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Thank You Wayne Wiegand!

Post by Duncan Smith
Posted November 11, 2015 in Readers' Advisory News

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I have a lot to be thankful for this year but at the top of my list is A Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015) by Wayne Wiegand. (For a short intro to the book, watch this great video of Wayne himself.) We all know that reading changes lives. After reading this book, I have rededicated myself to telling everyone I can about the most important institution in their community -- their public library.

A Part of Our Lives is not about the user in the life of the library. It is about the library in the life of the user. Using letters, newspaper articles and many other primary resources, Wayne gives our users a voice and lets them tell us what a difference our public libraries make in our towns, cities and states. The result is not only an engrossing view of our profession but a very readable journey through library history.  In my opinion, a journey that shows the best bet for a bright future for public libraries lies in the lessons and truths embedded in our past.

Since the 1700s, public libraries have played three significant roles in the lives of our users and by extension our communities. We have been sources of useful knowledge, a public space where members of a community gather and exchange ideas, and supporters of commonplace reading. The type of reading that is frequently labeled as recreational or entertainment but is really an essential activity that sustains and supports individuals in becoming and remaining the people they aspire to be.

This book showed me all of the ways that our profession has used every available means to carry out these three important missions. During the Depression in Kentucky, WPA funds were used to fund a delivery service that had women on horseback riding through creek beds to bring books to communities that could not be reached any other way. The library’s use of “new” technologies is also well documented including sponsoring afternoon concerts by playing phonograph records in a meeting room when these new devices were too expensive for the general public.

I started working in libraries in the late 1970s and I felt my life passing before my eyes as I read the chapters covering that decade and the ones leading up to today.  I remember discussing the issues that Wayne writes about with my colleagues. I remember providing the services he discusses and most importantly of all -- I remember the users to whom his book gives voice and the reasons they loved their library.

Reading these pages, I am left wondering what our world would be like if Thomas Edison hadn’t spent hours at his public library reading about electricity; if Ronald Reagan didn’t read the stories of Horatio Algers and Zane Grey; and if Andrew Carnegie hadn’t believed that the public library was the country’s best bet to stimulate economic development and growth?

Will the individuals who solve our climate change issues, who discover the cure for Alzheimer’s, who lead our governments and build the businesses and industries that will employ us mention their public library when they talk about their accomplishments? As a result of Wayne’s book, I am rededicating myself to making sure they do.

So thank you Wayne Wiegand. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.