public libraries

Comparative Popularity of Books in Wisconsin Traveling Libraries Sent to Farmers’ Families

Madison, Wis., April, 1902

The Wisconsin Free Library Commission is constantly receiving inquiries form all parts of the country as to the classes of books that are most popular in the traveling libraries for farmers’ families. It is evident that the circulation of books of one traveling library, on one or two trips, does not furnish a sufficient basis to answer such questions. The tastes of the librarian at a traveling library station, the general intelligence of the readers, their occupations, or the fact that the same books may be found in the school, church or family libraries, may affect the circulation. As an illustration the history of a Stout library in Dunn county may be cited. It was sent at different times to two farming communities where, in each case, it was patronized by about twenty families. In both cases, the patrons were industrious farmers and their families, who spoke and read mainly, or only, English. Both communities had fairly good schools and thoroughly appreciated the libraries. In one community, which we will call Station A, the farmers’ wives had for a number of years maintained a study and reading club which met monthly. At Station B there had been no such local stimulus to serious reading. The circulation at Station A in six months was 266, at Station B it was 210. At Station A Hopkins’ Experimental science was drawn seven times, and Oman’s History of Greece six times. Neither of these was drawn at Station B. Flamingo feather, which is one of the two volumes by Kirk Munroe in the Stout traveling libraries, was drawn seven times at Station A, and thirteen time at Station B. Higginson’s English history for Americans was drawn six times at Station A, and once at Station B. Marion’s faith, by Col. King, was drawn seven times at Station A, and thirteen times at Station B. A copy of Merchant of Venice was drawn six times at Station A and once at Station B. In the use of all the libraries sent to the two stations, so similar in many respects, the same difference in the reading is shown. This difference not only shows  the need of studying the history of a number of traveling libraries to determine what books are most popular among the farmers, but it bears witness in a striking way to the benefit of well conducted study clubs maintained by the mothers in a rural community, and suggests the thought that our strong federations of women’s clubs might well endeavor to found more rural clubs.

In order to get a better basis for a statement of the comparative popularity of books among farmers, the writer has examined the records of circulation in three systems of traveling libraries for farmers which have been maintained for four years or more in Wisconsin.

One system of thirty-seven libraries has been supported by Hon. J. H. Stout, of Menomonie, in Dunn county, since May, 1896. Another of thirty-two libraries has been maintained by Mr. J. D. Witter, of Grand Rapids, in Wood county, since August, 1896. The third is a system of twelve libraries which were purchased in 1898 with a gift of $500 from Mr. Joseph Dessert, of Mosinee, by the Wisconsin Commission, and which has been entirely in its charge. The latter have been sent to farming communities in all parts of Wisconsin. In all these systems the libraries are sent to stations to remain six months, and the Commission aided in establishing all of them.

A number of popular books for children, like Robinson Crusoe, Hans Brinker and Little women were not included in some of these libraries because they are found in nearly all country school libraries.

A compilation of the statistics of circulation of the different systems showed sixty books which had been included in each of the three systems.

The following table shows the trips each of these books made in each system, the number of borrowers in each system, and the average number of times it was drawn. It also shows the total number of trips, the total number of borrowers and the average number of times it was drawn on all the trips. A comparison of the figures will give a very good idea of the classes of books that are most popular in farming communities in northern Wisconsin.

view table

In estimating the usefulness and comparative popularity of these books four facts should be remembered:

1. That the people who manage the traveling libraries try to place them, as a rule, in the communities which have the least educational advantages.

2. That the more popular books are generally read by two or members of a family each time they are drawn.

3. That each library contains quite a proportion of books for students, and that while these are read by fewer people, such people are generally the intellectual leaders, and the books which they read often have much influence in shaping the thought of the neighborhoods where they live.

4. The first of these libraries were purchased early in the year 1896, so that no books of recent publication are included in the tables.

The records of the Joseph Dessert libraries show that in three years the books of the twelve libraries were drawn 8,465 times, an average circulation for each library of 705. It is a conservative estimate to say that each book was read, on an average, twice each time it was drawn, so that the 600 volumes (each library contains 50 volumes), were probably read 16,930 times in the three years.

The Commission keeps an accurate record of the physical condition of these libraries, which shows their condition before and after each trip. Each library, when new, was marked 100. After three years the average was 80; the best used library being marked 92, and the one which had received the hardest usage, 72. The libraries will probably endure from seven to eight years’ service, and many of the books can then be given to small libraries for further service. The Commission takes great pains to teach people to use the books of the traveling libraries carefully, not so much for the sake of saving the books as because the training helps to make people thoughtful in care for all public property and public rights.

When one considers that these libraries cost by $50 each and that they go to isolated communities where the books are not only read, but talked over, again and again, and often change the whole current of the neighborhood thought and talk, it is apparent that few means of education can do so much for better citizenship in proportion to their cost.

