Saturday, April 19, 2014

Keeping the service in and the red tape out: the Allentown Free Library and Camp Crane during World War I

Earlier this week, I thundered east on Route 78 toward Allentown.

I was on a mission:

Find out about Isabel Turner and the library at Camp Crane

Several years earlier, I was retrieving an article in the Bulletin of the American Library Association when I stumbled upon a "Library War Service Directory" (see November 1918 issue, pg. 494). I instantly realized it was valuable documentation of libraries during World War I. So I made a hasty photocopy and jammed it into my bulging office file cabinet. Then, last year, when I was preparing for sabbatical, I shimmied the list out of its folder to check if there were any listings in Pennsylvania. 

As it turned out, there were relatively few camp libraries here, as compared to California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. Franklin H. Price of the Free Library of Philadelphia was the contact for the Library War Service's dispatch office in Philadelphia. He also provided books to the Frankford Arsenal, various naval installations, and the United Service Club. Robert H. Bliss, an employee of the State Library of Pennsylvania who sent traveling libraries to rural communities, was servicing the middle of the state -- the Army Reserve depot in Cumberland, a recruiting station in Harrisburg, the Quartermaster depot in Marsh Run, and the aviation and general supply depot in Middletown. He also assisted military hospitals in Gettysburg and Markleton. It seems books were also provided at the military hospital in Carlisle and at an undescribed site in Tyrone, but no further information about these locations appeared in the directory. One more military library, at Camp Crane in Allentown, was being served by Isabel Turner. I recognized her as the head of the local public library. 

Price's role did not surprise me. He was an ambitious man who would become the director of the Free Library of Philadelphia (1932-1951) and president of the Pennsylvania Library Association (1944). Also, FLP was Pennsylvania's largest public library with dozens of branches. So, serving additional sites would not have been a "stretch." Likewise, Bliss's service to the military could be seen as a natural outgrowth of his work as a library organizer for under-served populations. Yet unlike FLP and the State Library, Allentown Free Library (AFL) was only a few years old, struggling to fulfill the needs of a city of 70,000 residents with barely more than an $8000 appropriation from the local school district. What motivated Turner to help? Was there a particular reason why Camp Crane needed reading material? Given limited resources, how did she pull it off?

Turner, who had become head librarian in 1915, pioneered many of AFL's outreach efforts. She purchased foreign language books, inaugurated library service to Allentown schools, sent a "loan collection" to employees of the Consolidated Telephone Company, and advertised the library's collection through window displays at Cut Rate Drug and Dietrich's Ice Cream Parlor.  To her, the military camp was "a new opportunity for the library to extend its usefulness." To her knowledge, establishing an outreach effort there would have been one of the first of its kind in the country (for Turner's early outreach activities, see AFL 1916-1917 Monthly Reports; AFL 1915/1916, 1916/1917, and 1917/1918 Annual Reports; and undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents). 

AFL, like many institutions of the time, contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. It collected 1500 books and more than $1100 toward the American Library Association's Library War Service. At Mayor Alfred L. Reichenbach's request, the library also served as a site for registering soldiers and female volunteers. In addition, AFL sold thrift and war savings stamps. It also displayed government information about employment opportunities, food conservation, and gardening (see AFL 1917/1918 Annual Report; and AFL May-June 1917, November 1917, January 1918, March-April 1918, and June 1918 Monthly Reports).

Sorting through minute books, reports, and correspondence, I uncovered a fascinating story that went above and beyond such common activities. Within a few weeks of the United States' formal entry into the war, an Ambulance Service Camp was established at the Allentown Fairgrounds. Because these particular recruits were training to provide health care, quite a few were well-educated. They had come from colleges and large cities all over the country and yearned for the reading material previously available to them. According to Turner, the first soldier to apply for an AFL borrower's card was a "Harvard boy," still in civilian clothes, who wanted a book of modern poetry. After consulting with the library's trustees, Turner suspended the usual fees and registration procedures for out-of-towners. Soon, AFL was "besieged by requests for books." On at least one rainy day, the library was "overflowing with dripping soldiers" occupying every available seat, leaning against walls, even sitting on the floor. Buying dozens of folding chairs scarcely alleviated the situation. The library cancelled Saturday story times for children because of the lack of space. Regardless of weather, 50-150 men used AFL's reading room daily and it was not uncommon to see them "sitting on the steps leading to the second and third floors." As one soldier put it, AFL was "the only place in the city where a fellow could go without it costing him something" (see AFL June, September, and October 1917 Monthly Reports, and undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents).

Since serving soldiers within the library was becoming untenable, Turner seized the opportunity to help them directly at the camp. In the summer of 1917 she collaborated with Mayor Reichenbach and the Y.M.C.A. to collect about 125 books and periodicals for the Y's tent. Inside, the book "deposit station" was periodically restocked with fresh literature handpicked from APL's shelves. Her motto was to "keep the service in it and the red tape out of it,"

By November 1917, AFL and Camp Crane had the good fortune of a former New York Public Library employee, Ralph Cossage, as one of the soldiers in the barracks. Also around this time, the Y.M.C.A. moved from its tent to a wooden building. A more secure space encouraged the camp library's growth. AFL obtained 500 volumes from nearby libraries in Bethlehem and Easton, as well as additional books and magazines from the State Library of Pennsylvania. The local library functioned as the "collecting agent" for incoming donations. It accessioned, cataloged, and prepared each item for use, though processing was minimal in order to get books into soldiers' hands more quickly. Soon the collection expanded to 4500 volumes through contributions from ALA's Books for Soldiers campaign. When these resources weren't sufficient, AFL filled soldiers' title requests from its own shelves and through interlibrary loan. The men simply placed slips in a "Books Wanted" box at the camp desk. It appears that there was some attempt to make the library inviting to the men. Photos available at the Lehigh County Heritage Center show that the Camp Crane library had various pictures on its walls, at least one potted plant, a mailbox for sending letters home, and rocking chairs encircling a large stove. Unfortunately, I am prohibited from including LCHC images in this blog (see AFL July 1917, November 1917, and May 1918 Monthly Reports; undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents; and LCHC photo collection, items PST USAAC CC 1-15).

