At primary school, I could trace books back through their issue slips - when you're nine, the kids who had moved on to high school become like mythic beings. Taking out a book that they had once read was like a connection to adulthood, a promise that I too would soon don a navy blue uniform and stay on the bus into town after the little kids got off.
Today, I believe most libraries discard borrowers records, as a privacy matter. But one collection of small town American borrowers records - from turn-of-the-19th-century Muncie, Indiana, have been digitised and made available online.
In a terrific article on Slate, John Plotz covers what researchers are digging up from the ledgers:
For example, they discovered that fewer than 38 percent of Muncie patrons were blue-collar, though more than 60 percent of Muncie’s families were blue-collar. They also discovered that blue-collar families were significantly more likely to have multiple library cards than white-collar families. With little spare cash to buy books—and with few forms of affordable daily entertainment—the single book permitted out on each card frequently was not enough for a blue-collar family with several avid readers. Blue-collar borrowers were also more likely to borrow classics, or older books, while white-collar readers gravitated to the latest fashionable books: Felsenstein and Connolly speculate this may reflect the availability of older books in the houses of wealthier patrons.
Plotz's essay is more than just your typical data crunching+insight. It's also the story of how he tries to re-live the reading life of Muncie teenager Louis Bloom, and his searching out of Bloom's descendants. It's a lovely and fascinating article, and perfect for a weekend read.