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Book Showers

By the action of a local donor, the town of Canton, South Dakota, had a new public library in 1913. They had the building, but unfortunately, no books. The night of its opening, however, they turned on the lights, and as reported in the local press, “the public came in throngs all bearing books,” books “of every description.”

It was a “book shower,” a common sort of event in the early, progressive years of the twentieth century, but something I never heard of until the South Dakota Historical Society recently sent out a historical feature about the bookish night in Canton. It was gratifying to read about, even more so to experience, as a local poet testified.

And out of the house the books came tumbling,
Great books, small books, fat books, brawny books,
Black books, red books, blue books, snowy books.
Families by tens and dozens.

The poet made the occasion into a celebration of community. The books were a metaphor representing the good citizens of a young community coming into its own. From far places, in all their diversity, they came together by families, came together to form something larger by civic action.

Investigating, I find that the book shower was not a singular event; it happened all over North Dakota and the other commonwealths of the Great Plains. There came a time in our little pop-up railroad towns that people wanted a real library with real books.

This was a second-generation phenomenon, an emergence from the children of the pioneers. Donors — often Andrew Carnegie, through his famous program of assistance to public libraries — secured a building. Then, they announced a book shower.

By “they” I mean the women of the community. The cultivation of public libraries in the progressive era was a feminine function. It came out of women’s organizations, especially study clubs, those little society affairs where townswomen gathered to pour tea for one another and discuss matters of culture, especially books.

In the early 1900s these organizations stirred themselves to civic improvements, such as libraries, and they did so in a woman’s way. There was a custom in the land of adapting the bridal shower into a book shower so that book-loving brides could begin their households with a shelf of books — each one inscribed by a friend with thoughtful best wishes.

This model of starting off a household on the right foot was scalable, women realized, and so emerged the book shower as a founding ritual for public libraries.

The Pembina Express described the bridal book shower in 1913. A friend would scout the book collection of the prospective bride and apprise her circle what works were needed or desired. Givers secured the books, inscribed them thoughtfully, and showered them on the bride.

When the book shower scaled up from a family event into a community enterprise, led by the women, it was a sign of something good. The pioneers had grit and game. They built homes and businesses, but they also got up homegrown plays, baseball clubs, and cornet bands.

The children of the pioneers took things to a new level of lasting benefit. This common impulse for the public good, manifest in one community after another, is a great story to tell, maybe one we need to hear.

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