Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Last day at work!

Well, today was my last day on campus (for 9 months). I have updated my instruction materials and passed them on to colleagues; spent down all my book funds and apprised folks of items to purchase next year; wrapped up nearly all my committee work; secured PaLA's archives; deleted unneeded documents from my computer; responded to all pending e-mails; updated my dossier in Digital Measures; and informed everybody under the sun that I'm leaving. Today I finished cleaning my office, hung an away sign on my door, re-recorded my voicemail greeting, crafted an auto-reply for e-mail, and closed my office window blinds (for the 1st time in 9yrs). Tomorrow I am headed to Pottsville to finish research I started years and years ago. I will miss a lot of people terribly, and I am a little anxious about what my students, faculty, campus, library system, and job will be like when I return. But at this point, I am very glad to be turning the page. Looking forward to a lot of adventures on sabbatical!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An architectural gem: the Fisher Art (Furness) Library of theUniversity of Pennsylvania

This past weekend I attended the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, held at the University of Pennsylvania. For some attendees who had never traveled to Philadelphia, the cultural and historical offerings off-campus -- including Independence Hall, the Franklin Institute, and the Museum of Art -- were a huge attraction, and the SHARP organizers arranged tours to such sites. But for me, the biggest draw was right at UPenn: the Fisher Art Library, which had been closed on previous occasions when I had tried to drop-in for a visit (see photo 1 below). Entering the library, it seemed that every inch of the structure provided some visual delight for me (see photos 2-4, below).

The architect, Frank Furness (1839-1912), had already designed two other libraries in Philadelphia -- for the Mercentile Library and the Library Company -- when he was hired to build a library for UPenn. Interestingly, scholar George Thomas has noticed many parallels between Furness's library designs and those of factories in other areas of Philadephia (see Thomas's article in the April 2002 issue of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography). However, librarians' expertise is evident in the structure, too. During the planning stages, Furness consulted with Melvil Dewey and Justin Winsor, both long-serving officers in the American Library Association. So it may be said that their building, now called the Fisher Art Library, embodied some of the best practices of its day in terms of storing collections, enabling/inspiring people to read, and streamlining staff work procedures.

Practitioners like myself can recognize many thoughtful elements in the floorplan. For example, the library's main entrance faces major academic buildings, thus attracting students who are walking between classes. Brick, stone, and metal are used throughout, as a way of fireproofing, yet numerous clear-glass windows provide natural light for readers (see photo 5). The library has what was then called a "lobby and conversation area" on the 1st floor near the entrance, which no doubt continues to to encourage scholarly and social dialogue while containing some of the noise. The circulation ("delivery") desk, another heavily-trafficked part of any library, is near the entrance as well (see photo 6). Conversely, the reading and reference areas are sited at a quieter end of the building (see photo 7).

Although my research focuses on public libraries, the Fisher Art Library isn't a site to be passed up. It is one of the best surviving examples of 1880s library architecture in Pennsylvania, and possibly the greatest building designed by Frank Furness. Built in 1888-1891 in an "eclectic picturesque" style, it includes  a mix of beautiful ornamental details from many traditions (see photos 8 and 9). I don't know enough about architecture to describe them intelligently, but hopefully the pictures below will speak well for me. I may uncover other fine examples of library structures during my sabbatical, but it will be hard to beat the Fisher Art Library!

Photo 1: The Fisher Art Library of the University of Pennsylvania

Photo 2: The main entrance of the Fisher Art Library. What a nice fanlight!

Photo 3: The main staircase of the Fisher Art Library. Beautiful lamps!

Photo 4: Another view of the Fisher Art Library's main staircase. Note the intricate ironwork

Photo 5: Large windows allow natural light to stream into the Fisher Art Library

Photo 6: The Fisher Art Library's circulation desk is conveniently located near the entrance

Photo 7: A view looking toward the circulation area from the Fisher Art Library's reading and reference area. The archways give it a feeling of seclusion from busier parts of the library. Also note the decorative spiral staircase on the left

Photo 8: The treads on the spiral staircase at the Fisher Art Library. Interesting jigsaw pieces are one of the many eclectic design elements of the building

Photo 9: Unlike the regal grand stairway and playful jigsaw stair treads pictured above, the fireproof metal bookshelves at the Fisher Art Library have an industrial, utilitarian look

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The library that began in a bar room

With my sabbatical starting in just 3 weeks, I had to begin scheduling my research visits for August. Without thinking twice, I e-mailed the Schuylkill County Historical Society and arranged a trip on August 1st and 2nd.

I am really excited to have the chance to finish research I started years and years ago. Back in 2006 or 2007, I began investigating the history of Pottsville Free Public Library. About an hour away from where I live, and close to a Penn State colleague who could put me up for free, PFPL was definitely a "site of opportunity." I suspected it would have a fascinating history, since it is a Carnegie-funded institution and the area in general has rich labor and literary history (i.e., the "Molly Maguires" and author John O'Hara).

It turned out I was right! From rhe beginning, the small community really pulled together for its library, led by a women's club which conducted a door-by-door fundraising campaign. Somehow, a few citizens gathered more than $10,000 (in 1911 dollars) from their neighbors which enabled them to rent space for Pottsville's first public library. 

When I visited PFPL 6 years ago, I used a well-organized and carefully-preserved collection of annual reports and board minutes. I discovered to my delight that Pottsville's public library was first located in a space that had once been a bar room! Should I have been surprised, given that the city is home to Yuengling, one of the country's longest-running breweries? Still, I was intrigued. Did early librarians "serve up" Dickens and Twain while customers leaned against a brass rail? Did they use old growlers to store homebrewed book paste? Perhaps my imagination is running away with me, but you never know! 

To date, I haven't found a good picture or description of that space. Unfortunately I postponed my research when my friend moved to Altoona and I switched focus to Hannah James at Wilkes-Barre's Osterhout Free Library. But I shall return to Pottsville in a few weeks. I think the unusual location of its first public library speaks to the resourcefulness -- and perhaps desperation? -- of early library founders who "made do" with whatever resources they had at the time. By visiting SCHS, I hope I can find some images and narrative "gems" that will help me to better tell this story. 

"The library that began in a bar room" -- doesn't that sound like the beginning to a great story? Don't you want to read more? I sure do!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Less than a month to go!

May and June passed so quickly! Over the past couple months, I was very busy finishing up business as chair of Penn State's Library Faculty Organization, and then I began a new role as a mentor for the Pennsylvania Library Association's PALS leadership program. Preparing for the American Library Association annual conference kept me hopping, too. As vice-chair (now chair) of the Library History Round Table, I arranged one educational program and did a lot of administrative work. In addition, all summer long I have been inventorying PaLA's photo collection and tying up loose ends at my "day job" before I leave.

Now my sabbatical starts in 29 -- only 29! -- days! Over the next few weeks, my first priority will be to update all my instructional handouts, tutorials, and web sites, so my colleagues will be better prepared to cover my duties while I am away. I would also like to finish up and submit an article about Hannah Packard James' early career. And then, I need to make travel arrangements for August. Next month's plan is to finish research I have already begun at Pottsville, Reading, and other sites in eastern central Pennsylvania. So I need to contact each location and reconfirm the best dates for me to visit.

It's going to be a busy month!