Part of Our Lives by Wiegand is a history book of the American Library System through the eyes of the people that went to the library. Wiegand took accounts that were published in newspapers and elsewhere from all over the country and separated them in their specific eras. The book starts before the founding of America with libraries run by affluent individuals in larger cities that only circulated material to friends, basically. As libraries became more popular they were opened up to more different types of individuals but it took time. One thing that surprised me throughout the book is that not only was the public wanting to restrict those who used the library, but the actual librarians also did as well. As much as we want to believe that librarians are the paragons of acceptance that we kind of see them as today, it was the culture around them that impacted their views, and not vice versa.
Each era throughout the history of the library struggled with the same issues of censorship, not meeting the needs of their public, and exclusiveness. Wiegand makes the argument that libraries are the most successful when they meet the needs of the public, giving in to public demand for materials the public wants. At times the librarians looked down on novels and didn’t meet the need of their community by trying to push “serious books.” Certain authors and types of books were considered lesser literature and libraries just didn’t want to carry those items even though the public wanted them. As soon as libraries started to carry the material the patrons wanted, there was an explosion of library use.
One would think that it would just be the community that wants to censor content in books but the librarians are just as guilty. It was interesting how libraries used to keep certain books in what they called “the Inferno,” which is basically a backroom with a locked door. Open shelves weren’t always the norm and individuals had to stand in line to request books that might not be shown to the public. It amazed me how many libraries actively got rid of books during times of war that had to do with the opposing country.
Wiegand wants us to understand that it just isn’t all about stats or reports, it is about the lives that the libraries touch. A branch of a library might have the lowest circulation in a city but they are trying to reach a population that needs that cultural center. Libraries are here to celebrate diversity, they aren’t just a cultural meeting place, but a multicultural center for individuals to come into contact with many walks of life in a city. Yes, libraries sometimes have their moments of controversy but that is why they are there. They force community conversation and compromise in a way that no other institution does because it is a public entity. Libraries prosper when they embrace change and die when they don’t. Wiegand makes the argument that even though many people are worried about library funding that there really isn’t a program that generates the value that libraries offer. That for an average of $42 a year in taxes per person, that the library adds so much to our communities, and adds much more value than a dollar sign.
Overall, this wasn’t that bad of a history book. Yes, there are a lot of quotes and statements that Wiegand found of individuals throughout the decades and if that doesn’t seem like something you’d like, I would skip it. This isn’t a rousing read by any stretch of the imagination but it is a solid foundation to hang future knowledge of the American Public Library System onto.