falls, Lisbon and Norwich. While supported by industry, all these libraries were open to the general public.
Ditzion concludes the book by summarizing the factors behind the rise of the public library in America, beginning in New England. These included uplift for the disadvantaged,the benefits of learning past that offered by the formal public education system, the value to democracy of a informed populace for wider political participation, the widespread interest in self-advancement and the believe that a more literate population contributes to a stable society.
Isaacson, Walter – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. This biography is possibly the most comprehensive and accessible concerning one of America’s most accomplished citizens. He is best known for his experiments with electricity, inventing the lightening rod, his diplomacy in France and England and work on the U.S. Constitution. Issacson recounts how Franklin developed his love of books and reading, noting “…books were the most important formative influence in his life.” Not only were there private and very early lending libraries in Boston, but his father, Josiah, himself had a modest library which the young Benjamin used. Some fifty years later he recalled certain especially influential titles., including Plutarch’s Lives, Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects and Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good.
However, Franklin was more than a young bookworm or later scholar and intellectual. As the biography details, he was a man of action. The club he formed in Philadelphia, known as the Junto, developed its own library which became the foundation of America’s first subscription library – the Library Company of Philadelphia, incorporated in 1731 when Franklin was just 27 years old. Similar libraries soon appeared in the other colonies. Isaacson notes that near the end of his life Franklin noted the benefits of libraries, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans” and “…made the common tradesman and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.”
Today the Library Company is the oldest cultural institution in the United States. Issacson’s book does not mention Franklin’s late-in-life donation of books to the town of Franklin, MA which subsequently formed the basis of America’s first public library. In my research for Common Place, I found no evidence that establishment of a public library was Franklin’s intention. In any case, this biography supports the contention that Benjamin Franklin is the de facto father of the public library in America.
Klinenburg, Eric – Palaces for People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and Decline of Civic Life. The title of this best selling book refers to public libraries, which are a key example of what the author refers to as “social infrastructure.” He refers to the thinking of de Tocqueville, Putnam and Oldenburg, noting that some commercial establishments can be considered social infrastructure if they serve as “third places.” Common Place contends, however, that “third places” are not only places like cafes and barbershops, but also include some social infrastructure, not least public libraries.
Klinenburg argues the importance of social infrastructure, but focuses his research and writing primarily on urban areas. Common Place, on the other hand, focuses on social infrastructure (i.e., public libraries) in rural areas, towns and small cities where it is arguably more needed consequential, as these types of areas contend most with alienation.
Levin, Yuval – The Fractured Republic. The author is a conservative political analyst, academic and author associated with the American Enterprise Institute and the publication, National Review. The book preceded others with a similar theme, such as by Carney and Deneen (see above). Levin bemoans individualism and argues for the importance of “renewing America’s social contract.” He notes the danger, arising in post WWII America, of large, national institutions, be they governmental or corporate, crushing individual initiative and threatening local communities and civil society.
Like Deneen, Levin cast blame on progressives and what he terms “social democracy.” To remedy the problem, the book recommends the “re-invigoration of the middle layers of society and a resuscitation of our mediating institutions.” While he does not specifically mention them, Common Place notes that such institutions could (should) include public libraries – particularly in the particularly alienated communities which the book by Carney discusses.
Putnam, Robert D. – Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The author is a renowned political scientist and a professor at the Kennedy school of government at Harvard University. The book, published in 2000, followed a 1995 essay by Putnam which appeared in the Journal of Democracy. It addresses a decline in civic engagement and disintegration of civil society social structures such as the church, PTAs and bowling leagues beginning around 1960. One result has been a diminishing of social capital, which is defined as “the network of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Social capital involves shared norms and values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity. In the book, Putnam distinguishes between two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. The first bonds groups of people with similar beliefs and values together and has been associated with anti-democratic movements. The second, on the other hand, bridges between different groups and thus can lead to improved understanding between them.
A central hypothesis contained in Common Place is that there is a correlation between higher levels of social capital and support and use of public libraries. Putnam provides data that a correlation can be found between social capital and happiness (see Figure 88 in his book).