Turner noted that the soldiers' reading interests were eclectic, ranging from European fiction and language books, to technical works that would enable them to resume employment in the private sector when the war was over. Although Turner constantly felt pressed to meet their needs, the men were highly appreciative. Particularly during epidemics when Camp Crane was placed under quarantine, conditions would have been "well-nigh intolerable" without AFL and the on-base library it supported. Within a year of helping its first recruit, Turner and her staff had provided borrower cards to about 1030 soldiers and placed 4500 volumes in the camp library. During the war, AFL's circulation jumped 33% (see AFL May 1918 Monthly Report; AFL 1917/1918 Annual Report; and typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents).

Although AFL was providing a useful service, it inevitably ceased after the war's close. Allentown's pioneering camp library was "broken up" in February 1919. Thirteen cases of books -- about 3000 volumes -- were shipped to the American Library Association for dispatch to overseas installations. Yet even at the end, Turner reinvested the camp library's resources for local soldiers' benefit. She used the final pennies of their overdue fine account to purchase 2 large flags and a "welcome home" banner "to participate a little in the parades to our home coming boys" (AFL May 1919 Monthly Report). 

Allentown Public Library's camp library is a great illustration of the many, but heretofore unsung, contributions Pennsylvania has made to both American history and library history. As Turner said, the Camp Crane library was "only a little 'bit' compared to the magnificent war work so many women are doing, but it is *our* 'bit,' *our* job at hand, and *our* opportunity for service." 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Acquiring books and people

When you arrive unannounced at 3:15 on a Thursday afternoon, you never know what kind of reception you'll get. This is especially true when you ask to see a library's historical records. Even though Pennsylvania libraries receive government funding, there is apparently no state "sunshine law" that requires them to allow the public to view annual reports, board minutes, and such. A related challenge is that many libraries do not gather and preserve their own historic documents. The past is often shoved into rusty cabinets and forgotten. Staff are unsure where "the old stuff is" and have to "go looking for it."  If the library's director isn't available, employees may get squeamish about rooting around administrative offices and other non-public areas.

So I took a deep breath as I entered the Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls (CLBF). I approached a kind-looking woman who was checking out the latest bestseller to one of the adults in line. I didn't know her, but since everyone else seemed to turn to her for answers, I did too. "I have what probably seems like a weird question," I began. "My name is Bernadette Lear and I'm working on a statewide project. I'm researching the history of public libraries in Pennsylvania. I know it's late in the day and I didn't make an appointment. But I just finished up another site and I have a couple of days I could spend here ..."

The woman's nod of recognition and her welcoming smile made me pause. "Yes, I know you -- well, I've read about your blog," she said. "I'm Jean Barsotti, the director here. Give me a minute to finish helping these patrons. Then I'll take you back to my office." 

Boo-yah! I got lucky! Within 15 minutes, I was elbow-deep in board minutes, librarian's reports, and scrapbooks. 

Beaver Falls turned out to be what I call an "amplifying" site. Since I have already visited more than 20 other libraries, CLBF's records didn't provide a new perspective for me. However, they were extremely helpful for confirming trends that I have previously observed. For example, the Beaver Falls Library Association began as a subscription institution, as many Pennsylvania libraries did. From its founding in 1885 until the turn of the century, it shuffled along on donations, the proceedings of public lectures, and other fundraisers. When the board decided to pursue a building grant from Andrew Carnegie, it considered various sources for the annual "maintenance" funding that the donor required. Ultimately, the trustees obtained a yearly appropriation from the local school board. Due to close ties with the education system, CLBF naturally reached out to teachers. For example, it offered a stereopticon slide collection -- images of animals, botanic specimens, historical events, and other curricular topics. I will certainly use examples from Beaver Falls to help illustrate my argument about how funding sources shaped the types of services public libraries offered. 

Along the way, I found an unrelated, but very thought-provoking item -- an old "accession book." I don't believe I have ever described one of these in this blog, so perhaps readers would be interested in seeing it.

Accession book, Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls
Before computer software for acquisitions and cataloging was available, companies such as the Library Bureau specialized in office supplies designed for library work. Staff used customized ledgers like this one to record the title, author, publisher, price, physical description, source, and classification of each incoming item.  Since the CLBF accession book begins in May 1903, I cannot be certain that it lists the "first" books the library owned. After all, the Beaver Falls Library Association had existed since 1885. Nonetheless, the ledger begins at an important juncture in the library's history. According to board minutes, the association hired a librarian, Miriam Morse, in the fall of 1902, and then the Carnegie building opened in the summer of 1903 (see minutes, October 16 and 23, 1902, and librarian's report, 1903/1904). So, if nothing else, the accession book probably documents the first materials that were handled in a professional manner. 

Examining the first 100 titles, some American authors are immediately recognizable -- Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain. There are also classic foreign writers, including the Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling. At the same time, there are authors who were more popular in their day than our own. When I Googled G. A. Henty, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, and Susan Warner, it was fun to learn that a career-minded woman, an evangelist, and a xenophobe mingled with each other on CLBF's shelves. I'll let my readers figure out who's who! 

Being a former English major, I suppose I should have spent hours enthralled with the hodgepodge of titles. But my eyes were drawn to the ledger's far right columns which record the demise of each volume. Most became "w. o." (worn out) and were discarded. Unsurprisingly, children's books like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea didn't even last a decade. On the other hand, C. Detlef's Russian Country House stayed on-shelf until 1960. For reasons I cannot determine, CLBF staff may have preferred to repair books at the end of the month. Quite a few which indicate "reb." (rebound) include repair dates which fall within in the last week of the month. Another mystery was titles marked "l. n. p. f.."  I scratched my head over that one for several days. Luckily, my cataloger-husband glanced over my shoulder and muttered, "lost, not paid for."

