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.