Friday, August 30, 2013

Teaching "Johnny Jones" how to handle books

Yesterday afternoon, my head began to nod sleepily as I slogged through a hand-search of Pennsylvania Library Notes. After a long day of using Scranton newspapers on microfilm, I was searching in vain for early articles about summer reading programs. I had bad cases of flat butt, stooped shoulder, and sore eye. Just when I began to consider quitting for the day, I found a fascinating poem published in the July 1914 issue. Below is a reproduction in its entirety:

"An Indignation Meeting" by Charlotte E. Shields, published in the July 1914 issue of Pennsylvania Library Notes

Likely, the author was the same Charlotte Shields who was head librarian at the S. D. Himmelreich Memorial Library in Lewisburg (now the Public Library for Union County). Her poem is evidence of one of early librarians' greatest woes: teaching children the proper handling of books.

Over the course of 9 years of research, I have stumbled upon countless complaints on this topic, but none is expressed so succinctly or delightfully. Here we read all the common charges against the library's littlest patrons: eating over their books, handling them with grubby fingers, breaking spines and scrawling on pages, tossing them on the floor, and allowing younger brother or sister to rip them apart. Like many moral texts intended for youngsters, it tries to engage their own senses of vulnerability and sympathy by anthropomorphizing what might otherwise seem like unfeeling "hardbacks" on the library's shelves. I especially love the signatures of book characters, each written in a unique hand and illustrative of the most popular children's titles of the day. After rubbing my eyes, leaning back, and enjoying Shields' work, I felt completely renewed. The joy in rediscovering such interesting artifacts is what really makes my project worthwhile.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An early incidence of library censorship: Scranton, 1898

During the final hours of my research at Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, I hurriedly flipped through dozens of vertical file folders containing hundreds of brittle newsclippings. I had already found much of the material elsewhere, so I only glanced quickly at headlines. I flew by a particular article but then paused after its meaning registered in my brain. It was titled, "Are These Proper Books For The Library Shelves?: A Very Indignant Letter From 'A Catholic Citizen.'"

Oh-ho. Censorship!

On October 9, 1898, the Scranton Free Press published a reader's complaint about the presence of Augusta Jane Evans-Wilson's novel, Inez, A Tale of the Alamo in the Scranton Public Library. The article included lengthy excerpts from the text, which appeared to portray a priest who had much manipulative power over the heroine. The "sworthy" priest spoke "menancingly" to Inez and told her not to associate with a Protestant friend. He also tried to compel the girl to marry against her will. The reader also took issue with the book's descriptions of xeveral Catholic sacraments. Within a few days, Scranton City Councilman James J. Grier, himself a Catholic, submitted a resolution that "the joint auditing committee of councils be directed to withhold approval of all bills for the Scranton public library until such time as the novels of Augusta J. Evans, the dramas of Wycherly and Congrieve, and all other books tending toward religious prejudice and immorality have been excluded from said Scranton Public Library (source not cited on newsclipping, possibly Scranton Free Press, October 14, 1898). This was a very serious threat, using the power of the purse to force the library's hand. Deeper in the folder, I found additional articles, and when I returned to Harrisburg, I used microfilmed copies of the Scranton Republican and Scranton Times to round out my growing archive on the incident.

Circulation desk of the Scranton Public Library, 1890s. Photo courtesy of the Lackawanna Historical Society
Poring over a half-inch thick pile of photocopies, what strikes me most is how arguments for and against censorship have not changed much over the past century. One side, represented by the Scranton Free Press, worried about the negative social influence bad books could have, especially on children. They also emphasized the moral sensibilities that all religions and most citizens shared. There were also objections to tax funding being used to purchase poor-quality materials. Some quotes that illustrate this position:

"The Catholic people pay taxes and have a right to be considered in this matter. I as a councilman and a Catholic will not stand it to have such books in the library" (attributed to Councilman James Grier, Scranton Republican, October 14, 1898).

"If a line can be drawn in the doings of our daily life, why can it not be drawn in books? If we would not have our children listen to sensational gossip, to lewd conversation, to bigoted harangues against our own faith, why must we pay for books in which these very themes are the subjects upon which the authors treat? Not only permit the reading, but pay for the books" (Scranton Free Press, October 30, 1898).

Other the other side, writers to the Scranton Republican pointed to the non-sectarian purpose of the public library. They also argued that if the library tried to purge every title that *could* offend *someone*, it would have *nothing* left on its shelves. In addition, they held the professionalism of librarian Henry Carr and the religious diversity of the library's Board of Trustees in high esteem. Surely these men did not deliberately include anti-Catholic or pernicious literature in the library. Finally, using rhetoric that is an interesting choice regarding an institution that existed to improve the community through reading, the library's supporters questioned whether a few novels could really influence anyone so profoundly. For instance:

"Scranton's public librarian is a man of rare judgment in book lore, having had an experience that puts him away and beyond the minds that would undertake to censor the books in his charge. There are men in the city councils who will grasp at any sort of excuse for withholding the appropriation that is the library's due, even to the humiliation of the city away from home. These are men who wouldn't be hurt the least bit if a careful censor was to measure their words for them before they were given public utterance" (Providence Register, October 15, 1898).

"It seems to us to have been at least unwise that the questions of religious differences should have been introduced into the public library ... The question was raised under a gross misapprehension as to the spirit and scope of such an institution ... The library is a public institution, broad as the public taste. In it should be found everything of literature that the public might demand. No distinction should be made because of political or religious opinion" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"Persons of sound convictions will not be influenced by the pictures of a novelist, whether they be correct or otherwise. Children's reading under all circumstances should be under the direction of their parents or some other persons of judgment" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"If Augusta Wilson were [unreadable] for her alleged anti-Catholic [unreadable], F. Marion Crawford would be [unreadable] for just the converse reason. On and on the list would go. The King James or the Douay bibles would not be permitted, and any translation of the New Testament would be excluded ... 'Ben Hur' and the 'Last Days of Pompeii' would be tabooed for the same reason" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"Perhaps there may be publications that theologically do not meet the peculiar sentiment of our Catholic friends within the library, and there may also be some .. which do not conform altogether with the tenets of Protestantism. ... And then there are our Atheistic friends!" (Scranton Republican, October 17, 1898).