While not addressed in the book, Putnam is the author of an undated paper, “Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences,”available on the internet https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/1825848.pdf where he presents a social capital index. Figure 6 in the paper illustrates social capital levels using the index to map all fifty states. Levels are very high in New England, with Vermont at the top, while in contrast levels are very low in several southern states. The high levels of social capital in several states in the upper mid-west are due to the homogeneous nature of their populations. Putnam wrote the paper, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture which discuss his research. It found immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. Other scholars, reviewing his data, disagree with his conclusions. However, if Putnam’s findings are correct it would help to explain what is shown on the social capital map. As data in Common Place shows, these high and low levels of social capital correlate with library support and use, as do indices of well-being and economic opportunity. Vermont and Louisiana being the most extreme examples in every case.
Putnam’s most recent book (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett), The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it Again, is in a way a sequel to Bowling Alone and examines trends from the Glided Age to the present. The reforms of the Progressive Era, e.g., establishment of many public libraries including those of Carnegie, are highlighted. Common Place questions if America is not now near a tipping point similar to that which saw the transition in eras from the Glided to the Progressive some 125 years ago. Hopefully, this is not just wishful thinking…
Quandt, Jean B. – From the Small Town to the Great Community: The Social Thought of Progressive Intellectuals. I obtained this book, long out of print, from a on-line used book seller (it was discarded by a library). It is about Progressive thinkers and the Progressive era. Some like John Dewey, Robert Park and Jane Addams are well known, while others are not. One of the latter is Mary Parker Follett, a political theorist and civic reformer in Boston. Follett’s conception of “genuine democracy” involved residents of a neighborhood or small community to contribute to the common good through regular interaction and collective efforts. She was aware of the danger of what Putnam (see above) decades later referred to in Bowling Alone as “bonding social capital” and argued for efforts to build “bridging social capital.”
The answer, she thought, were community centers where diverse community resident could interact. It is notable that early public libraries served this function, as Common Place points out. The first public library Andrew Carnegie supported in America (in his hometown) served as much as a community center as library. One of the case study libraries in Common Place, the Munson Memorial, was seen by its benefactor as a community center first-and foremost. Increasingly this role of the public library is being reprised.
Shera, Jesse H. – Foundations of the Public Library: The Origins of the Public Library Movement in New England, 1629-1855. Jesse Shera was a librarian and active member of the American Library Association. He worked for a time at the Library of Congress. This book is unique and valuable as it reaches so far back into the history of public libraries in America, focused on New England. The book is long out of print; my town library found it in the collection at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The earliest non-private libraries were members only social libraries. For example, the book recounts a social library in Salem, MA established in 1760 which evolved from a social club begun in a tavern a decade earlier. This followed the route of Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia begun in 1732 which evolved from the social club he established, the Junto. Social libraries preceded circulating libraries which were available to the general public, but charged fees. Shera notes the former were rather high-brow, while the latter were popular because they contained novels which were becoming increasingly popular to the general, less literate population.
As Common Place notes, the first public library was established in Franklin, MA in 1790. Another case study, in Salisbury, CT, tells the story of the Bingham Library for Youth established in 1803 and supported by local government support. Shera notes this was the first known instance of public support of a library. The Bingham, however, later shut down. The book also discusses the public library in Peterborough, NH established 30 years later, where town residents voted to utilize a state tax they were entitled to in support of their library, which has remained open ever since. It was another 20 years before the Boston Public Library opened. Shera notes that the typical size of collections in the first libraries ranged between several hundred to a few thousand titles. Most collections included the classics, reference books, history and the sciences. Some collections included novels and other popular literature.
Tocqueville, Alexis de – Democracy in America. This book is a classic in political science literature, which was well received when published both in France and the United States. It has stood the test of time. The author and a colleague were sent by the French government to America in 1831 to study the prison system. They took the opportunity over nine months to also study American society. Democracy in America was published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Tocqueville came from an old aristocratic family but politically he was considered a classical liberal. The book itself was seen as liberal in France and the U.S., while in the U.K. both progressives and conservatives saw value in the work. Today, Tocqueville’s insights are often cited by U.S. conservatives.
