Professor awarded grant to study history of American public library

A Florida State University professor has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to write a book exploring the history of public libraries in the United States.

Wayne A. Wiegand, the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies, received a $50,000 fellowship to write his proposed book, “A People’s History of the American Public Library, 1850-2000.” Wiegand’s award represents the first NEH “Fellowship for University Teachers, College Teachers and Independent Scholars” issued to a library and information studies education faculty member at an American Library Association-accredited institution since the agency was established in 1965.

In addition, Wiegand’s proposal received a “We the People” designation, which is awarded to projects aimed at reinvigorating the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture.

“There are more public libraries than McDonald’s restaurants, and two-thirds of Americans use public libraries every year,” Wiegand said. “The American library is not only ubiquitous, for generations it has been—and still is—a very active civic agency. I wanted to take a look at it through the eyes of the users, not the eyes of librarians or library trustees.”

In his book, Wiegand will explore the historical roles the public library has played in the community, in the life of the reader and as an information provider. The answers may explain why Americans in the first decade of the 21st century have increased their use and support of the public library despite the fact that many predicted its demise.

“I hope to deepen the understanding among policy makers, humanities scholars from all disciplines, library professionals and library school students about why the American library remains such a popular and heavily used civic institution,” Wiegand said. “Hopefully, these findings will provide new ways to think about the spaces and services that libraries routinely provide.”

The book will cover the evolution of the American public library from its early days when Andrew Carnegie donated $45 million to build 1,679 public libraries through today’s Internet Age. In between, libraries rolled with the times, providing underemployed citizens with adult education, recreation and even warmth during the Great Depression and offering new services such as bookmobiles as part of the “Great Society” initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s. There are now about 16,000 public libraries in the United States.

“A People’s History of the American Public Library, 1850-2000” was one of 260 projects to receive NEH funding in 2008-09 out of more than 1,500 proposals. Wiegand expects to finish writing the book late next year or in early 2010.