Where can you find nearly every issue of MAD Magazine, Twin Peaks trading cards and a Star Trek tie? Perhaps more likely to be found in a childhood bedroom of decades past or your dad’s basement, these treasures and more are part of the Browne Popular Culture Library’s (BPCL) collection, located in Bowling Green State University’s Jerome Library. Founded in 1967 by pioneering folklorist Dr. Ray Browne, the library began as and still is a beacon of popular culture studies in the United States, offering scholars a wide variety of texts and objects to study, ranging from romance novels to movie posters, from vintage advertisements to board games.
While rural Ohio isn’t exactly known for forging new and innovative paths in the way we understand culture, the BPCL was the first of its kind, offering a place for the burgeoning and largely unrecognized study of popular culture (of which BGSU also had the first academic program) to thrive. Since then, thanks to public donations, it has grown with the field of popular culture studies blossoming right alongside it. In a 2002 interview with Americana, Dr. Browne outlined the challenges in kick-starting the study of popular culture at a time when the subject was considered frivolous; he was unable to teach what he wanted in the English department and unable to move to another, and thus he endeavored to create an entirely new department from the ground up.
“The library kind of follows [Dr. Browne’s] vision. What he considered popular culture to be and what materials would be needed to study it. Of course, over, y’know, fifty years it’s really grown in maybe different directions, but, still, is one of the largest collections of materials for the study of American popular culture in the United States,” Dr. Nancy Down, head librarian at the BPCL, said.
While tradition dictates that popular culture isn’t as proven or refined as a field of study in comparison to, say, classic literature, the ubiquity of popular culture means that the objects in the BPCL can help us understand the everyday lives of historical and contemporary Americans.
“I think, personally, that popular culture is worth studying, because it is like studying our history, it’s like studying what is going on in our culture. It’s sort of the sociology—sort of the mythology—of America,” Dr. Down said.
The pure breadth of materials available in the library allows a more-or-less complete view of life: what people are interested in, what they are spending their time making and consuming and even how that information is disseminated at any given time. The library houses a collection of tens of thousands of romance novels alongside other items you might not expect to see in a library, like themed card decks, glassware and other memorabilia. It is also home to one of the largest comic book collections in the nation. Materials like manuscripts and press kits give insights into the creation and marketing of pop culture objects, providing a completely unique perspective that can only be found in a collection like this.
But the library isn’t the only growing legacy Dr. Browne left. In his time at BGSU, he also founded the Journal of Popular Culture, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the BGSU Popular Press, the Popular Culture Association, the Journal of American Culture and the American Culture Association. His wife, Pat Browne, also took on several key roles in the nascent study of popular culture at the university, including running the Popular Culture and American Culture Associations, as well as editing and managing the school’s Popular Press for years. But what exactly does it mean to study popular culture?
“I think Dr. Browne’s vision was that someday you wouldn’t really have a separate popular culture program, but everyone would be studying popular culture, whether you’re studying it in history or English or whatever, and I think that is proving to be true, at least at Bowling Green,” Dr. Down said.
As popular culture studies have developed and spread throughout the country, resulting in programs at colleges like Western Kentucky University, Texas State University and Arizona State University, the field has become more respected and diverse, and its evolution has made room for all sorts of studies that would never have been possible before. While the discipline of popular culture studies can stand alone, it also informs other fields of study such as literature, art history or even the hard sciences.
“We just had a display that we put up that’s about robots,” Dr. Down said, “I think even in the sciences you can look at popular culture and embed it into studies like robotics…like ethics, a sociological look at robots.”
Maybe it’s actually fitting that the Midwest, a region more known for consuming pop culture than for producing it, has become the center of the discipline of popular culture studies. Dr. Browne famously said, “Popular culture democratizes society and makes democracy truly democratic. It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments, and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology, and religion — our total life picture.” The Midwest itself is often thought of as average or “in the middle,” but much like popular culture itself, its normalcy is the very thing that makes it interesting.
“Students were very interested in it, and so I think out of that…grew not just our program, but the Popular Culture Association, the Popular Culture Press,” Dr. Down said, “And, so, I think that kind of established the Midwest as kind of being the center of popular culture before other places started to incorporate popular culture into their programs.”
Living in the Midwest, there’s something comforting about knowing that the minutiae of our lives might be important, even if we’re not a cultural capital or a renowned producer of art. The everyday culture we consume can and should be studied, because through this, we study ourselves and understand our place in the country more fully.
The future of popular culture studies has many possible directions, but with one core idea behind them: that the culture we encounter every day—whether it be a line of McDonalds-themed Beanie Babies, a box of Pokémon Pop-tarts or a pair of Hong Kong-ese documentaries about Andy Warhol and Keith Haring on laserdisc—is important to understanding who we are and how we came to be that way. Maybe it can even point us to a better future in helping us understand how our cultural products reflect our society—in all its strengths and weaknesses.
The Browne Popular Culture Library is currently open in a limited capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but students and scholars can request materials, schedule visits and ask questions through the library’s website. You can also experience the collections by following the library on Twitter.