Thursday 24 November 2011

What Middletown Reads

I am curious about the hands that books have travelled through. I am sad we no longer have due dates stamped into library books. I liked knowing that the book I had selected had been a popular as a pretty debutante for the first year after it arrived in the library, but had since then sat for twenty forlorn years in its place on the shelf, waiting for me to claim it.

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.

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