"If the work [censorship] were commenced where would it end?  .. Indeed, English literature is predominantly a controversial literature. There is hardly a work in the language worth the paper it is printed on, that is not strong tinged with the opinions of the author. Gibbon's valuable history is opposed to all religion. Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin were atheists and showed it in their writings  ... When would it end? When the library shelves are stripped bare" (Scranton Republican, October 24, 1898).

Ultimately, during its meeting on October 18, 1898, Scranton's City Council decided to appoint a special committee, chaired by Grier, to meet with librarian Carr (Scranton Times, October 14, 1898). They met for an hour or more on October 30th, during which time Carr invited them to bring their concerns to Reverend Daniel J. McGoldrick, who was then the president of the University of Scranton (a Catholic institution), a library board member, and one who "use[d] the library every day and has a most extensive knowledge of books." Carr also referred to his profession's standards, explaining that the objectionable titles were available in major city libraries, including Boston and Chicago, and that many of the books he purchased received positive reviews (Scranton Sunday Free Press, October 30, 1898). It seems that the matter concluded in early November. The Scranton Free Press announced that "the Library will be cleansed and ... more care and a greater measure of true and wise liberality will hereafter be evident in selection of books is also certain" (November 6, 1898).

Henry Carr, head of the Scranton Public Library during the censorship controversy of 1898. Photo courtesy of the Albright Memorial Library
From the library's perspective, the events of October and November 1898 may not have been as controversial as the newspapers made them appear. The board of trustees certainly took the public's concerns seriously, for it instructed Carr to provide Council with any information it requested. Yet following his meeting with the special committee, Carr reported that he was "without particular results to report." After the board engaged in "considerable and amicable discussion of the general subject matter of book inclusion and exclusion," it voted "that as the Librarian has, in the past, been instructed to exercise his best discretion in the restriction of any books not considered desirable for general circulation, the Board deems it wise to continue the rule and have the same duty still rest with him regarding such books as may be found reasonably objectionable" (Scranton Public Library, Board of Trustees Minutes, November 12, 1898). Thus to me, it seems like the library returned to business. Councilman Grier may have won on Evans and Wycherley, but not on Congrieve. When I checked the 1903 Index Catalogue of the Scranton Public Library, I did not find Augusta Evans, Inez, A Tale of the Alamo, or any works by William Wycherley. However, the library apparently retained copies of William Congrieve's Best Plays. Not knowing much about the history of Scranton, I have no idea whether this conflict over books could (or should) be situated within broader themes such as possible conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the city, questions about board versus governmental control over the new library, personality clashes between various members of city council, rivalries between the editors of the Free Press and the Republican, or other potential contexts. But it is certainly a thought-provoking episode in Pennsylvania library history.

Did Harold Wooster start summer reading programs in Pennsylvania?

"Firsts" are among the hardest facts to prove. Trying to do so is like tracing a river to its source. Just when you trudge around what you think is the last bend, you see that the stream actually meanders endlessly to the horizon. You groan, heave a deep sigh, and keep on plodding, sometimes losing your sense of time, place, or purpose. Thus when I was doing research in Scranton this past week, and I discovered what I think may be the earliest example of a children's summer reading program in Pennsylvania, my excitement was tempered by weariness. In Scranton's annual reports and board minutes, I found that Harold Wooster describing a "Vacation Reading Club" in operation during the early 1930s. Reading his words about choosing themes, collaborating with school officials to assemble appropriate reading lists, and crafting attractive certificates and "honor roll" posters to acknowledge the participants, I recognized many of the elements that are part of today's summer reading programs. I couldn't help but wonder, "was this the start of it all?"

Today, summer reading is an annual, all-out rite of passage in many children's departments. According to a factsheet by the American Library Association, more than 90% of public libraries offer such programs. Staff may spend the better part of spring beefing up their collections, selecting and ordering giveaway items, arranging events, and publicizing their programs. Summer of course is devoted to reading and its related hoopla. Then, according to some of my colleagues, late summer and early fall are dedicated to clean-up and recuperation (ahem, "debriefing"). Luckily, since the 1990s a Collaborative Summer Library Program has eased some of the work by selecting themes and developing bookmarks, reading logs, and other support materials. Still, I remember from my days working in public libraries that most of us were thrilled while summer reading was happening and equally thrilled when it ended!

Given how widespread summer reading is, it is worthwhile to pinpoint where, when, and how it developed in Pennsylvania. Stephanie Bertin, once a graduate student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, wrote a helpful literature review using articles published in Library Journal and School Library Journal. It may be unfortunate that she didn't include Public Libraries, Wilson Library Bulletin, or publications by state library associations in her analysis. But her overview still provides helpful clues. She cites the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which once sponsored a "Training School for Children's Librarians," as offering one of the first summer reading programs in the 1890s. Having read through CLP's annual reports, however, I tend to think calling it a summer reading program in the modern sense of the term is a bit of a stretch. It is true that CLP staff delivered books, interacted with children, and provided storytimes in city parks during the summer. But I haven't yet found evidence in 1890s Pittsburgh of the highly structured activity -- including age-graded recommended book lists, individual reading logs, and various levels of prizes for greater quality or quantity of reading -- that libraries utilize today. Significantly, Bertin does not mention any other Pennsylvania summer readings programs until she cites an article from the 1930s about Scranton's.