Leaning back from this interesting artifact, I marvel at yesteryear librarians' attention to details. It must have required especially conscientious people to remove books from the shelves, stamp them as discarded, tear up multiple catalog cards, and also to find and amend each listing in old accession ledgers. I suppose today's librarians do their work with similar thoroughness, but the task is made much easier with online catalogs that can be edited with a few keystrokes.

Ironically, it seems that public libraries have maintained more information about the lives of their books than the lives of the people who did the ordering and cataloging. For example, within CLBF's scrapbooks were precious few photographs of library employees, among them Elsie Rayle (hired as an assistant in 1911, then head librarian from 1918 through at least the 1940s) and Rose Demorest (children's librarian during World War I). One beautiful woman's photograph is unlabeled -- was she Hazel Clifton, librarian from 1903 to 1918? Or perhaps Elizabeth Seanor, a library assistant who served from 1919 through the late 1930s? Maybe she is not a library employee at all -- could she be a trustee, a trustee's wife, or a library advocate? What became of her?

An unknown woman pictured in a scrapbook
of the Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls
I am not singling out CLBF with these critical statements. Over the years, I have encountered many libraries that have saved accession ledgers, but do not have biographies of staff. Even the most lovingly-prepared scrapbooks seldom picture library workers, much less reveal their full names and positions. Almost no-one ever pulls out scrapbooks decades after the fact to add women's married names or death dates. This is very unfortunate, because people are the most important assets that libraries "acquire." One of my colleagues often says, "libraries are too much about the things. It is all about the things." Although I tend to disagree with her, accession books make me wonder if she's right.  









"What constitutes an objectionable book?": Flora Cessna describes a censorship debate in 1920s Bedford

History requires both interesting events and gifted storytellers. I was reminded of this fact yesterday when using the minute books of the Bedford Civic Club and Bedford County Library. In the early 1920s, the "CC" had established a library in town. Like many fledgling institutions of its era, the Bedford Civic Club Public Library subsisted on second-hand furniture, a book budget raised through social dances and teas, and, most importantly, part-time helpers who were compensated zero to 30 cents per hour. The CC's "library committee" handled all aspects of the work. Secretaries Elizabeth Goss, M. J. Kiser, and Judith Goodrich dutifully, yet succinctly, recorded the committee's everyday decisions. Having keys made for the library's door. Buying insurance. Purchasing postcards for notifying overdue borrowers. 

Sometimes,"pro-tem" secretaries filled in when Goss, Kiser, or Goodrich were absent. Such happened on March 10, 1927, when Flora Cessna took up the pen. In terms of generating "quotable gems" for future historians, one couldn't ask for a better observer than Cessna for that particular meeting.

On the agenda? -- censorship. 

As Esther Jane Carrier describes in her books on Fiction in Public Libraries, early librarians engaged in frequent conversation about the role of popular novels in society. They also debated the criteria that the profession should use in selecting titles for library shelves. Through collaborative efforts, they developed tools such as the A.L.A. Catalogue, a recommended purchase list of thousands of books. By attending training programs, participating at conferences, reading review sources, utilizing available aids, and observing how their customers interacted with books, local librarians often developed firm, if individualistic, opinions. When Anna McDonald of the State Library of Pennsylvania visited Bedford to help the CC get started, she advised local women on "how to judge the value of a book," stressing the importance of reading materials that were "true to life" versus ones that "gave false ideas." Among the first 1,000 items on the library's shelves were about 300 purchased under McDonald's "direction" (see CC Library Committee minute books, November 22, 1922 and January 19, 1923).

Despite the State Library's assistance, choosing materials that met Bedford residents' expectations proved difficult. When the March 10, 1927 meeting was called to order, Cessna and other attendees learned that the focus was to be "adverse criticism" of the library's book collection. She recorded that a "reviewing committee" had been attempting to "obtain and retain" the "best" literature. However, reading dozens of books each year was a substantial task. So, items from authors "in whom all have the utmost confidence" were being added to the shelves on the "strength of [their] reputation ... without being read." The review committee was caught unaware when such a writer "put across something not so desirable" and "consternation" ran "riot" in town.
Interior of the Bedford Civic Club Public Library, ca. 1920s

Cessna's minutes vividly captured the difficulty of achieving cultural consensus. As she described it, whenever there was doubt about a book, "quite a number" of club members ended up reading it, "some saying they see nothing specially improper in it, some saying it is horrid." She also noted that "one of these specially obnoxious books was found to be used in a school course." Although the women seemed to agree that "objectionable" books should be "destroyed," the question of "what constituted an objectionable book" quickly arose. As Cessna explained, "some books with fine historical background contained some very raw sex stuff." Ultimately, the group decided that from thence forward 3 members would read "questionable" books and "if there were two ayes it remained on the shelf and we would stand our chance of contamination." However, "if there were two nays off it goes." 

It is remarkable to read such a debate occurring in 1920s Bedford. Cessna's account is valuable when one ponders whether so much detail would have been recorded by other secretaries whose notes were generally not as colorful or detailed. But more importantly, it encourages us to check our assumptions when comparing the past to today, or contrasting small and large populations. We often presume that life was "simpler" in earlier decades, and we often expect attitudes in rural Pennsylvania towns to be more homogeneous than in our own diverse communities. However, the debate over "questionable" books in Bedford teaches us that even within group like the CC, where the vast majority (if not the entirety) of the membership was female, white, Christian, and rural, there were significant differences in reading tastes and moral judgments. Another takeaway is that the fine line between "answering community needs" and censorship is one that librarianship has been dancing around, to much the same tune, for a hundred years or more.

