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Muncie, Indiana
Researching the Quintessential American Town
One of the many library ledgers that formed the backbone of the What Middletown Read project. Image courtesy of the Center for Middletown Studies, Ball State University.

One of the many library ledgers that formed the backbone of the What Middletown Read project. Image courtesy of the Center for Middletown Studies, Ball State University.

In the 1920s and 30s, Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd published two seminal books based on their sociological field research in Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds examined the people of Muncie and their cultural norms during a period of social change, and their work established Muncie, which they dubbed “Middletown,” as a quintessential American town. Though focused on Muncie, the Lynds’ research in fact explored American culture: American homes, work, and families and American attitudes toward religion, government, and community. Muncie would continue to be an object of study throughout the twentieth century; in the 1980s, the NEH funded a series of documentaries that undertook similar explorations. During a library renovation in 2003, Ball State University professor Frank Felsenstein came upon an untapped data set that had the potential to offer further, deep insights into the city at the turn of the nineteenth century: a decade’s worth of library ledgers, recording more than 174,000 library loans. With funding from the NEH, Felsenstein and his colleague James Connolly published a book detailing their research into the people of Muncie and their reading practices. They also turned the ledgers into a searchable public database, where anyone can explore Muncie’s people and their tastes and habits

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