Title Reviewed:
A Live Thing in the Whole Town: The History of the Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library, 1873–1990

Author Reviewed:
Lawrence J. Downey

Joanne E. Passet


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 89, Issue 1, pp 60-62

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Live Thing in the Whole Town: The History of the Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library, 1873–1990. By Lawrence J. Downey. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation, Inc., 1991. Pp. 246. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $15.00.)

During the 1960s Ernestine Bradford Rose began a history of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library (I-MCPL) in anticipation of the library's centennial in 1973. Unfortunately, the project lay dormant for a number of years, and it was not until 1989 that Lawrence J. Downey began to verify, edit, and expand the earlier work. Downey, who started his library career as a high school page, joined the I-MCPL staff in 1951 and served in a variety of capacities until 1988 when he retired as associate director for Management Services.

In twenty-five chapters Downey describes and commemorates the institution that Eliza Gordon Browning (sixth librarian, 1892–1917) wanted to become "a live thing in the whole town" (p. 27). Beginning with brief mention of Indiana's earliest libraries, the author provides a context for the establishment of the Indianapolis Public Library in 1873. The first ten chapters, with the exception of Chapter 5—which is devoted to the construction of the Central Library—are organized by librarian, beginning with Charles Evans and concluding with Raymond Gnat. The remaining chapters address such topics as the formation of the city-county library system in 1968, divisions and departments, branch libraries and service to neighborhoods, staff education and training, the staff association and publications, noteworthy gifts, and the I-MCPL foundation.

Although librarians are committed to the preservation and dissemination of the human record, the profession as a whole has a tendency to ahistoricity. Librarians, as well as readers interested in state, local, and cultural history, will benefit from perusing this volume. Highly readable, the text is lavishly illustrated with photographs of individuals, buildings, activities, and numerous historical documents. The chapters on service to neighborhoods, branch libraries, and extension agencies provide glimpses of the city's educational system, immigrant communities, and women's club movement. Finally, this volume also includes lists of library trustees, I-MCPL Foundation members, assistant librarians, associate directors, and branch and bookmobile managers.

Readers who wish to explore some of the many topics discussed in this work will be frustrated by the complete absence of footnotes. Although the author ‘evidently examined a wide range of archival materials, the bibliography (pp. 241–42) is sparse and fails to include even such a basic and relevant title as Edward Holley's biography of Charles Evans. Nonetheless, Downey's history of



Reproduced from Lawrence J. Downey, A Live Thing in the Whole Town: The History of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, 1873–1990 (Indianapolis, 1991), 100.

the I-MCPL underscores the importance of preserving the materials that document institutional as well as professional heritage.

JOANNE E. PASSET is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science, American Studies Program, and Women's Studies Program, Indiana University, Bloomington. In 1992 she was awarded the Justin Winsor Prize for an essay entitled "Men in a Feminized Profession: The Male Librarian, 1887–1921." She currently serves as chair of the Library History Round Table of the American Library Association.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.