I wish I could find more information about Cessna and this censorship episode. NewspaperArchive, which offers full-text of the Bedford Gazette from the 1890s through present, lacks her obituary. When I searched the word "library," I found no articles from 1927 that tell us what author or incident precipitated the CC's special meeting. Nonetheless, it is clear that March 10th was a moment when story met storyteller on equal footing. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Searching for Mary Hurst in the path of the flood

Nearly a decade ago, when I was just beginning my research, I consulted a variety of secondary sources and harvested them for information about the history of public libraries. I painstakingly borrowed nearly every title listed in a bibliography published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I also found Donald G. Davis' and Mark Tucker's American Library History: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1987) and tracked down each publication relating to Pennsylvania. I did the same with the Library History Round Table's Bibliographies of Library History. Those indexes led me to the Dictionary of American Library Biography and its supplements, which I scoured for Pennsylvania librarians, as well as books like Theodore Jones' Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy (New York: Wiley, 1997) and Robert S. Martin's Carnegie Denied: Communities Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants (New York: Praeger, 1993). Then I tapped Dissertation Abstracts, the State Library of Pennsylvania catalog, WorldCat, and a slew of history and library science journal databases. Whenever I found anything relevant, I photocopied the information and filed it. Within a year I amassed a cabinet of hanging files for each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Within them are folders documenting hundreds of libraries. Before I leave for any research trip, I grab the relevant file, review the secondary sources inside, and jot down keywords and research questions to guide my investigation.

Four weeks ago, I pulled my file for Cambria county in anticipation of a research trip to western Pennsylvania. Johnstown's folder was very thin. Inside was a copy from Jones' Carnegie book, which briefly described the Cambria Library. He stated that the 1889 Johnstown Flood "swept away" the first library, as well as the librarian, Mrs. Mary Hurst, "who was at her desk at the time" (pg. 10). No source for this information was noted.

Among my preparatory research notes for Johnstown, I scrawled in bold, red letters: "CONFIRM LIBRARIAN FLOOD DEATH."

In the larger scheme of things --  a statewide project describing the history of libraries from colonial times through the 1940s -- the obituary of one person is only a sidelight. But the journalist in me was intrigued by the story's potential. I sometimes imagined a dutiful, stoic woman, continuing to circulate books despite warnings of the impending deluge. Other times, I pictured a passionate lover of books, frantically carrying valuable reference volumes to the building's upper stories to save them from rising water. In other instances, I thought of the horror on her face at the second when tons of debris and muddy water smashed into the library.

A gap in library records from late May through late November 1889 is silent testimony to the chaos that the community experienced that summer and fall. Yet there appears to be little doubt that Hurst perished. An 1890 list of victims states that the body of a missing "Minnie" Hurst was "never recovered" (perhaps leaving some hope?), but the May 5, 1890 board of trustees meeting minutes confirm that "Mrs. Hurst" was lost during the tragedy. Unfortunately, the board records contain no eulogy, memorial resolution, or other information about her last days. I know that she was hired at the end of 1880 at the rate of $40 per month. Although this "arrangement" was only intended to be "temporary," subsequent minutes and city directories show that she probably remained in her position throughout the 1880s until her death (see board of trustee meeting minutes, December 11, 1880, December 27, 1882, and May 5, 1890, and Clark's Johnstown City Directory, 1887). By the winter of 1889, a new librarian, Mary L. Yeagley, was circulating materials from temporary quarters in the McMillan mansion, and plans were underway for the building donated by Andrew Carnegie.

From the sources I have consulted so far, I cannot determine whether Hurst was actually "at her desk" during the tragedy. David McCullough's definitive book, The Johnstown Flood, asserts that "Mrs. Hirst" was "crushed beneath a heap of bricks, slate, and books that stood where the public library had been" (pg. 195) but does not cite a source. Clues within extant records support such a conclusion. For example, the library's staff was small: only librarian Hurst, a janitor, and perhaps one or two assistants. The contents of the dam, plus all the debris it had accumulated, barreled into Johnstown on May 31st, a Friday, at mid-afternoon. Board minutes from other years seem to indicate that it operated daily from about 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., perhaps with a dinner break at 5 or 6 o'clock. Thus it is likely that the library would have been open if it were a normal day. This being said, there were possibilities for chance to interview. In this gas-lit era, libraries sometimes closed on summer afternoons because of the heat. Also, medical knowledge and transportation being limited as they were, library staff frequently took extended leaves for illnesses and vacations. Nonetheless, I found no evidence that Hurst was absent at the time, and given the small staff, it could be presumed that if the library were open that day, she would have been working. Both the Hurst home and the Cambria Library were located within a few blocks of each other on Washington Street, which runs along the Little Conemaugh River.

I cannot determine whether library employees had tried to flee for higher ground ahead of time. There was apparently some debate regarding whether the city had been forewarned. One prominent eyewitness, Reverend G. W. Brown, contended that residents had no warning at all. On the other hand, George Swank, a local news editor, stated that the torrential rain had caused substantial flooding earlier in the day and prompted many to evacuate. The only other details I found in primary sources pertaining to the flood were in John McLaurin's The Story of Johnstown: Its Early Settlement, Rise and Progress, Industrial Growth, and Appalling Flood on May 31st, 1889 (Harrisburg.: J.M. Place, 1889). According to McLaurin, the two other Hursts that perished that day -- Emily (age 10) and Nathaniel (age 15) -- were Mary Hurst's grandchildren. The 1890 list indicates that the bodies of Mary and Emily were never recovered, while Nathaniel Hurst was buried in Somerset, a smaller city about 30 miles south. Searches of the library's vertical files, as well as American Periodical Series, Google Books, Newspaper Archives, PERSI, Readers Guide Retrospective, and other online databases turned up nothing.

I also tried to use HeritageQuest to trace the earlier years of Mary Hurst's life. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Mary "Hirst" was widowed, living with her daughter, Maime(?) Gaither, and Gaither's husband and children. It doesn't appear that she was working outside the home at that point. I did not find any "Hirsts" or "Hursts" in the 1860 or 1870 censuses for Cambria or Somerset counties. From there, all potential leads went cold. Part of the difficulty is that historical documents variously listed her as "Mary," "Minnie," or "Mrs. Andrew," and "Hirst" or "Hurst." Another problem is that Johnstown suffered additional floods -- in 1936 and 1977 -- which have ruined some local history materials. Furthermore, Johnstown's newspapers have not been digitized, making them all but impossible for me to use given the time constraints of my project.

In the end, the only way I could access a bit of Mary Hurst's experience that horrible day was to walk the Path of the Flood Trail, an 11-mile hike/bike path. It follows the Little Conemaugh River from Ehrenfeld, a village just east of the South Fork Dam, through several other towns into the City of Johnstown. Most of my hiking days were overcast, adding to the gloom of bare trees, dead grass, muddy ground, and chilly March temperatures. I held back quite a lot of prickly brush in my efforts to photograph the terrain. My best shot, of a viaduct that was rebuilt in the 1890s, illustrates the narrowness of the Little Conemaugh valley. Here, water and debris was trapped behind the previous bridge, which then collapsed. From this area the flood had surged ahead with renewed energy toward Johnstown.

Over the course of 3 days, I wound my way past Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, communities which also lost residents to the flood. As I tramped downhill toward Johnstown, I realized in a visceral way that I was at the bottom of a gorge with steep rock rising all around me. I imagined floodwaters gaining force as they throttled down the narrow valley. It became clear why Mary Hurst and many other Johnstown residents had little chance of escape.

The Path of the Flood Trail terminates at the Johnstown Flood Museum, the building which was erected by Andrew Carnegie on the site of the earlier structure where Mary Hurst possibly lost her life. I sat on the museum steps for a minute and offered a silent prayer for her, her family, and more than 2,200 other souls who lost their lives 125 years ago. I mused about the folly of those who failed to maintain the dam, the power of God in unleashing days of torrential rain, and the unpredictability of human fate, which lies both in our choices and in the Almighty's hand. I reflected on my greedy motive of trying to get "a good story." I wasn't sorry that my frustrated attempts ended with a moment of reverence. 


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Library of steel: the Cambria Library Association

Last week I was at the Cambria County Historical Society when a chatty genealogist leaned over my shoulder. "I've been watching you for a while and I can't figure out what you're doing," he said. "You've got family files, government reports, folders on Beth Steel -- what gives?" "I am researching the history of Johnstown's public library," I replied. His eyebrows shot up skeptically. "That ain't helpin' me," he said.

Yeah, Pennsylvania libraries often have unusual foundings!

Many of the libraries I have studied were begun by local women's clubs, other social organizations, or individual, public-spirited donors. For instance, among the ones I have researched this month, the libraries of Butler and New Castle were established by women's clubs; Sharon's was originally part of an athletic association called the Buhl Club, and Beaver Falls' public library was donated by Andrew Carnegie at the request of a fledgling library association. Even Johnstown's started along similar lines. In February of 1870, local citizens gathered at the Assistance Fire Company's hall to form the Cambria Library Association (CLA). Like many library organizations of that time, it was funded through subscriptions. Only persons who paid annual dues could borrow books.

However, from there, it gets interesting.

Among CLA's earliest members were leaders in the region's iron/steel industry and its related businesses. For example, the association's first elected president was Cyrus Elder, an attorney for the Cambria Iron Company. CLA's "library committee," responsible for obtaining bookcases and other furnishings, included Elder as well as Powell Stackhouse, who later became president of the same company (see CLA meeting minutes, February 1, 1870). As the years went by, numerous Cambria Iron Company executives served as library officers, including Daniel Morrell (who was general manager during the 1870s and 1880s) and Charles S. Price (president of the company during the 1910s).

Why would a for-profit business give so generously to a library? Unfortunately, there seem to be few extant documents to explain it. There is a gap in the CLA's minutes from 1873 to 1876, and unfortunately, I do not have access to the company's archives. Newspapers from the time period are not easily accessible, either. Luckily, Cambria Iron Company has been the subject of, or been included in, several studies connected with National Park Service's Johnstown Flood National Memorial and proposals to establish markers and sites relating to industrial history. These research efforts have shown that Cambria Iron Company, which was once the largest steel producer in the country, provided housing, health services, and meeting halls for its workers. A library was yet another facility made available in this "company town" as a way to attract employees, reduce turnover, and mold workers' personal habits. For more information, about the company, read Sharon A. Brown, Historic Resource Study: Cambria Iron Works (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1989); Margaret M. Mulrooney, A Legacy of Coal: The Coal Company Towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1989); and Kim E. Wallace et. al., The Character of a Steel Mill City: Four Historic Neighborhoods of Johnstown, Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: National Parks Service, 1989).

At any rate, men like Elder, Morrell, and Price shaped the CLA's activities and collections in distinct ways. From the beginning, the library emulated the "mechanics and apprentices libraries" of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, "open[ing] a correspondence" with them, rather than with other types of libraries in Pennsylvania (see CLA minutes, February 1, 1870). Some affluent members donated subscriptions to young working men. From a very early date, the CLA received scientific and technical publications from the U. S. government (see CLA minutes, August 30, 1870).

In 1877, the Cambria Library literally became a library of steel. Daniel J. Morrell, then the general manager of Cambria Iron Company, proposed that the corporation pay off the library's debts, continue to provide support, and establish a "suitable place" for the library. In return, the company would "take charge" of the library's books, furniture, and other property, and make them available to both ironworkers and the general public according to the same rules and subscription rates as previously. The CLA's board accepted his idea unanimously (see CLA minutes, October 20, 1877). Morrell and his company kept their word. In 1879, Cambria Iron built a 3-story brick library, right across the street from its offices. Executives within the company -- particularly Morrell and Edward Townsend (who was president of Cambria Iron during the 1870s and 1880s) -- also gave bonds, stocks, ground rents, and land toward the CLA's endowment (see CLA minutes, May 15, 1883). Thus the CLA was able to hire a paid librarian and print catalogues of its collection. When the Cambria Library was destroyed by the 1889 Johnstown Flood, John W. Townsend, one of the company's directors, collaborated with booksellers to replace missing items (see CLA minutes, March 28, 1890). Cambria Iron also "stood ready" to build anew, but stepped aside when Andrew Carnegie, another steel magnate, offered to do so (see CLA minutes, November 23, 1889 and December 10, 1889).

