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Letters from Audra: Detailed records

Part four of an eight-part series

Audra Otto loves reading books, talking to writers, visiting book clubs, digging up photos, and hanging around the Minnesota Historical Society. Holder of literary degrees from the University of St. Thomas and the National University of Ireland, she’s been a major player helping MinnPost get the Book Club Club off the ground. In Letters from Audra she talks about the role that book clubs have played in the lives of Minnesotans from 1880 to today.

Documentation is another area in which historic reading circles are distinctly different from modern book clubs. Club secretaries kept detailed records of membership, dues and expense accounts, and often took minutes of every meeting. More important, clubs produced annuals with member lists, officer and committee information, the year’s study outline and event schedule, and reference reading lists.

These annuals, often printed locally at presses such as Leighton Bros. Printing in Minneapolis, range in size and elaborateness, but are often letterpress booklets of great beauty. For me, one of the pleasures of researching Minnesota reading societies of the late 19th and early 20th century was looking through these small works of art. All of the Froula Reading Circle yearbooks from 1923 to 1932, for example, were hand-typed by a Mrs. Hummel and bound with string and colored ribbon.

Annuals were a point of pride, and contests for best club yearbook were held by newspapers, magazines and the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs. According to a 1908 article in the Bay View Magazine, “The Fulda Reading Club, of Fulda, Minn., gets out a very convenient year-book as to size, since it can be enclosed in an ordinary envelope. It comes in a dainty yellow cover, the club colors being yellow and white. The book and magazine work is being systematically done, and is supplemented by talks, reviews, and papers on correlative subjects.”

From formal to casual
Over the last 50 years, reading groups have, for the most part, dispensed with formal procedures and parliamentary positions. Today’s women no longer need instruction or guidance in running a formal organization, no longer need preparatory education for citizenship and leadership in the public sphere.

Today’s women instinctively know how to hold elections, set up agendas, and delegate tasks, having internalized these processes from work in other settings. Having established themselves as full citizens, organizers, community leaders, and politicians, women no longer need to practice management skills or demonstrate their leadership abilities to the broader community. In the modern world, book clubs can offer busy women the relief of informality.

Monday: Reading material

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