Travel back in time where the past greets you on the fourth floor in the Ray and Pat Browne Library within Bowling Green State University’s Jerome Library. This Popular Culture treasure was established in 1969, two years after the $4.6 million new campus library opened its doors in November 1967. Library founder Dr. Ray Broadus Browne (1922-2009) envisioned a space within the new library to acquire and preserve research materials about American Popular Culture. The result: the country’s first such library.
In 1972 Browne established an academic Department of Popular Culture at the university. He was also the founding editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, the Journal of American Culture, and the Popular Press (a university-based press) which has published hundreds of books about popular culture. The library’s collection is the most comprehensive archive of its kind in the United States.
Not Your Typical Library
The Browne Popular Culture collection includes research materials on popular fiction, popular entertainment, and the graphic arts. Though the collection does not circulate, the staff is available and eager to help visitors explore and find items of interest to them. Many of the items in the collection are included in the library catalog where you can find such categories as Rock & Roll, counterculture, peace and protest, and British popular culture from 1950 through 1975.
Also available at the Browne Library are vintage paperbacks, film and television collections, and a literature index. It has thousands of works related to all sorts of popular entertainment, with materials documenting mass media in the form of television, motion pictures, and radio.
From Comics to Romance
Love comics? Here you’ll find one of the largest comic collections in the country. If you lean more toward romance you’ll be pleased to know this library is the official repository for the Romance Writers of America’s papers. The collection includes graphic novels, tens of thousands of book covers, trading cards, and posters. The counter-culture section has 250 radical, anti-establishment titles from 1950 until 1989. As if that wasn’t enough to keep a visitor browsing for hours, information about cookery and cookbooks is also part of the collection, along with advertising images for movies, cosmetics, mail-order catalogs, and magazine ads.
Voice of Democracy
Browne believed, “Popular culture is the voice of democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which democracy grows. It is the everyday world around us, the mass media, entertainment, and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology, and religion—our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice, and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.”
He admitted Popular Culture is a poorly understood academic specialty in which “Scarcely any two persons agree on what Popular Culture really is. Some scholars believe pop culture is what people do when they are not working. Some use terms such as ‘High-Brow’ and ‘Low-Brow,’ omitting terms such as ‘Folk-Cult’ or ‘Folk-Brow.’”
For Browne, “the working definition of ‘PC’ is those elements of life which are not primarily intellectual. “PC” embraces all levels of our society except Elite culture. The interests of the Center include the study of most of the aspects of life that impinge daily on all of us. The voice and the music of the people, the movements, sometimes glacial, of its past, present, and future. PC provides a kind of audio-video profile of a nation.”
Detroit native Bill Randle (March 14, 1923 – July 9, 2004) saw the collection’s potential and made one of the earliest and largest contributions in 1968. An academic at heart with 3 master’s degrees, a law degree, and a doctorate in American studies, Randle worked as a pioneering disc jockey. He DJ’d at several radio stations, including WERE in Cleveland, Ohio. Time Magazine named him the top DJ in America in 1955. He introduced Elvis Presley to a national television audience on January 28, 1956, the first DJ to do so.
Before retiring in 1992, Browne published Against Academia: The History of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association and the Popular Culture Movement. He maintained that despite the enormity of success he’d experienced establishing the field of study of popular culture, he’d faced academic opponents who railed against it. However, after twenty years the Popular movement was firmly established. His work earned him the opportunity to serve as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institute on Popular Culture.
Today, over half a century later, the Browne Popular Culture Library he formed has over 250,000 items and continues to grow. Some of that expansion is due to the efforts of Nancy Down, librarian at the Browne Collection until her recent retirement at the end of June 2023. She spent 27 of her 34 years with Bowling Green overseeing the Browne collection, first as cataloguer, then acting director. The Popular Culture Library gave her the opportunity to put her Ph. D. in English and her library degree from the University of Indiana to good use.
Librarian Nancy Down
For 27 of her 34 years with Bowling Green Librarian Nancy Down tended to this unique library, first as cataloguer, then acting director, and finally as director. She retired at the end of June 2023, She gave her Ph.D. in English and library degree from the University of Indiana a good workout tracking the eclectic items in the collection.
“I became interested in growing the collection and seeing how far it would go. It is really different than any other library with items ranging from mysteries to Star Trek. I was especially fascinated with how cataloging fiction expanded from just the author’s name and book title to a great variety of genre classifications. Now there are dozens of genres for fiction and some cross categories such as romance and science fiction.
“It’s been fascinating to be part of a library system that has been chronicling the changing scene in America around diversity issues. One of the more unusual items in the collection is a book that translated a Shakespeare play into Klingon. We also have a large collection of three-dimensional items and movie scripts. It’s been exciting to see how big the popular culture phenomenon has become. Other libraries also collect popular culture items but tend to specialize in one area such as science fiction or cartoons. This library is more of a generalist collection.”
Thank you for taking the time to read about this unique library. You might also enjoy what I wrote about my Library tour or the importance of community libraries. Share this with a friend or sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I will not sell your information. I look forward to introducing you to more libraries this fall, along with more details about the life of Pilgrim Mary Brewster.
Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary Brewster
Amazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.