Main Street Public Library

Community Places and Reading Spaces in the Rural Heartland, 1876-1956

Wayne A. Wiegand


Main Street Library2In Main Street Public Library, eminent library historian Wayne Wiegand studies four emblematic small-town libraries in the Midwest from the late nineteenth century through the federal Library Service Act of 1956, and shows that these institutions served a much different purpose than is so often perceived. Rather than acting as neutral institutions that are vital to democracy, the libraries of Sauk Centre, Minnesota; Osage, Iowa; Rhinelander, Wisconsin; and Lexington, Michigan, were actually mediating community literary values and providing a public space for the construction of social harmony. These libraries, and the librarians who ran them, were often just as susceptible to the political and social pressures of their time as any other public institution.

By analyzing the collections of all four libraries and revealing what was being read and why certain acquisitions were passed over, Wiegand challenges both traditional perceptions and professional rhetoric about the role of libraries in our small-town communities. While the American public library has become essential to its local community, it is for reasons significantly different than those articulated by the “library faith.”


“Wiegand challenges conventional interpretations of the role of public libraries in the community as ‘arsenals of a democratic culture,’ asserting instead that libraries served as ‘uniquely negotiated cultural centers’ that reinforced social cohesion, values, and taste at the local level. Based on exhaustive research in primary sources, this study sets a high standard of scholarship. It is a significant contribution to the literature of the history of libraries.”

–Robert S. Martin, professor emeritus, School of Library and Information Studies, Texas Women’s University