The former Cambria Library. This building erected by Andrew Carnegie replaced
a structure that was erected by Cambria Iron Company and destroyed in the
1889 flood. It now houses the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, officers and managers of Cambria Iron Company, which changed its name to Cambria Steel Company, continued to serve on the board. Hand-in-hand, the library continued to develop public programming, technical collections, and outreach to working class residents that was quite innovative for the time. No later than 1881, the library was distributing circulars to factory employees "acquainting them with the terms in which books can be obtained at the library." In the same year, at the instigation of board member John Fulton, it also voted to establish a "scientific institute" which would "promote the study of the sciences and their application in business operations" (see CLA minutes, January 1, 1881). I am not certain whether this was the beginning or another iteration of an existing "night school," but for decades the library hosted weekly, semester-length courses on mathematics and mechanical drawing. Unlike other libraries, which may have simply provided meeting space for other organizations who controlled such activities, the CLA actually determined which subjects would be offered, hired and compensated the instructors, demanded annual reports from them, bought equipment and supplies, renovated the classrooms as when needed, and collected deposits from the students (see CLA minutes, November 20, 1882 and September 15, 1884).  In addition to the government publications previously mentioned, the library received transactions from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and gratis copies of technical magazines from a variety of publishers (see CLA minutes, May 2, 1892). 

Importantly, Johnstown's library wasn't simply a corporate library. Although the technical courses described above tended to enroll young men from Cambria Steel and related companies, anyone paying the deposit could register. Over time, access to the library was extended to various constituents in the city. For example, in 1882 the board voted to allow schoolchildren to use the facilities (paying the annual subscription fee) if their teachers were willing to sign as guarantors. A few years later, Sunday school children were granted borrowing privileges, provided their congregations would pay 50 cents (a reduced rate) per child. By 1891, all public school children were welcomed free of charge. The board later extended this privilege to kids in nearby communities such as Conemaugh, Dale, Franklin, Morrellville, Roxbury, and Westmount. Finally, in August 1895, the Cambria Library was made free to everyone. In a single year, circulation soared from 10,000-20,000 per year, to 50,000 or more annually (see CLA minutes, June 18, 1895, July 1, 1895, August 19, 1895, and May 13, 1896). Community groups such as the Johnstown Athletic Association, the Ladies Art League, the Fortnightly Music Club, and the Zion Lutheran Church were allowed to use library's auditorium, classrooms, and gymnasium for modest fees (see CLA minutes, October 20, 1882, August 18, 1885, July 23, 1891, August 21, 1893). The library's deep collections and geographic reach helped lay the foundation for Johnstown to become the headquarters of the Cambria County Library System decades later. 

In the 1870s and 1880s, Cambria Iron Company had provided occasional financial support when the library's meager income from subscriptions and special events was outpaced by book purchases and other expenses. Starting in the 1890s, Cambria Steel and its subsequent owner, Midvale Steel, had to "make good" the difference between the library's revenue and its operating costs on an annual basis. In that decade of economic depression, several of the CLA's endowment investments paid poor dividends and/or went into default. Thus in 1895, the CLA board approached the company for an "appropriation" of $3000. This amount grew substantially as time passed (see CLA minutes, May 6, 1895). Although the library serviced a larger and more diverse population than ever before, board minutes and revenue/expense spreadsheets from the 1890s to 1920s show that the library became increasingly dependent on corporate support. It seems that it did not actively pursue other sources of funding.

The extent of the risk was realized in 1928, when Bethlehem Steel, which had acquired Midvale several years earlier, informed the CLA that it was ceasing its contributions to Johnstown's library. It promised a $36,000 final payment to carry the library forward 2 years while it sought municipal and other resources (see CLA minutes, September 27, 1928). The $3000 that the City of Johnstown committed to the library was a fraction of what the steel industry had once provided. This appropriation decreased while the area struggled through the Great Depression and the 1936 flood and attempts to garner funding from the local school board failed. So the head librarian's salary was slashed by nearly 60%, other staff were laid off, and book purchases dwindled to a few dozen per year. Even with generous support from the Women's Library Association, opening hours were trimmed (see librarian's annual reports, 1931 and 1932). It wasn't until 1946, when voters approved an annual 1/2 mil property tax, that the Cambria Library began to regain some of the ground it had lost since 1930 (see librarian's annual report, 1946).

Today, the Cambria County Library System is headquartered in a more modern building a few blocks away. It has found new corporate friends -- notably Sheetz, which provides much-appreciated coffee near the library's entrance, and O'Shea's Candies, whose chocolates are an inexpensive pick-me-up at the circulating desk. The Carnegie building still stands, now hosting the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Inside the museum, there are few vestiges of library activities. The bookshelves and circulation desk are long gone. Most visitors hop in the elevator to reach the upper floors, but for nostalgia's sake, I used the old iron stairs. Cambria Library Association can teach us a great deal -- not only about library history, but also about financing today's institutions. We are reminded that local businesses can be great allies in the causes of public entertainment and literacy. And yet we may be placing ourselves in peril if we rely on them exclusively.

An old stairway within the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From a Days Inn in eastern Ohio

I pressed my pounding head against the cool countertop, and drawled "ah'll be stayin' 'ere about 2 weeks a-think." Snow had stretched my 4-hour drive to nearly 6, and staring intently into the swirling white had given me a vicious headache. I had intended to lodge in a cabin at Moraine State Park, but 15-degree temperatures motivated me to cancel and drive to a budget hotel instead. The second I smelled the fast food grease that had clung to my sleeve, I felt nauseated and jerked my head up from the counter. The desk attendant nodded gravely, then slid a key toward me. "Room 135," he said. I re-parked my car, dragged my suitcases in, popped some Advil, and cocooned in bed. 

