Muncie, Indiana, has a long history as the quintessential midsize American city. In 1929, Robert and Hellen Merrell Lynd published a study of the cultural trends and social changes in Muncie called Middletown: A Study in American Culture.
Since then, as Frank Felsenstein says, “a steady stream of researchers has come to this modest community in east central Indiana to explore the processes of change and modernization in the United States.”1 Because of the historical significance of Muncie as a site of much research on American life, Felsenstein’s work to recover information about the reading habits of Muncie citizens throughout the 1800s is particularly significant in terms of understanding the reading habits of Americans in general during this time period.
Felsenstein has obtained permission from the Muncie Public Library to transfer the written records of the library from the late 1800s and early 1900s to an electronic format, searchable for those interested in learning more about what people in Muncie read. Thanks to city directories and census reports from the turn-of-the-century, Felsenstein has been able to learn additional information about library patrons listed on written records.
When the database containing all of this information is fully functional, researchers worldwide will be able to obtain statistical information in order to answer questions such as, “What percentage of the borrowers were women readers?” “What were the most popular turn-of-the-century children’s books? “Was Mark Twain or Charles Dickens widely read in the Midwest?” “What local authors were represented in the library?” “Were there minority readers with access to the library?” “What was the social status of Muncie’s readers?”2
Since the What Middletown Read project began in 2003-2004, graduate students and undergraduate students alike have aided Felsenstein in organizing and digitizing the approximately 190,000 transactions that the written records from the early days of the Muncie Public Library document. The project has also prompted Felsenstein to conduct further research on the reading habits of Muncie citizens, gleaning information from newspaper articles from around the turn-of-the-century and from other various public documents.
To learn more about Felsenstein’s Middletown project and research, read his article, “What Middletown Read,” published recently in the Ball State Alumnus.
1 This quote appears in Felsenstein’s chapter in Print Networks, a collection edited by John Hinks and Catherine Armstrong and published by British Library and Oak Knoll Press. (2008)
2 These questions appear in Felsenstein’s article “What Middletown Read,” which appeared in Ball State Alumnus 63.5 (2006): 12-13. A link to this article is provided above.