In 1929 and again in 1937, sociologists Helen Lynd and Robert Lynd published hugely popular, hugely influential studies of a place they called “Middletown” (it was, in fact, Muncie, Indiana), hoping to capture the essence of modern America. Almost a century later, What Middletown Read went live.
And it is awesome.
Based on circulation records from the Muncie Public Library from November 5, 1891, through December 3, 1902, What Middletown Read is a digital database that lets you search by book, patron demographics (age, race, occupation, birthplace, etc.), and transaction date. Linking library records with census data, What Middletown Read offers a detailed picture of library habits in this famously average American town.
It also offers a chance to do some literary time-traveling. I can’t read a book exactly how a resident of Muncie would have. (I’d probably read it on a Kindle, for one thing.) But with What Middletown Read, I can see what particular patrons, with particular professions, checked out. Searching for Muncie’s “Saloon keepers,” for example, leads me to a man named Harry Hope, who ran the Capitol Saloon on Main Street. Hope joined the library on January 3, 1900, and over the next two months checked out six books. Hope had a taste for adventure, preferring books like Beyond the Lines; or, a Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie and Salt Water; or, The Sea Life and Adventures of Neil D’Arcy, the Midshipman. Here’s the library ledger page from the day Hope checked out Salt Water (you can see Hope halfway down the left column):
Clicking through to the transaction histories for each book, I can then discover that Beyond the Lines was checked out by 40 other patrons and Salt Water by 38. (That puts them far below the most popular book, Louisa May Alcott’s Under the Lilacs, which was checked out 478 times by 397 patrons. But their numbers aren’t too shabby, either.) Thanks to What Middletown Read, I know that Beyond the Lines was checked out by ten-year-old Goldie Hamilton and by George Green, a local doctor. I know that Salt Water was checked out by Fremont Miller, a farmworker, and by Herschel Greer, a weighmaster at a nearby iron mill.
So when I sit down to read Beyond the Lines, I can imagine Harry Hope reading it while waiting for a customer to wander into his bar, or I can imagine Goldie sneaking it instead of doing her math homework. I can, in other words, know not just that people have read this book—something we always know, though usually with much more uncertainty—but that these particular people, in this particular place, checked it out from their local library. And that is pretty amazing.
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