My favorite resource for fact-checking Pennsylvania library history, a periodical called Pennsylvania Library Notes, also provides more tantalizing possibilities than definitive answers. Published from 1908 to 1941 by the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission (and later the State Library of Pennsylvania), PLN contains proposed library laws, statistical reports on public library development, conference proceedings from the Keystone State/Pennsylvania Library Association, practical tips and thought-pieces from contributors, and news items from all types of libraries across the state. I didn't have the patience to pore over every one-sentence blurb in the "news" sections, but I found very little discussion about summer reading until a 1937 article written by Harold Wooster.

Harold Wooster, director of Scranton Public Library in the 1930s and early 1940s, president of the Pennsylvania Library Association in 1937, and a possible pioneer of summer reading programs in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Albright Memorial Library
Prior to his contribution, PLN certainly contained occasional discussions about story hours and reading clubs (for instance, see several papers within the proceedings of the 1913 KSLA conference, published in the October 1913 issue); children's behavior and reading habits (see a paper by Emma R. Engle of the Free Library of Philadelphia, published in the October 1915 issue); sparking kids' interest in reading (see Katherine Rock of Greenville's 1928 PaLA conference paper, published in the October 1928 issue); and development of children's book collections (many articles, but especially Olive Marie Archibald's piece in the October 1933 issue). Of these, only Rock mentioned a "vacation reading club," and all she said is that they are "growing in number annually in American libraries." She did not cite any Pennsylvania examples, nor did she suggest how they should be run. The only other article that might contain genealogical evidence is a January 1934 bit by Helen Betterly, then the Children's Librarian at the Osterhout Free Library of Wilkes-Barre. In it, she described a "Treasure Hunt" activity she used during Children's Book Week. Like today's summer reading programs, the Osterhout's selected a group of high-quality books and developed a fun activity around them. Participating children filled out sheets of trivia questions whose answers could be found in the readings (kind of resembles a reading log, but not quite). Those who completed the activity won prizes. However, in Betterly's time, Children's Book Week was in November or December, not the summertime.

It is unclear whether Harold Wooster designed and implemented summer reading himself, or if the originator was actually Louise Kiefer (or Keefer?), Scranton's long-serving children's librarian. None of the extant articles about the program mention her. Examining the library's annual reports and board of trustees meeting minutes, however, it is clear that the Vacation Reading Club in Scranton began in 1931, not long after Harold Wooster became director. That year, they enrolled more than 1,400 children and thus increased circulation by more than 7,000 volumes (Scranton Public Library, Board of Trustee Minutes, October 9, 1931). As of 1937, the year for which the most detailed information exists, the Vacation Reading Club was specifically targeting children in grades 3-8, and past themes included "Explorers Club," "Adventurers Club," "Pioneers Club," and "Treasurer Seekers Club." Much like today's Collaborative Summer Reading Program, Scranton's 1937 materials used illustrations from a well-known children's book (in this case, Westward to the Stars, by Marion McIntyre McDonough). Decorations in the library also played on the "treasure" theme, including gold book cloth used to cover selected titles, and grade-level markings cut from "glazed paper" to resemble silver, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Wooster prided himself on his program's "simplicity," which involved a brief conversation (rather than a written report) between a library staff member and each child who finished a book (Wooster, "Vacation Reading Clubs at Scranton," PLMN, October 1937, pg. 20-21). The popularity of Scranton's summer reading program is evidence of its successful design: each year, it attracted well over 1,000 participants (Scranton Public Library, 1931-1942 Annual Reports). In 1939, after years of struggling financially, Wooster contemplated ending the annual ritual, but ultimately decided it had too much "promise and usefulness." That year, he selected the theme of "Discovering New Worlds," coinciding, no doubt, with the 1939 World's Fair (Scranton Public Library, Board of Trustees Minutes, March 10, 1939). After Wooster left in 1942 to lead a public library in Newton, Massachusetts, Scranton's new director, Arnold Rosaaen, continued summer reading at Scranton. In the 1940s, themes turned toward American life, patriotism, and other topics that spoke to the wartime interests of the community. It is remarkable that in the depths of the Great Depression and World War II, when the library's materials budget was only a few cents per capita, that it was able to serve so many people.

In a lifetime of research, I won't ever be able to delve so deeply into the history of every library in Pennsylvania. So I don't feel confident in saying that Scranton offered the "first" summer reading program in our state. However, if Wooster did not originate the idea, he did much to popularize it among colleagues by writing about it in professional venues. Following a short blurb in the June 15, 1935 issue of Library Journal, he contributed a more detailed piece in the March 21, 1936 issue of Publisher's Weekly. Apparently at the request of the editor of Pennsylvania Library and Museum Notes, he then published more nuts and bolts -- including past themes, tips for gathering the necessary duplicate copies, and monitoring the children's achievements -- in the October 1937 issue of PLMN. The fact that he was President of the Pennsylvania Library Association at the time probably amplified his voice. Following these publications, Wooster stated that he had received queries from the Bethlehem (PA) Public Library as well as colleagues in different states and he willingly sent them information (Scranton Public Library, Board of Trustees Minutes, April 17, 1936). I would love to hear from Pennsylvania libraries who hold documentation of early summer reading programs, especially if they are older than Scranton's or can be traced to its.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Thinking about the Albright Memorial Library as (highbrow?) place

Several years ago, when I read Lawrence W. Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, I wondered why he identified libraries as "highbrow" institutions. Levine's basic idea was that during the late 19th century, certain American past-times, such as listening to opera music or attending Shakespearian plays, came to be identified with socioeconomic elites. Although other scholars have since poked holes in his thesis, I can't dismiss Levine simply because he failed to acknowledge the omnivorous cultural consumption of the wealthy, or because he did not consider possible implications of gender and race, or because he did not examine periods beyond the late 19th/early 20th century. Reading his book as a working class person who became a librarian and who views my job as an effort to understand (first) and assist (second) similar people, it bothers me on a personal level that Levine labels my enterprise "highbrow."

