Were Tom and Huck on-shelf? Public libraries, Mark Twain, and the formation of accessible canons, 1869-1910

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Public libraries are "accessible canons" for their communities. As part of their efforts to connect people and ideas, librarians purchase classic and bestselling books from "selective," "personal," "nonce," and other canons. They also create bibliographies, professional standards, and other tools that help shape reading habits. Thus libraries embody complex, ongoing processes of canon using and canon forming. This essay illustrates the canonical activities of American public libraries during the early years of the profession. It describes the American Library Association Catalog, local finding lists and accession records, and other primary sources that shed light on collection building during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Taking Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) as a case study, it presents statistics on library ownership during the author's lifetime from more than seven hundred communities across the United States. Tables focus on nine titles: The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Gilded Age, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. Statistical analysis reveals that "controversial" items such as Huckleberry Finn were widely available in Gilded-Age and Progressive-era public libraries, thus calling into question some assumptions about censorship of Twain's work. Also, library holdings of some titles varied by decade and geography, demonstrating that libraries implemented "national" and "recognized" canons unevenly. In sum, the essay shifts attention toward the operationalization of literary canons and provides empirical evidence of Mark Twain's presence in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literary landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-224
Number of pages36
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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