Here’s a fascinating article based on a study of old library records from Muncie, Indiana by Frank Felsenstein and James Connolly.
“What do these records tell us Americans were reading? Mostly fluff, it’s true. Women read romances, kids read pulp and white-collar workers read mass-market titles.
Horatio Alger was by far the most popular author: 5 percent of all books checked out were by him, despite librarians who frowned when boys and girls sought his rags-to-riches novels (some libraries refused to circulate Alger’s distressingly individualist books).
Louisa May Alcott is the only author who remains both popular and literary today (though her popularity is far less). “Little Women” was widely read, but its sequel “Little Men” even more so, perhaps because it was checked out by boys, too. The remaining authors at the top of the list — Charles Fosdick, Oliver Optic, Martha Finley, L. T. Meade and others — have vanished from memory. Francis Marion Crawford, whose novels were chiefly set in Italy and the Orient, was checked out 2,120 times, whereas Dickens, Walter Scott and Shakespeare circulated 672, 651 and 201 times respectively [Twain’s Huckleberry Finn 192 times; no total given for all of Twain]. Fiction was overwhelmingly preferred, accounting for 92 percent of books read in 1903.”
There are also comparisons to current Muncie. Half of the materials are non-print (DVD, music, e-books, etc), and a lot more periodicals. But in a time of budget pressure on library hours, it’s interesting to note that this issue isn’t new:
“…the decision in 1900 to open a separate Workingmen’s Library for the city’s laboring classes. The public library, a quiet, fastidious setting run by women, did not suit the needs of workers seeking a smoke and a chat. Nor was it open on Sundays, the workman’s only day off.”