What Middletown Read

In the late 1800s, thousands of Muncie residents were regular visitors to the community’s public library, borrowing books by such contemporary authors as Mark Twain and Horatio Alger.

More than a century later, Ball State professors Jim Connolly, history, and Frank Felsenstein, English, have reconstructed the reading habits of Muncie after poring over thousands of entries in ledgers discovered in the attic when the Muncie Public Library was being remodeled in 2003.

The two are codirectors of What Middletown Read, a searchable database created from the circulation records carefully transcribed into ledgers between 1891 and 1902.

The system documents every book that every library patron borrowed and was built in cooperation with John Straw, the project’s third codirector and assistant dean for digital initiatives and special collections for University Libraries.

“It was a completely different world—one that focused on the written word,” says Connolly, director of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies. “There was no television, radio, or movies. The library was at the heart of the community along with the local theatre. People were very comfortable reading because they had few other sources of information and entertainment except books and newspapers.”

“It really was like stepping back into the 1890s,” says Felsenstein, the Reed D. Voran honors distinguished professor of humanities. “It was totally fascinating to uncover what the library was offering to its patrons at the time and who borrowed what.”

Diving into the Past

Research found that 4,000 people borrowed books during the 11-year period with 175,218 transaction being recorded. Fiction was the most popular genre at 78 percent.

The research team, which included graduate and undergraduate students, carefully built the system by scanning thousands of fragile pages.

“The handwriting was very difficult to read, but the scans allowed us to make the pages larger so we could decipher letters,” says Connolly.

“The typewriter was fairly common at the time, but the Muncie library didn’t have one until close to the end of the period we researched,” Felsenstein adds. “As with the personal computer a century later, there were people who were resistant to technological change. In fact, it took a new librarian to introduce typing to the building.”

The project is a collaborative effort between the Muncie Public Library, the Center for Middletown Studies, and University Libraries. It is made possible through financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Ball State’s Office of the Provost, College of Sciences and Humanities, Honors College, and Departments of English and History.

Connolly and Felsenstein also are collaborating on a book that will shed light on what local residents were reading decades before Muncie was dubbed Middletown by researchers looking to study the lives of typical Americans in an average community. Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd are credited with coining the term “Middletown,” publishing two groundbreaking books about Muncie in 1929 and 1937.

“Our database and book will be another resource for Muncie as Middletown,” Connolly says. “This pulls us back into the years before technology completely revolutionized Muncie, a time before electricity was put into nearly every home and the automotive industry became the main engine of the community’s growth.”

Media Paying Attention

What Middletown Read was recently featured both in Sunday book review section of The New York Times, and in Slate, the online cultural journal. The database itself may be accessed at www.bsu.edu/libraries/wmr.

More in Making an Impact

“It was a completely different world—one that focused on the written word. There was no television, radio, or movies. The library was at the heart of the community along with the local theatre. People were very comfortable reading because they had no other source than books and newspapers.”

—Jim Connolly, director of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies