Publications: Interpreting America, 1942-1947

From at least 1942 through 1947, known under the series title Interpreting America, the American Library Association produced a series of lists to support reading about cultures, histories, and politics of people in the United States. Each installment is rich with recommendations of contemporary writings on the peoples of the USA. Read on to learn more about early Interpreting America!

In an earlier iteration, in Volume 16, Number 7, a copy of Interpreting America is found in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. This edition was a supplement to the serial publication, with two sections. Before the majority of the supplement’s content, the selected list of new books available at branch libraries, there is Interpreting America: Books for Americans Old and New, which credits Readers’ Advisor Jennie M. Flexner and Committee on Work with the Foreign Born Chair Esther Johnston.  Over the span of four pages, the book suggestions are organized into seven sections, including: “America Today and Yesterday”, “American Biography”, “English Language and American Citizenship”, “American Customs”, “Contemporary American Fiction”, “Short Stories”, and “Plays”.

In August, 1942, a new, expanded edition of the publication was released. In the preface, the list’s development is attributed to a group of librarians (Headquarters staff and others) who compiled the initial list before soliciting literary critics, professors, and European refugees for comments. The resultant sixty-seven page document is a wealth of recommendations for readers. The 25 new sections include: “Current Books on the War”, “American History – the Background of Today”, “American Regions and their Cities”, “American Society: It’s Patterns and Problems”, “Economic Structure and Growth”, “Government and Politics”, “American Law”, “International Relations”, “Philosophy”, “Education in the United States”, “Libraries”, Public Welfare and Social Security”, Family and Community Life”, “Flora and Fauna”, “Nature Books and Naturalists”, “Medicine and Hygiene”, “Nutrition”, “Engineering”, “The Fine Arts”, “Recreation”, “American Literature”, “Biography”, “A Few Useful Reference Books”, “Children’s Books”, and a “List of Publishers”.

As the foreword describes, in its current form, the bibliographical selections emphasize works about the US by US writers, historical context of issues rather than aesthetic achievements, the accessibility of in-print rather than elusive out-of-print books, and the integrity to include both positive and negative issues in contemporary society rather than censoring unpleasant portrayals of the country. There was a lot to be read too, as this work was 67 pages in length!

In 1944, the new supplement, Interpreting The United States, Books of 1942-1944, was released. As we read in the foreword, while initially intended for British public libraries, the list was also included in the Books for Latin America Project of 1943-44. Unlike its predecessor, the editorial staff was reduced from ALA Headquarters and nationwide librarians to Jennie Flexner (of New York Public Library) and colleagues. In the table of contents, we see the sections including: “Current Books on the War and its Problems”, “American History”, “American Regions”, “American Society”, “Economic Structure and Growth”, “Government and Politics”, “City and Regional Planning”, “International Relations”, “Military and Naval Matters”, “Religion”, “Education in the United States”, “Libraries”, “Family and Community Life: Youth”, “Medicine and Hygiene”, “Nutrition: Cookbooks”, “Fine Arts”, “Recreation”, “American Literature”, “Biography”, “Humor”, and “Fiction”.

Over the next few years, multiple supplements would be published to help librarians keep pace with new books. By the release of Supplement 6, new sections included “Problems of Democracy”, “Philosophy and Religion”, “Libraries and Journalism”, “Housing”, “Recreation”, “Reference Books”, and “Children’s Books”.

In fact, separate lists of children’s book lists were published too, with at least as many as eight supplements, featuring the compiling work done by Helen E. Kinsey (The Booklist) and Elizabeth A. Groves (Winnetka Public Library).

While the ALA Archives’ holdings end with the eighth supplement in January 1947, it is quite likely that the publications remained in use by librarians in the US and abroad for years to come.

Copies Available at Your ALA Archives

Physical copies of early Interpreting America bibliographies are available for viewing at the ALA Archives. Please view the Record Series 29/45/2 database record entry, for more information.

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