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Shelf Life: Cultural Reference

By Nick Bergus

Getting my first library card was a rite of passage. I learned to write my own name so I could have my own thin paperboard card embedded with a metal plate embossed with my own patron number.

That card came with a support staff that pushed books on me, answered my questions, and pointed the way toward solving life’s riddles and stumbling across more curiosities.

Libraries, perhaps more than anything else, embody the American Dream. They are homes to seemingly unlimited founts of knowledge — knowledge free for the taking by the interested. Libraries are the foundation of our American anybody-can-be-anything ideal, deeply ingrained in the culture of the United States.

After all, there are, writes Wayne A. Wiegand in Main Street Public Library, more public libraries in this country than McDonald’s restaurants. The ubiquity of public libraries means even folks living on county highways and back roads have as ready access to books as they do to Big Macs; 80 percent of public libraries are serving communities with populations below 25,000.

But how did that happen? Wiegand’s book, published by the University of Iowa Press, examines the rise of libraries from 1876, when the first federal report on public libraries was published, to 1956 and the enactment of the Library Services Act, which provided them federal funding.

But Wiegand argues, sometimes in extremely academic terms littered with superscript numerals leading to endnotes, that public libraries aren’t just shaped by their librarians; they are also shaped by their communities. He offers close examinations of four small-town Midwestern libraries, including the Osage Public Library, Iowa’s second free, tax-supported library when voters approved it in 1874.

Libraries have been battlegrounds of cultural values for decades as patrons, taxpayers, librarians, and trustees have pushed library collections in one way or another, and Osage’s was no different. Early in the library’s history, the amount of popular fiction in its collection became a point of controversy.

One Osage newspaper argued the library offered “the opportunity for those who have passed beyond school age to secure the advantages of advanced education without extra expense.” Translation: Our library needs to stop spending money on trashy novels and get some more real books.

While, thankfully, we don’t have the same public arguments about whether our libraries should stock fiction, librarians are still forced to make choices about what books, services, and media to collect and how best they should reflect the priorities and values of their patrons. Should my library spend money and time selecting, cataloging, and circulating paintings? How about cake pans? Video games?

In the small-town libraries Wiegand investigates, these decisions are more accentuated than in their urban siblings’ simply because rural libraries’ collections are so much smaller. Therefore, each choice makes a greater difference in the individual library’s direction.

Wiegand’s history of the scars of these cultural battles is a good reminder that our public libraries don’t simply act as banks of knowledge. They act as banks of our culture, too.


Local artist David Rottinghaus incorporated Osage’s 1911 Carnegie library (today housing City Hall) into his painting Little Bird Watchers, which graces the cover of Wayne A. Wiegand’s book, Main Street Public Library: Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876–1956 (top right, courtesy University of Iowa Press).

The Osage Public Library moved just four blocks away in 1996 to a brand new facility (above; photo courtesy Jon Sparrow Photography,


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