Since I am unable to spar with Levine himself, during my sabbatical I have remained alert for examples of how public libraries have defined "culture," and the people and activities such definitions include.

One thought-provoking example is the  Albright Memorial Building of the Scranton Public Library. In 1889, a fundraising campaign had been underway to establish a public library for the city, when the children of Joseph J. and Elizabeth Albright offered to construct one in honor of their parents. Jennie R. Bennell, Maria H. Archibald, Henry C. Albright, and John Joseph Albright wrote to the Scranton Board of Trade and proposed to donate the family homestead on the corner of Washington and Vine Streets to the city. Further, J. J. Albright pledged to build a library "of the value of from $50,000 to $75,000" on the property. Importantly, the heirs explained that their motives were to "provide a suitable literary and educational element not heretofore supplied, for the elevation of the people of all classes who may desire to avail themselves of the privileges conferred." They stipulated that the city "reasonably maintain" the building, and that a board of 15 members supervise its operations. Requiring the City of Scranton to support the institution was a milestone in Pennsylvania's library history, because at the time, many libraries were owned and operated by corporations which charged their patrons annual fees or subscriptions. The great public libraries of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Erie did not yet exist, and libraries in Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Altoona were all subscription-based. Notable exceptions were the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre and other entities in smaller communities which were supported by endowments substantial enough that no costs need be passed to users. Thus Scranton Library was public ownership was unusual.

The composition of Scranton Public Library's board was carefully prescribed in its governing documents. There were to be 3 members apointed from the legal profession, 3 members apointed by the local Board of Trade, 4 members from "the citizens at large," and 5 members appointed from the clergy (Scranton Public Library, 1892 Annual Report). The Mayor of Scranton, who appointed most members to the body when vacancies arose, was an ex-officio member as well. Thinking about issues of exclusivity a la Levine, it might be easy to pick at such an arrangement, noting that lawyers, industrialists, and reverends represent a community's financial and social elite. It could be added that there were no female trustees for at least the first 50 years of the library's existence, and, while each of the clergy board spots were reserved for a specific Christian dominations, there were no assigned positions for AME, Jewish, or other possible religious leaders. Yet, understanding the composition of the board within the context of its own era (not ours), the careful balance of men from the bar, commerce, churches, and the general public -- and especially the required inclusion of Catholics on the board -- may have been progressive for its day.

Standing at the corner of Vine and Washington this past week, I allowed my eyes to lose focus a little to imagine the building as part of a surrounding community during the 1890s. Some libraries are deliberately planted near governmental buildings, or commercial centers, or schools, or residential neighborhoods. Such locations can be significant clues to the intended audiences of their services. But I doubt the siting of the Albright Memorial Library was a similarly purposeful statement because the location was primarily one of convenience (remember, the library's grounds were once the Albright family homestead). But that doesn't mean that the area lacks a story. Sanborn maps from 1884 show that the block once contained large residential homes with substantial yards. Yet by 1919, many of these structures were knocked down or transformed to offer civic and club headquarters, such as a city branch of the Red Cross, a "club house" for the BPO Elks, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Perhaps the construction of the Albright Memorial Library was the beginning of the transformation of the immediate community from private to social (if not public) space.

The Albright Memorial Building, Scranton Public Library
Ultimately, the Albright Memorial Library cost $125,000 -- $50,000 more than J.J. Albright had initially proposed. Designed by architects Green & Wicks of Buffalo, New York, the structure is said to have been inspired by the Musee de Cluny (now the Musee National de Moyenne Age) in Paris. The exterior stone is Indiana limestone, topped with a steep roof of black Spanish tiles. Inside, there is a beautiful marble mosaic floor, and most of the woodwork is quarter-sawn oak. The most eye-catching features are more than 50 stained glass windows, each with different designs and colors. The windows depict the crests of the custom bookbindings used for various 15th-17th century European royals and noblemen. Visitors can pick up a "Stained Glass Windows Tour" brochure at the circulation desk. Noticing the churchly, multihued glow streaming in from each window, it's interesting to think about the reverence people used to have for the printed word.

One of many stained glass windows in the Albright Memorial Building, Scranton Public Library
In the early 1890s, the library was considered the pinnacle of design, featured in the July 1892 edition of Library Journal. On the first floor, there was a general reading room and a periodical room -- nothing usual -- but the second floor offered a class room and a lecture room, pointing toward the building's intended use as a place for civic and educational activities. A wing perpendicular to the building held closed stacks, which were easily accessible from service desks. Since then, the periodical area has been converted to administrative offices, the lecture room has been redesignated as a research area, and the closed stacks have been opened for public browsing. Perhaps the most striking change has been the closing-in of the second-floor balcony, which has blocked the stream of natural light to the first floor, but now provides much more space for customers. 

As magnificent as the Albright Memorial Library is, records ultimately revealed that the entire vision was not fully implemented at first. Until 2001, when library director Jack Finnerty rediscovered the documentation, no one knew that plans had originally included landscaping designe by Frederick Law Olmstead. Through a decade of effort, including the removal of a parking lot and the addition of dozens of perennial plants, the grounds finally came to life (Sunday Times, April 1, 2001). A list of the dozens of trees, bushes, and flowers, available in the library's historical records, includes American redbud, dogwood, honeysuckle, rhododendron, snowball viburnum, and many other beauties.