The pity of it is that the Commission has not the means to establish more such libraries. The officers of the Commission are anxious to secure the aid of all good citizens in this work.

The Commission is constantly refusing calls for traveling libraries because it has not the means to purchase them. The officers of the Commission have authority form the sate to accept contributions to buy books for such libraries and to arrange and circulate them without further cost to the donors. Six year of practical experience have proved the great vale of this plan of education and that it is simple, economical and effective. Careful philanthropists who have aided in the work unite in declaring that money expended in supporting carefully managed traveling library systems does great good in proportion to the cost. We send this circular as an appeal for aid in our work. Please send copies to your friends or send the Commission the addresses of friends who will be interested.

Further information will be gladly furnished by teh Commission. Small sums will be gratefully received and promptly acknowledged. The officers of the Commission are: James H. Stout, Menomonie, chairman; F. A. Hutchins, Madison, secretary; Miss L. E. Stearns, Milwaukee, organizer; Miss Cornelia Marvin, Madison, instructor; Miss K. I. MacDonald, Madison, assistant secretary.

Can you not help?

Address all inquiries to the

Wisconsin Free Library Commission,

Capitol, Madison, Wis.


An Address given at the District of Columbia Library Association Dinner, Carlton Hotel, Washington D.C., April 1, 1936

It has been a great pleasure to be here this evening and to hear all the things that have been said about libraries in the district and in general, and the librarians, without whom the libraries would be of little use, I am afraid. But as I sat here I fear that I have thought a good deal about the fact that there are so many places in the United States that have no libraries and that have no way of getting books.

What the libraries mean to the nation is fairly obvious to all of us, especially to those who are here this evening. We know that without libraries, without education, which is based largely on libraries, we cannot have an educated people who will carry on successfully our form of government, and it seems to me that what we really are interested in is how we can make this country more conscious of what it has not got, because we do pat ourselves on the back for the things that we have and that we do. I was looking over some maps which were sent to me and I longed to have these maps very much enlarged and put up in many, many places throughout this country, because I do not think that many people know how many states do not spend more than ten cents per capita for library books a year, and how many states have large areas, particularly rural areas, where one cannot get books.

One of the things that I have been particularly grateful for in the years of the depression–and, of course, I think, sad as it has been, we have some things to be grateful for–is that we have discovered so many things that we had not known before. These facts have come to the knowledge of a great many people who had simply passed them by before, because they did not happen to think about them, and one of these things, that we used to be able to hide, is the areas of the country which are not served in any way by libraries. I have seen photographs, for instance, of girls going out on horseback with libraries strapped on behind them, taking books to children and grown people in places that have been without libraries. We know a good deal about Mrs. Breckinridge’s nursing service in Kentucky, but we know very little about the libraries that go out in the same way that her nurses do, on horseback.

I have lived a great deal in the country, in a state which prides itself in spending much money on education, and I am quite sure that some people think there is no lack of education and no lack of library facilities, and sometimes I long to take people and let them see some of the back country districts that I know, in New York State. I know one place in the northern part of the state where I camped for a while in the summer, and I went to the school and talked to the teachers. They are using school books which have been passed down from one child to another. They have practically no books outside of the textbooks. The children in the district are so poor and some of them so pathetic that I suppose the struggle to live has been so great you could not think much about what you fed the mind, but I came away feeling that right there, in one of the biggest and richest states in the country, we had a big area that needed books and needed libraries to help these schools in the education of the children, and, even more, to help the whole community to learn to live through their minds.

We are doing a tremendous amount through the home economics colleges to help people to learn how to live in their homes, to better their standards of material living. We have got to think in exactly the same way about helping them to live mentally and to attain better standards, and we can do it only through the children. We can do ground work with the children; we must begin with them; but we have got to do a tremendous amount with the older people.

I had a letter the other day which was pathetic. It was from a man who said he was 74 years old. He wrote to ask me to see that the adult education classes in that particular community were not stopped, because it had meant so much to him to learn to read. He did not think that I could understand what it meant never to have been able to understand a word on the printed page. He said, “I am not the only one. My next door neighbor is 81 and he learned to read last winter, and it has just made life over for us.” It gave you the feeling that there is a good deal of education that is not being done in this country, in spite of all that is done.

We have come a long way. We have done a great deal, but we still have a lot that can be done to improve our educational system, and we still have a tremendous amount to do with our libraries. We have got to make our libraries the center of a new life in the mind, because people are hungry to use their minds.

We are facing a great change in civilization, and the responsibility, I think, for what we do with our leisure time is a very great responsibility for all of us who have intellectual interests. Somebody said to me, “I would not be so worried and I would not mind facing the fact that we are working fewer hours, if I only knew what people would do with their free time. I would not know what to do myself if I had only to work six hours a day.”