After 12 hours' rest, I felt much better and was ready for a full day of research in Sharon. As I walked down the hallway, I noticed gray clods of dried mud on the carpet. I shrugged  it off. Yet as the week progressed, copious amounts of dirt disappeared and reappeared in my corridor.  Within a week I realized that part of the hotel had been set aside for certain customers. And that I was relegated to it. 

On "my" side, rooms seemed smaller. Many of my neighbors were young men employed by construction or gas/oil drilling companies (hence the mud). Besides them, there were couples who arrived without bags and departed hours later. I noticed the differential treatment of us all on my second night, when I walked to the opposite side of the hotel to find a vending machine. The floors were noticeably cleaner and the hallway had fewer scuff marks. There were no crumpled McDonalds wrappers  or empty pizza boxes laying outside anyone's door. Several days later, I occupied myself while brushing my teeth by reading the faded notices pasted to my wall. I discovered that my room had once been priced at $110 per night, more than double what I was paying. 

As the days passed, I also realized that the housekeepers were neglecting me. Although they emptied the trash, supplied fresh towels, and made the bed, they never vacuumed the carpet. Dust accumulated on my bedstead and cup-rings patterned my nightstand. I wetted a facecloth and wiped things myself. Friday and Saturday nights were reminiscent of my first weeks at GWU's freshman dorm. Some residents propped their doors open, while others cranked up music or sports on their TVs. There were inexplicable bursts of stomping overhead and someone else's cannabis wafted in the air. Never very sociable, I curled up with books and Sudoku. I rolled my eyes and covered my head with my pillow when I heard the telltale moaning and rustling of sheets on the other side of my bedroom wall. 

The segregation was especially obvious on weekends. The two hallways, each leading to different sides of the hotel, met at the continental breakfast area. Comparisons between the people coming from my hallway versus theirs were stark. From my side were the girls wearing last night's clothes, furtively snatching juices. The bleary-eyed single mother with a squalling baby. The doddering elder with long, greasy hair who talked too much. The only people from my block that you *didn't* see were the construction workers and frackers. On early Saturday mornings, they were staying with family and friends, sleeping in, and/or hung over. From the opposite hallway streamed middle-class families who were just passing through. This morning as I waited for my bagel to brown, I choked on the overpowering perfume of a woman with an expensive purse slung on her shoulder. Though she was wearing jeans, designer sunglasses crowned her head. She was wearing a cashmere sweater and smart leather boots, too. At another table, an enthusiastic middle-aged couple had various pamphlets spread in front of them. Their sullen teenagers chomped on Frosted Flakes and waffles. Although the kids' ears were blocked by pounding music from their iPods, they groaned audibly when their parents decided everyone would visit the McKinley Presidential Library. 

Over the past 2 weeks, it has been amusing to think of myself as a less-desirable guest. When I described the place to my husband, he suggested that I demand a better room. But I stuck with 135 in part for sociological curiosity, and in part for the funny stories that might unfold. As a college faculty member, I have the privilege of observing, laughing, and then casting aside this experience whenever I want to. I can afford to stay in a Hampton Inn or even a Hyatt (briefly!) if I choose. All this said, though, I am glad it's my last night here. Nothing makes you feel lonelier than the constant chill of an overlong winter, away from your spouse and cat, eating nothing but shelf-stable food, in a hotel whose staff make negative assumptions about you. 

Yet I feel sorrier for the single mom who just needed a night's rest, the elderly man who just wanted conversation, and the frack boy who just wanted a filling dinner and a good lay. To me, how hotels apparently treat these customers is a microcosm of how American society often cordons off the poor, the dirty, and the rambunctious from those who are not. The twain shall never meet, and I suppose the middle-class illusion that social differences are not real remains intact. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The librarian as poet: Alice M. Sterling of New Castle

In more than 8 months of research, I have not uncovered many personal diaries or letters that reveal the "off-desk" lives of Pennsylvania librarians. Whether their entire beings revolved around their labors, or whether the documentary record is simply lacking, I cannot say. Unfortunately, this is true of Alice Myra Sterling, head of the New Castle Public Library from 1915 to 1957. Her November 2, 1970 obituary in the New Castle News informs us that she was born in 1879 in Lawrence County, PA, attended Grove City College, earned a library science degree, and was a member of various community organizations. In her later years, she was heavily involved in the Northminster Presbyterian Church. In addition to organizing its library, she was the first female to be ordained as an elder there. Yet this death notice tells us little about what these various achievements meant to her.

Alice Sterling's collection of poetry, available at the New Castle Public Library
With this in mind, I was delighted to find a small volume of Sterling's poetry when I performed a shelf-read of NCPL's local history collection. I had known that she had founded a Poetry Club in New Castle, but I wasn't sure she had written anything herself. Apparently, most of the world was in the dark, too. According to the book's preface, Sterling had lived with Caroline G. Black for the last 34 years of her life (i.e., from the mid-1930s through 1970). After Sterling's death, Black gathered the poems, and enlisted the aid of Allurah Leslie, an officer of the local Poetry Club, to categorize them as they appear in publication. I did not find any articles in the New Castle News announcing its release, so I presume the preface is correct in saying the collection was published posthumously in September 1971.
Alice Sterling certainly wasn't the only librarian of her generation with substantial artistic talent. Both O. R. Howard Thompson of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport and Mary E. Crocker of the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven were published authors. But for the first time, I decided to sit down for a few hours to read a librarian's creative writings as potential windows into her life. My skill in analyzing poetry is rudimentary at best, and unfortunately, few of the poems were dated or dedicated to specific individuals. Thus underlying contexts and meanings are difficult to discern. Still, it may be helpful to discuss reactions to them.

