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The Power of Printed Thought

When club women across North Dakota learned by newspaper exchange that their peers across the country were seeding their public libraries by means of book showers — celebratory gatherings where citizens brought in donated books to stock the shelves — they quickly made book showers a recognized community development. This emergence, generated by second-generation club women, took place in the early years of the twentieth century.

We can learn from these people, and emulate them. We learn that the plains folk of a century ago were highly literate. They simply read more than we do, they read and wrote better than we do, and they valued all things literary, from ballads to books.

And they followed the lead of their women, who were branching out from traditional roles as keepers of family into larger functions as builders of community. Book showers happened, impressively, in larger towns like Bismarck, but I am particularly interested in their appearance in country towns — like Lemmon, the border town with one foot in South Dakota and the other in North Dakota.

In 1911 the Lemmon Woman’s Club proposed a book shower to enlarge the collection for a public library in a dedicated room of the high school. On a February night the people showed up with 250 books, and they stayed for the evening, until near midnight. (Our forebears did not retire early from social engagements, they made a night of them, savoring the civility.)

Mayor Finch, we read, gave a speech in which he “alluded to the strenuous task of developing an ordered community out of the raw prairie wilderness” and “pointed out the sweeping influence of good reading on the development intellectually of the community.”

Prof. Salisbury (high school teachers, if well educated, often were called “Professor” in those days) “gave an excellent talk on books and literature, on the power of printed thought, and on the development of literature, as traced in the development of the book.”

Another citizen traced the rise of education in Lemmon and identified the establishment of its public library as a landmark on the trail to learning. It happened when an Episcopal priest donated his library of six hundred volumes, on faith the town would find someplace to put them.

In between the addresses there were musical selections by a local orchestra, soloists, a high school octet, and the recently organized town band. The ladies of the club served coffee and sandwiches.

Lemmon was not unusual in this manifestation of book culture at this time; it was typical. Over in Oakes, the Women’s Club organized a book shower at the library and served refreshments to all donors. “Both ladies and gentlemen have been invited,” it was announced, “and each one must bring a book.” (I wonder how many of the gentlemen had a book placed into their hands by their wives so they could come.)

In Walhalla, when the library assessed its book fund and found it wanting, the women announced by the press their “Book Shower” — that phrase put into quotation marks, indicating it was a new thing. They served refreshments and saw to it a card bearing the donor’s name went into each donated book, in case it turned out to be a duplicate and needed to be exchanged for another.

And so it went in Velva, in Mandan, in Beach, in one town after another. Libraries, people demonstrated, were a recognized public good. Women adopted them as civic family. They gave us a historic model for community.

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