That is a challenge. We, here in this country, ought to know what to do with our time, if we have it. I do not know whether we are going to have it, but if we are going to have more leisure time, it is the library, and people who live in the libraries and work in libraries, who are going to lead the way, who are going to give other people the curiosity and the vision of useful things, and pleasant things, and amusing things which can be done in those hours in which we may not have to work in the ways in which we have worked before. It is a very great responsibility, but it is also a very great interest.

Now, I think here in the city of Washington, and in nearly all big cities, the problem is a different one from the one I know so well in the country districts. I think that perhaps there are more facilities and, for that reason, there are more stimulating people engaged in solving the different problems that affect education in cities. But there is a great need, a very great need, in rural America. There is a great need for imagination in the ways used to stir the interest of old and young to use what library facilities they have, and to insist that they shall have more and to make them willing to pay for more, because, in the end, they will get something that they want out of it.

The more I have thought about the problem, the more I have felt that we do not use all our opportunities to stimulate an interest in books. Everything today in which people are interested, the radio, the movies–all of these–should, if properly used, stimulate the use of books. For instance, if there is a remarkably good movie, like “The life of Pasteur,” it seems to me that it should be used by people in our rural schools and rural libraries to create an interest in the life of Pasteur, the things that Pasteur did, the people around him, and all the discoveries that have come from that time on. I am sure that if we put our minds on it, there are a great many ways in which we can use the things which are coming constantly into the lives of people throughout the country to stimulate an interest in the oldest and most interesting recreation there is.

But you do have to learn to love books, you do have to learn how to read them, you do have to learn that a book is a companion, and this is done in a great many different ways. I think we can do a great deal by having more copies of the same book, perhaps less expensive books, in the libraries so that we can have a good many people reading the same books and coming together for discussion.

I know, for instance, that even in a small group, like a family, we all want to read one book at the same time, and we all want to tear each other’s hair out when we can’t get a copy. It seems to me that here is something we should be thinking about, to stimulate the reading of books in families and large groups of people. I think the C.C.C. has made me realize this. One boy said to me, “Do you know about that book? I am so glad to be able to talk about it…. You know, it takes such a long time to get a book around.” Now, if there had been a dozen or more copies of that book, the group would have talked about that book and it would have been a valuable contribution. It would have stimulated their intellectual thought.

I feel that the care of libraries and the use of books, and the knowledge of books, is a tremendously vital thing, and that we who deal with books and who love books have a great opportunity to bring about something in this country which is more vital here than anywhere else, because we have the chance to make a democracy that will be a real democracy, that will fulfill the vision that Senator King has just given us. It will take on our part imagination and patience and constant interest in awakening interest in other people. But, if we do, I think we shall find that our love of books will bring us a constantly widening audience and constantly more interesting contacts in whatever part of the country we may go.

From The Chicago Public Library Staff News, v.3:no.3, Nov. 1924

This is addressed to the Juniors–you who come to us in such numbers, usually on temporary appointment until the next Civil Service examination, which you must take and pass before you can begin to be promoted. You come into our staff, mostly, straight from school or college and have never been regularly employed before. Usually you were led to seek employment with us because you thought you would like our kind of work, or because someone else who directed you thought you would like it, and that your tastes and capacities fitted you for it.

We hope you do like it, and find it interesting and congenial. If you do not, you are wasting your time here and we are wasting ours in trying to teach you even the simple duties of the positions to which you are assigned. You are just beginning at the bottom of what really is a very fascinating and somewhat complicated kind of work, and your part of it for the time being is quite apt to appear both simple and mechanical. But you are a part of a big machine which works smoothly only when all of its parts work smoothly together. If your part goes wrong the whole machine may go wrong. If, for example, in charging books, you copy a borrower’s card number incorrectly, say, by writing a 6 where an 8 ought to be, you are charging a book to an entirely different person from the one to whom you gave it at the desk. And if it would become overdue, our notices would be mailed to an innocent party, who would have a right to feel offended and to hold a very low opinion of the Public Library. Your acts or your conduct in general may, thus, become a direct cause for making or marring the reputation of the Library as a public institution.

Truly inspiring. Really makes you want to be a librarian, doesn’t it?

These lucky juniors would likely enter a training program with the public library. Some of the more fortunate ones attended library school, whereas people hired as library clerks had no opportunity for promotion without formal training. Entrance to the public library’s training program required a high school diploma and a passing score on this exam (There are two pages. Click on the image for a pdf):

Chicago Public Library Examination for Entrance to the Training Class

Chicago Public Library Examination for Entrance to the Training Class, June 27, 1925 (click image to see pdf)