Tocqueville traced democracy in America back to the Puritans, stating that their beliefs were as much a political theory as a religious doctrine. He also pointed out the nucleus of the Puritan movement in America was in the middle-class with little class distinction and that “the colony came more and more to present the novel phenomenon of a society homogeneous in all its parts.” This equality, he believed, was a central feature of democracy in America. This value is reflected in the development of public libraries, as Ditzion notes at length.
The book devotes a chapter to “townships, municipal administration (and) state government. Toqueville felts towns were the most important, “..the strength of free people resides in the local community.” He extended his praise to local institutions, such as public libraries, noting “Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.” This thinking is what endears Tocqueville to many conservatives today and liberals such as James Fallows, who with his wife Deborah started the non-profit Our Towns Civic Foundation. Public libraries are a particular interest of the Fallows, see https://www.ourtownsfoundation.org/category/local-institutions-2/libraries/.
To explain his thinking, Tocqueville used the example of those in New England, believing they “…form a complete and regular whole; they are ancient; law and even more mores make them strong; and they exercise immense influence over the whole of society.” Oddly, Tocqueville does not discuss the town meeting, the deliberative body which evolved out of Puritan church governance found even today in many New England towns.
Another chapter entitled, “On the Use Which the Americans Make of Associations in Civil Life.” Tocqueville was astonished by the American propensity to form civic associations including to “distribute books.” He contrasts this with France and England where the government would lead any new undertaking. He shared a concern voiced by conservatives today (see Carney and Levin, above), “The morals and intelligence people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations.” While different levels of government have established and maintain social safety nets, private associations continue to thrive.
As Common Place notes, all of the first public libraries in New England were established by citizen associations and many continue to be run by non-governmental organizations – some 14% of the roughly 9,000 public libraries nationwide in the IMLS database, 61% of all public libraries in Maine and over 85% in Pennsylvania are non-profit. IMLS survey data indicates the highest number, around 18%, serve small communities with populations between 2,500 and 10,000 residents. However, 8.6% of the non-profit public libraries serve cities with populations of over 1,000,000.
Wiegand, Wayne A. – Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. Wiegand is Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University and his book is a scholarly tour-de-force. He is considered by some to be the dean of American library history studies. The book contains 10 chapters beginning with a look at social libraries before 1854, continuing with a chapter on the rise of the public library during the period between 1855 and 1876, and concluding with a chapter on information, reading and place: 2001-present (2017).
The book begins with the observation that Americans love their public libraries. The author includes a quote from author E.L. Doctorow, “The three most important a free society gives are a birth certificate, a passport and a library card.” He also notes that a 2013 Pew survey found that every major American institution (including churches) had fallen in public esteem, except for public libraries, the military and first responders. In spite of this, the book notes that it is difficult to prove that public libraries are essential to democracy; the data on this is soft. The book attempts to bolster this data by listening to the voices of library users through a bottom-up “library in the life of the user” approach. The book’s ambitious goal is to assess how the public library contributes to the process of humans developing into a social being.
In the first chapter the books cites Shera repeatedly, but interestingly not Ditzion. Social and circulating libraries are covered, as are lyceums (Massachusetts had nearly 140 in 1839). The former could not often survive without the latter. These all shaped the civic culture during the first half of the 19th century. Franklin’s contributions are highlighted. Wiegand believes the shift in reading associated with the novel’s increased popularity was essential to the boom in public libraries after about 1855. The book also touches on the effect of the Progressive Era, which the San Francisco Chronicle called “the age of the public library.” Between 1876 (when the ALA was established) and 1917, public libraries increased from 1,101 to 2,849 in number. By comparison, today the annual IMLS survey covers roughly 9,000 public library systems across the country.
If this book has a bias, it is a focus on public libraries located in major cities. For example, many pages are devoted to the Boston Public Library, its collection and patrons. Given this focus, many of the past and present library users he highlights were immigrants or members of minority groups. This is of course natural given the emphasis on the social institution’s benefit to the working class. However, in contrast Common Place focuses on public libraries outside major urban areas, including small towns and rural villages (e.g., Guilford, VT, Ashaway, RI and Bridgton, ME). A true “people’s history” would have covered the millions of Americans outside of urban areas who benefit from the country’s public libraries. Many of these may be small but they may well be the only local social infrastructure present and thus all the more important locally.