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!

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