As I shot pictures in and outside the library, I continued to have difficulty deciding whether the Albright Memorial Library was "highbrow" or "lowbrow." Rhetoric about "elevating" its customers points to a social hierarchy that Lawrence Levine would have found intriguing. Yet, other possible stories about the library's users can be told which upset such an interpretation. For instance, despite the elite design of the architecture and gardens, it bears noting that the person who actually built Albright Memorial Library was a self-made man. Conrad Schroeder (1846-1903) was born in Germany and apprenticed as a stonemason. After emigrating to the United States, he settled in Scranton and became a contractor. Though he died early (an interesting story about a supposed self-inflicted gunshot), and an otherwise helpful tour guide to the city's architecture scarcely acknowledges Schroeder's contributions, the city's landscape would be unimaginable without him. He erected many prominent buildings, including the Scranton Board of Trade Building (now better known as the "Electric Building"), the Scranton High School (now administrative offices of the Scranton School District), the Lackawanna County Prison, Elm Park Church, and many others.

Ultimately, I suppose the yardstick for measuring "highbrowness" is to listen to the library's customers. How do they feel about the space, what do they hope to do when they enter, how are they treated there? Newspaper coverage of the time hints at the response. One reporter who toured the building soon after it opened wrote, "satiated with the princely rooms, the marble halls, and the oaken woodwork, the stranger although impressed with the aristocracy nevertheless senses the home-like atmosphere of mutuality that permeates the building. Like countless others who visited the library for the first time, he takes a book rather gingerly from its place after a glance at the contents, seats himself at a cozy window seat and unconsciously loses himself in the interesting volume and forgets he is a stranger in 'Our Library'" (undated newsclipping, no date or source given). This past week, I encountered a similar attitude within a young mother who was gazing at stained glass as she rocked her child's stroller back and forth. As she was trying to lull her baby to sleep, I whispered that the windows sure were interesting, and did she know the story behind them? "Something to do with books, I guess," she said, " I don't really know, but you're right, they are pretty. Peaceful-like." I could have told her about the Musee de Cluny and 15th-century bookbinding, but I decided it didn't really matter.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sorry, but it's time to EXtrinsically reward librarians!

As a library historian, I try to break the methodological bounds of institutional history by seeking unusual sources of information. I especially try to do so when researching the people who founded and worked in libraries. I believe strongly that a "whole person" approach is needed, because we can learn a lot about individuals' professional and social viewpoints by understanding their lives outside of the library.

In the past, I've tracked down all kinds of biographical information, including census records, educational records, property deeds, wills, obituaries, and tombstone epitaphs. Often, various sources perform like an orchestra -- each one contributing uniquely, and yet harmoniously, to the same tune. Other times, the sources present jarring notes which are difficult to take in as a whole.

Photocopies spread all around me, I have been struggling to make sense of the life of L. Edith Patterson (ca. 1878-1969), the longtime librarian of Pottsville Free Public Library. Born in Virginia and educated at what was then the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh, Patterson came to Pottsville in 1918 following stints in Mansfield, PA, Youngstown, OH, and Bloomsburg, PA. I am especially interested in her because she was president of the Pennsylvania Library Association in 1924 and remained active on various committees. For decades, she also ran a small "apprenticeship" program which provided pre-professional library education to local women, some of whom went on to professional careers. Although Patterson tried to retire at several points, she remained head librarian at Pottsville until 1959 or 1960.

Although she died more than 40 years ago, L. Edith Patterson is still remembered in certain circles. Peter "Doc" Yasenchak, the current Director of the Schuylkill County History Society, interacted with her personally and recalls her deep knowledge of the community's history. I found his impression to be borne out when I uncovered a booklet printed for Pottsville's Sequicentennial Celebration (1956). Inside is a 4-page article on "Pottsville's Picture Past," written by Patterson. Similarly, I found two articles she wrote for volume 7 of the Publications of the Historical Society of Schulykill County. In the opening pages of the issue, she was described as an "authority on Schuylkill County history."

Another indication of Patterson's value to her adopted hometown is the fact that her obituary was published on the front page of the Pottsville Republican (see May 1, 1969 issue).  Unlike typical death notices of the time, Patterson's was more than a column in length and included her picture. It described her connections to regional authors, the most famous perhaps being Conrad Richter. The obituary also mentions awards that she won from the Pottsville Women's Club, the local VFW post, and other organizations.

Yet when I found Patterson's will, I was struck by how poor she had apparently been at the end of her life. Her only surviving relatives were a few cousins. She left a total of $2600.00 to various persons, the largest gift being to Hazel Leddy, a former employee. The remainder of her property was bequeathed to the Pottsville Free Public Library, but to call it an "estate" seems like a joke. Listed on two and a half sheets of paper, the entire contents of her apartment were valued at $409.60. Much of her furniture was "worn," including a "fretwork table" that was "broken," a floor-length mirror which was in "need of silver," and a "white sewing machine -- very old" which had "no value." Her most substantial possessions were her books, some of which were signed by the authors (collectively worth $50.00), some "odd pieces" of sterling silver (valued at $15.00), and a record player ($7.50).  According to a June 17, 1969 letter from the library's director to the executor of Patterson's will, the only items that the library wanted were some of the books, several etchings, and a refrigerator to be used in the staff lunch room. Reading Patterson's will, I vaguely recalled library board minutes from the 1940s, in which she repeatedly asked for salary increases and for library employees to be included in Pennsylvania's school retirement system. Since my research stops at the end of World War II, I don't know the outcome of her requests. But the inventory of her sparse belongings seems evidence of decades of low wages taking their toll.

