This Book Is 119 Years Overdue
The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago.
Like many kids who grew up poor in the American hinterlands during the 19th century, Louis Bloom left few public traces. Born in Muncie, Ind. in 1879, he was the oldest child of a widowed mother who took in lodgers. City surveys, census forms, and his death certificate reveal that he worked in the town’s glass factories as a young man, and died in San Francisco in 1936 a government engineer. Given the family’s poverty, it is striking that all three Bloom brothers, Louis, Rudolph, and Landis (though not their sister Ella) are recorded as graduates of Muncie High School. That’s it. No way to tell how tall he was, what sports he played, the foods he liked, or how he dressed.
In 2011, though, a few hundred additional facts about the young Louis Bloom entered the public record. We now know, for instance, that on Wednesday Feb. 3, 1892, he ascended to the second floor of the Muncie City Building, turned left at the top of the stairs, entered the city library, signed the ledger kept by librarian Kate Wilson, and checked out The Wonders of Electricity. He came back the next day to return it and take out Frank Before Vicksburg; Friday it was Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick; Saturday The North Pole: And Charlie Wilson’s Adventures in Search of It. Sunday, the library was closed; Monday Feb. 8, 1892 (his 13th birthday) he took out James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer; Wednesday he returned for Ben the Luggage Boy (another Alger); Thursday he picked up Goodell’s The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice; and Friday Henry Mayhew’s (charming) biography of the astronomer Ferguson, The Story of the Peasant-Boy Philosopher. Altogether, 291 books checked out under his own name, plus another 28 in early 1895 under his brother Rudolph’s. The only extant piece of Louis’ handwriting is his name in the patron’s ledger. If library records are usually the night sky of cultural history, a dim backdrop to action
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