John Plotz in Slate:
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to read like the dead. Not just to read dead authors—something a little bit creepier. Yes, I am aware that recapturing the actual experiences of long-ago readers is impossible, like visiting Mars or traveling in time. Still, I can’t help reading inscriptions, plucking out old bookmarks, decoding faded marginalia. I catch myself wondering who was reading this a century ago, and where, and why?
So when I learned about What Middletown Read, a database that tracks the borrowing records of the Muncie Public Library between 1891 and 1902, I had some of the same feelings physicists probably have when new subatomic particles show up in their cloud chambers. Could you see how many times a particular book had been taken out? Could you find out when? And by whom? Yes, yes, and yes. You could also find out who those patrons were: their age, race, gender, occupation (and whether that made them blue or white collar, skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled), and their names and how they signed them.
What Middletown Read is based on an incredible trove of unprepossessing ledger books found in an attic during the renovation of Muncie’s 1904 library, and brought to light by Ball State University English Professor Frank Felsenstein. “Middletown,” if you’re wondering, is Muncie’s academic drag-queen name: Ever since the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a pathbreaking pair of books about the city (Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition : A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937) the place has been awash in social scientists studying its every move; this database is in fact part of Ball State’s Center for Middletown Studies.