I try not to project the present upon the past, or the past upon the present, but the fact that a 90 year-old woman had so few material comforts after a lifetime of success deeply troubles me. Patterson's story is so often other librarians' stories. I suppose most of us would shrug our shoulders and rationalize that we "don't get into the profession for the money" and that the intrinsic (intellectual and social) rewards of the job make up for a lower standard of living. But I feel it is highly unjust -- especially now, when entrĂ©e requires tens of thousands of dollars' worth of college and post-baccalaureate education. Instead of recruiting more and more people to librarianship, I think our professional organizations should take up the cause of supporting librarians who are already here. In my mind, the fight should not only include mild-mannered education on personal finance (such as ALA and PaLA sometimes provide), but also publicity campaigns and political demonstrations regarding salary and retirement. Let's boldly talk about wages, health care, retirement, leave time, and other "extrinsic" nitty-gritty. Let's not be afraid to use the language of labor unions, the thought of which seems to appall so many "professionals"!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Driving back in time with the Lancaster County bookmobile

I believe one of the most compelling stories in Pennsylvania's library history is the ongoing struggle to circulate reading material to rural communities. So I was thrilled to find a large cache of newspaper articles and photographs at the Lancaster Public Library (LPL) which document its efforts to reach customers in Lancaster County.

LPL wasn't the first library organization to reach out to smaller communities. Up until at least World War I, the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission, founded in 1899 and affiliated with the State Library of Pennsylvania (SLP), had been successfully distributing "traveling libraries" in Lancaster County. A traveling library was a small collection of handpicked books which was shipped out to a community for temporary use (for an excellent description of the traveling library phenomenon, see Joanne Passet's article in the Winter 1991 issue of Libraries & Culture). In Pennsylvania, books were typically packed in 2’ x 3’ oak crates which also served as bookcases. Any town or village in the Keystone State could obtain a traveling library, provided that 12 residents signed a form and were willing to pay $2.00 toward the cost of transporting each bookcase. They were deemed “trustees” of the traveling library, and one of them was designated a “librarian” who was responsible for circulating materials. The books were housed in post offices, general stores, public schools, and sometimes even in private homes. By 1910, the Commission was delivering books to thousands of people in 63 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

Since much of the Commission's work was accomplished through the State Library, it may have seemed economical to sunset the Commission. In 1919, it was abolished and its work was assumed by the State Library's Extension Department. However, judging from SLP's annual reports (which mention traveling libraries infrequently, if at all, in the 1920s and 1930s), it appears that the state curtailed such efforts in favor of providing technical assistance to townspeople who wished to establish and run libraries of their own. A 1917 law authorized existing libraries to contract with county governments to provide services to additional communities, and in 1931, legislation provided state aid to county libraries who did so. Depending on the population of the county, the state matched county funding by 20-125%. Thus, some libraries, including LPL, were encouraged to think and act outside city boundaries.

Although an 1911 pamphlet about the "aims, progress, and needs" of the library indicated that its constituency was both "Lancaster City and County, PA," in the years immediately after it was founded, the A. Herr Smith Library (as LPL was then called) focused its efforts primarily, if not exclusively, on the city. News articles published in the 1900s and 1910s, which reprint the librarian's quarterly and annual reports to the library board, never mention countywide efforts. However, shortly after Helen Umble became librarian, there was a new interest in extension. Based on the documentation I have found so far, it appears that Lancaster Public Library first began sending books out of the city in the summer of 1919, when it provided more than 200 volumes each to Ephrata and Mount Joy High School (New Era, September 19, 1919). A December 3, 1919 letter sent from a library employee to "Miss Schaeffer" at Ephrata High School accompanied the shipment, along with a "circulation book," "registration book," and stacks of applications and borrowers cards. Subsequent articles mention a "Marietta Branch" (for instance, see New Era, January 15, 1923), a "Columbia branch" (New Era, November 11, 1925),"deposit stations" at Columbia, Conestoga Center, East Petersburg, and Kirkwood (New Era, November 11, 1925), an "Elizabethtown Branch" (New Era, October 16, 1926), branches at Lititz and New Holland (New Era, November 1, 1940), and a library in Adamstown (New Era, October 22, 1945), created through partnerships between Lancaster Public Library and community or school volunteers.

As early as 1928, Umble began to argue for bookmobile service, rather than the small, drop-off collections Lancaster was then providing. In her report for the summer of 1928, she wrote "it seems to me that personal contact, however obtained, is always exceedingly valuable. In this, libraries having a book truck, or 'Parnassus on wheels,' have the advantage over the library, such as ours, maintaining rural deposit stations" (New Era, October 15, 1928). In 1931, as she prepared to resign her position, the 1931 county library aid act was passed, and Umble urged the board to apply for funding (New Era, September 15, 1931).

Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, Lancaster faced challenges in maintaining its former level of service to the county. Documentation in LPL's files may not be entirely complete, but it contains dozens of confusing legal agreements between LPL, the City of Lancaster, the County of Lancaster, and the County School Board, some of which were signed, some not. The newspapers tell of instances when the School Board withdrew its annual appropriation and the City Council reduced its yearly commitment (for instance, see New Era, January 13, 1933). On at least one occasion, the new librarian, Margaret Critchfield, was placed in the unenviable position of publicly urging residents to contact their commissioners, or face losing free access to materials (New Era, July 8, 1933).

Despite or perhaps because of the ongoing inadequacy and uncertainty of funding, volunteers felt compelled to help. LPL's newspaper files speak of many small, ad hoc donations for county library service. But a particularly important gift occurred in 1936, when the Lancaster County Federation of Women's Clubs started to raise funds for a truck to distribute books to rural communities (New Era, February 27, 1937). A large donation by Effie Detweiler of Columbia pushed their effort over the top, and regular bookmobile service started in 1939 (New Era, November 11, 1938).

