Women's Use of the American Public Library in the Early Twentieth Century

By: Erin Kummer  

In order to determine how the role of the free public library in the United States has changed since the rapid expansion and development of the institution at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, one must first consider its original purpose and actual use. Primarily, the library circulates a collection of materials and the user helps to shape this collection through her borrowing practices and/or donations. Women’s clubs were integral in establishing local public libraries in the early 1900s, and they were also heavy users of the institution: the library was one of the few public platforms open to women at the time. Using as a case study the previously unanalyzed historical accession records from one Midwestern public library, this research empirically determines the early role of the library in the lives of women through their book donations. The case study records show that women donated more books than men, and that they mostly donated novels. These trends contrast with the edifying, largely nonfiction titles recommended by the male leadership of the American Library Association and their efforts to increase male patronage. This paper presents the early role of the public library for local American women, contributing primary evidence to the discussion and illustrating one use for historical library records.

female donors, users
Books and Libraries
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Erin Kummer

MA Student, English Department, WWU Muenster, Germany

I am currently finishing my Master of Arts in National and Transnational Studies at the University of Muenster in Germany. My proposal is based on my thesis, which focused on the New Woman in the American public library. While I have presented on the topic in class and have participated in a student mock conference, this would be my first conference paper.