University of Wisconsin-Madison
A key problem in studying the history of “ordinary” people’s reading, (people who lived largely anonymous lives and for whom few personal documents survive) is linking real (rather than implied) readers with the actual texts that they read. As the What Middletown Read project demonstrates, some American public library circulation and accessions records offer an opportunity to do just that, especially when connected to manuscript census data. This presentation outlines a similar project carried out in the 1990s, and reflects on interpreting its results. Enlisting demographic categories was a useful strategy, but two more recent approaches recommend focusing more on the organizational context in which the reading occurred, and less on reading as a manifestation of individual choice. The first proposes conceptualizing public libraries as part of the “missing middle” in the history of print culture. The second encourages researchers to see public libraries as large technological systems, part of a national print infrastructure. Both approaches endorse focusing on readers (whether as individuals or groups) in their infrastructural context, and suggest that different kinds of print-centered organizations provided reading experiences that were also different in ways that matter to historians.