Lancaster's first bookmobile was a "panel" type truck converted for library service. The sides of the chassis lifted up to reveal about 1,000 volumes. There were writing shelves and a typewriter compartment so that the librarians could issue borrower's cards on the spot (New Era, undated, ca. May 1939). Some years later, LPL acquired a "walk-in" type that could comfortably serve patrons in all weather. Although the bookmobile only made its rounds once a month, within 3 years it had circulated more than 11,000 books. By its 10th anniversary, it had distributed more than 400,000 volumes (New Era, November 14, 1944, and May 1, 1949).

LPL has a variety of interesting newsclippings and photographs documenting its bookmobile service. One especially colorful article, published in the New Era on May 1, 1949, describes how women's clubs collected more than 25,000 metal coat hangers and turned them in for cash to buy new books. They also wrote and sold a "Friends of the Bookmobile Cookbook" (a copy of which I have yet to uncover). Perhaps the most interesting parts of the article describe "Miss Harsh," (Elinor Harsh) who began driving the bookmobile in 1941. Noted for her "warm friendliness," she was depicted as providing "a cup of coffee for a bookmobile patron on a cold day, or a glass of lemonade in the Summer," and had even "led the fast-moving evacuation of a group of book-borrowers from a farmyard and into the truck when an angry bull came around the house and started pawing up the grass." LPL's files also include publicity photos shot in 1956 or 1957, showing Harsh and her colleague Margaret Watson along their route, washing their hands at a public trough, eating lunch atop a plywood box they carried into the brush, and reading a story before a classroom of children. Among my favorites is a shot taken by someone seated behind the women as they drove. From this vantage point, one can see Lancaster County through their eyes: miles of rolling cornfields, occasionally punctuated by a farmhouse or church. One can't help but wonder what they were thinking about as their eyes scanned the road ahead.

We know where you live!: chasing down overdues at Lancaster Public Library

Lancaster Public Library is proving to be one of the richest sites I have visited, in terms of documentation about its long history. Thusfar I have found hundreds of news articles, a substantial collection of legal documents, dozens of thought-provoking photographs, and various eye-catching pamphlets. Yesterday, I stumbled upon a delightful pair of artifacts: two "Messenger Books." These small notebooks list each title long-overdue at LPL from 1916 to 1923, and from 1931 to 1932. 

Messenger Book from Lancaster Public Library, 1916-1923

Messenger Book from Lancaster Public Library, 1932-1933
Entries include the overdue books' authors and call numbers, the dates they were checked out, and the names, library card numbers, and home addresses of the borrowers. Definitely a hot potato, because of Pennsylvania's laws regarding the confidentiality of patron records -- a right to privacy that has no statute of limitations. I informed LPL administrators of the books' existence, and they are now developing proper safeguards for such records.* Although I can't discuss individual borrowers, I will describe the library's efforts to reclaim its materials. The books include various notes which reveal the messengers' efforts and successes in tracking down each volume. 

Using LPL's newspaper files, I already knew that the library sometimes employed teenage boys to visit residences and retrieve overdue books. I had also discovered that the library used federally-funded workers for the same purpose during the Great Depression. Nonetheless, the actual notebooks, which no doubt became so tattered as they were continually pulled from and shoved into pockets, thumbed through and scrawled inside with rushed and sweaty hands, provide tangible clues about how the messenger boys operated.

Back in the days when mothers were often home and fewer people commuted long distance to work, in-person visits were apparently quite effective. Most entries are marked "returned," although fines often went unpaid. In some cases, intrepid messengers tracked borrowers across state lines. For example, one dutifully noted that a certain patron, who borrowed the library's copy of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables in the winter of 1917, moved to Seekonk, Massachusetts. Apparently (s)he moved at least once in the Bay State, for beside one scratched-out address, the messenger penciled-in "wrote letter," and recorded the new location. There may have been even worse offenders than this particular borrower, for underneath some names is written a more omninous-sounding note: "constable letter." I didn't have time to make a scientific study of it, but it also seems that all kinds of materials and people crossed paths in the library. Let us say that men, women, and children failed to return all kinds of items, from children's picture books, to classic novels, to hydraulics repair manuals.

LPL's messenger books seemed laughable to me at first -- evidence of an earlier generations' inordinate obsession with collections and their care. Most librarians today wouldn't send staff across the hall, let alone across town, for a measly 65-cent fine! It is far easier to sigh deeply and buy a new copy. When I worked at Enoch Pratt Free Library years ago, some of my colleagues didn't blink when ordering dozens of duplicate Bibles or GED practice manuals. They'd stash the Ingram boxes in their offices, and when all shelf copies proved missing (i.e., at least once per month), they'd go to the back rooms, pull out a few fresh copies, stick on some barcodes, adjust the holdings records, and toss the fresh bait onto a reshelving cart. 

But after further thought, I could appreciate the older librarians' point of view. LPL's messenger books remind me of a time when cash-strapped libraries did not shrug off lost/stolen materials as a mere cost of doing business. Keeping items past due was enough of a threat to the library's well-being and an affront to the community to use scarce human resources to retrieve them. The small part of me who is sometimes weary of being tramped upon by overbearing customers couldn't help but smile over LPL's willingness, back in the olden days, to lay down the law.

*Note: LPL isn't unique in inadvertently providing access to confidential material -- over the course of 9 years of doing this kind of research, I have uncovered similar records many times. Such items were created long before Pennsylvania's law was in place, and are often stored with other "old library stuff" in eccentric closets or corners of the building. When new directors and staff replace veterans, the knowledge is often lost that such institutional records exist. My personal belief is that state statutes should be amended to provide exceptions for historical materials of a certain age, so that practitioners will not feel compelled (as some unfortunately do) to destroy them or strictly limit access. But as of today, I feel obligated to turn over anything circulation records I find to the library's administrators. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Give us this day our daily Subway

Yesterday around noontime, I realized I did something really dumb. I reached into my bag, felt around for the customary brown craft paper and realized: I forgot my lunch. On the dining room table. No doubt my cats had already found it, gnawed through the ziploc baggie, tore my tuna sandwich apart, and batted bits of unwanted rye bread around my living room.