Annual programs of New Castle's Poetry Club,
which Alice Sterling founded in 1934.
Important yet unresolved questions are whether the speaker is Sterling herself, whether her poetry gives voice to other persons, and whether they are imagined or real. If Sterling was writing as and of herself, the section of poems on "Love and Friendship" are especially intriguing for what they say (and don't) about her personal life. Two poems appear to refer to a crush or lover who moved to the West Coast (see "The Perseids," pg. 41-42 and "Morning Song," pg. 44). Several others mention long absences of unidentified loves (see "Waiting," pg. 42; "Welcome," pg. 45;  "Valentine," pg. 46; "Birthday Greeting," pg. 48; and "In Absentia," pg. 49). If Sterling was writing about her own relationships, they must have been passionate but furtive ones. To me, the most powerful poem is "In Absentia" (pg. 49), which describes the warped reality a person in love -- especially one thwarted by love -- experiences. Despite shining sun, "velvet-soft" grass, and blooming flowers, the writer is "sick and lone" without her "beloved." In another verse, the speaker urges her muse to "become my cherished wife" and promises to be "true in all the future years" ("Another Valentine," pg. 47). Since all accounts, including Sterling's obituary, refer to her as "Miss," she probably never married. The poem "Secret" (pg. 45), which describes a passion that is expressed through glances, lends to an interpretation that if an infatuation or affair actually occurred, it was not common knowledge. My challenges in understanding Sterling's poetry reminded me that I need to re-read James V. Carmichael's pathbreaking book, Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History (Praeger, 1998).

Some poems, like "Viaduct" (pg. 15) -- which we are told should be sung to the tune of "Tannenbaum" -- were forgettable. The "Religious" poems, which seem to adapt Biblical passages to verse, weren't very interesting to me, either. Yet overall, her work was thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed "The Perseids," which describes the experience of waiting on a cool, dark night to watch the annual meteor shower. There is something endearing about a lone, middle-aged woman throwing an old raincoat on her lawn and stargazing. Then, she hears all kinds of nighttime sounds, including the creaking of wooden buildings, the milkman on his rounds, and a neighbor rummaging around in his garage. Indeed a night's stillness and our undivided attention open our ears and eyes to events we would never notice during the daytime. I also admired "The Wind," which personifies this climatic force as a "robber" who steals hats and a "soul crying out in the night" (pg. 58-59). It seemed that Sterling was at her best when describing the natural world.

One thing that struck me was the isolation and material poverty that Sterling may have experienced in her very old age. She apparently tended to use public transportation rather than driving a car (see "Traveling By Bus," pg. 8). Sadly, when a close friend moved to Beaver, it may have severed their relationship. Although Beaver is only about 20 miles away from New Castle, Sterling (who is the "Alice" of the poem) says Frances will be sorely missed and asks her to "return when [she] can" ("To Frances, Moving to Beaver," pg. 9). In "To My Maple," the speaker refers to her clothing as "shabby and old" and her home as "very plain and small" (pg. 10). This likely refers to Sterling as well. When I tried to spy her last residence on Google Maps, I found that the street apparently wasn't worth being photographed. The real estate site Zillow confirms that properties on Shaw street tend to sell for less than $100,000. Birds-eye views reveal simple rooflines and cramped yards. It is depressing to witness hard-working professional women like Sterling coming to this. 

Thankfully, if her poems are any indicator, Sterling was far from pitying herself. For example, in the same verse describing her dresses and house, she noted a maple tree in her yard that "wears hues of red, brown, and gold" that "crowns" her property (pg. 10). She also enjoyed daffodils, geraniums, nasturtiums, and other garden flowers (see "Flowers," pg. 10). Importantly, several poems indicate that Sterling believed in the power of individuals to make choices about their circumstances and perceptions. In "A Land," we see a person who yearns for a place "Where men are merciful,  love justice; where children may be safe." At the end, this speaker determines, "I must discover, nay, create this land" (my emphasis, pg. 22). Similarly, another poem describes a "Riotous World," a chaotic wartime place which is "full of terror and woe." The speaker reminds us, however, that though the world may remain "terrible," our own "horizon" can be made bearable. The answer is altruism -- comforting children, giving to people in need, praying, and "liv[ing] at peace" (pg. 26). 

Several of the poems describe a conscious turn away from both domesticity and also from political activism that Sterling tended to align with men. For example, in "Before" she cleverly juxtaposes the busy to-do lists of housewives and statesmen. The women feel they must dust, polish silver, do laundry, and conserve produce "before" they may go anywhere. Men, on the other hand, feel driven to make speeches and revise laws in the name of "progress." It seems that the housewife is only looking toward the end of a day; the politician, to the end of his term in office. Yet the speaker, who is thinking about the time she has left "before [her] last, long sleep," wants to correspond, laugh, show gratitude, and visit with friends (pg. 25). Similarly, in "A Psalm of Gratitude" she is most thankful for the "glow and fragrance" of fruit, for the "silvery water" and roar of oceans, for the "varied heritages" of people throughout the world, for a free United States, and for her ability to "work ... play ... speak ... and listen" (pg. 52). Despite whatever difficulties she may experience, the speaker seems grateful to live in the United States under any terms. For example, in the poem "Thoughts," she writes of composing a script for a weekly radio broadcast, while other women are only valued for their abilities in keeping house. Also, she is thankful she has the right to cast ballots in democratic elections, as opposed to people living in other nations whose elections are shams. She also notes her freedom to listen to the radio, whereas other people have been "shot when dials have twirled" (pg. 16).

Reading Alice Sterling's poems were good for my soul. During my sabbatical, I've encountered a lot of difficult circumstances, many of which I have yet to write about. She reminds me of John Milton's famous quotation, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven" (Paradise Lost)
Alice Sterling in later life. From Poems, 1971.