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What Middletown Read

Ball State University's Center for Middletown Studies, in collaboration with University Libraries and the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library (MPL), has produced the What Middletown Read (WMR) database. This digital reproduction of the bulk of the circulation records of the MPL between 1891 and 1902 enables users to explore reading choices and library usage in middle America during that tumultuous period. 

Through a stroke of good fortune, Frank Felsenstein, Reed D. Voran professor of the humanities at Ball State, uncovered a unique cache of surviving library records that document the books each borrower took from the local public library in Muncie—the city featured in the famed "Middletown" sociological studies—for a period of approximately 10 years. Historians of print culture in the U.S. have long sought this sort of evidence of reading behavior among ordinary people. This extraordinarily rich body of materials, which includes demographic data drawn from city directories and census records as well as bibliographic information collected for each title in the MPL collection, provides an opportunity to explore the sociology and cultural history of the book in the United States in unmatched depth. The ledgers provide information about who used the library and what books they checked out during an era famously described by Holbrook Jackson as one that experienced "a quickening of life" that made it seem to "be something more than a coincidence that placed this decade at the close of a century."

Drawing on census manuscripts and city directories as well as library records, the WMR database permits users to conduct searches using demographic and bibliographic categories. It thus allows them to move closer to answering a tantalizing historical question—who read what?—for an iconic American community. The database includes details on more than 6,000 patrons, 11,000 books, and close to 180,000 circulation transactions.

Construction of the What Middletown Read database was made possible by financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Ball State University. It is freely available to the public.

The WMR project directors, Frank Felsenstein (English, Honors College) and James Connolly (Center for Middletown Studies) are writing a book about print culture in middle America that draws on the What Middletown Read database.

The Center has also made available the Main Street Public Library Database.  Compiled by Wayne A. Wiegand, this database includes records of the collections for five Midwestern public libraries during the period from 1890 to 1970.  For more details, go here.