When I initially designed my project a year ago, one thing I had looked forward to was sampling local flavors while on the road. But as August 1st drew near and the implications of my sabbatical salary cut became clearer, I decided that eating out would be a rare and special occasion for the next 9 months. So, each morning, I carefully pack a hearty lunch and several snacks.

I admire people who can go without food in an emergency, but I absolutely cannot. Part of it is that I work out pretty intensely at the gym. I routinely burn more than 1000 calories on the elliptical, bike, and/or treadmill each day. And it takes substantial energy to haul my 230-pound carcass around. Later in the day, I knew I would have an hour-long drive home and being lightheaded wouldn't be an asset.

So simply skipping lunch wasn't an option.

I didn't know of any good eats in Pottsville, so I decided to try a place I passed everyday on route 209. As I walked in, I saw signage for Keno and a smoking area in the "tavern" which reassured me it catered to down-luckers like me. Unfortunately, though, I don't read menus like a normal human being. I may not always eat healthily -- in fact, I slip up every damned day -- but for the past 7 years, I have been trying very hard to lose weight by choosing balanced meals. So where you might see "hamburger, cheeseburger, and BLT," I see "saturated fat, saturated fat with cheese, and hickory-smoked saturated fat with lettuce and tomato." I thought I could even smell the grease hanging in the air and spy it spattered on the walls. I turned tail before an empty stomach and dripping taste buds got the better of me.

I drove up and down Centre Street and thankfully passed a Subway. Gosh, that franchise has saved me so many times! I must have cut an odd figure, counting out quarters, dimes, and nickels (my parking meter fund) from a purple change purse made from a child's sock. Thankfully, my turkey, ham, (baked) potato chips, and diet coke cost $4.24, and I had exactly $4.27. Feeling magnanimous, I tossed three pennies into the tip jar. Nine days into my sabbatical leave, and I was broke.

Such is the life of a scholar who gives all for her studies!


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In search of Margaret E. Critchfield and other female librarians

If you have never heard of Margaret Critchfield, you're not alone.

In my experience, it is unusual for librarians to appear in the annals of a city's or county's history. Many such books, written in the 19th and early 20th centuries, give (male) businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and politicians pride of place. Occasionally, some outstanding librarians -- like Hannah Packard James of Wilkes-Barre -- are included (or segregated?) in journal articles or book chapters about notable women -- but even such mentionings are rare. Unlike James, Margaret Critchfield was not a leader within the American Library Association, a founder of the Pennsylvania Library Association, or (apparently) widely involved in her community beyond the library. Thus it's no surprise that narratives of Lancaster city and county life are utterly silent about her.

Yet, women like Critchfield deserve to be known. And we deserve to know them. I only stumbled upon Critchfield through happenstance. I was thumbing through a file cabinet drawer of newsclippings about Lancaster Public Library, I was surprised to encounter another woman staring back at me. The photo was grainy, but her warm, gentle smile compelled me to learn and write about her.

Margaret Critchfield, Librarian
at Lancaster Public Library.
From the New Era, January 23, 1932
So far, the details I know are gleaned from Lancaster newspapers. Critchfield began her work in Lancaster sometime in October 1931, after her predecessor, Helen Umble, left to be married. A blurb in the October 5, 1931 New Era states that she was educated at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, and then worked at "Lock Haven State Teachers' College" (now Lock Haven University) and "another teachers school in Danbury, Connecticut."

Critchfield served at a difficult time, both in the library's and Lancaster's history. Operating from a cramped residential home that had been converted to a library several decades earlier, she monitored but couldn't fix its leaky roof. Several times during the depths of the Great Depression she made difficult decisions to cut opening hours to keep within a tight budget (New Era, October 3, 1933 and November 24, 1934). It seems full hours only returned sporadically, through federal funding. Even still, Critchfield and her three staff assisted hundreds of people displaced by unemployment. According to one end-of-the-year report she provided to the library's board, customers were most interested in books on "salesmanship, engineering, advertising, and mechanics, so they will be better fitted to take their places in the world during the reconstruction period" (New Era, February 4, 1932). In these desperate times, mutilation of books was a significant problem, and the Holy Bible was one of the books most commonly stolen (New Era, May 18, 1932).

In addition to confronting bleak economic conditions, Critchfield gave residents means of escape and events to look forward to. Articles in local newspapers note her work with a puppet collection, a "costume index," and an aquarium exhibit, as well as outreach to local fire companies, the Playground Association, PTA, YWCA, and other community organizations. It appears she was very resourceful, especially in taking advantage of the various "ABC" programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other New Dealers. When the State of Pennsylvania authorized new funding for public libraries to provide services to county residents, Critchfield applied for the program. Soon after the federal National Youth Administration program was created, Critchfield obtained seven young men who installed a new heating system in the library. NYA workers also canvassed Lancaster and compelled borrowers to return overdue books (New Era, April 1, 1936 and May 27, 1936). Later, she arranged for the Works Progress Administration to paint the library (New Era, July 10, 1936 and November 23, 1936). She even arranged for a representative from Gaylord to visit Lancaster and teach local Boy Scouts to mend the library's "tattered volumes" thereby earning the kids merit badges and giving old books new lives (New Era, May 17, 1933 and May 24, 1933).

And then, after some rather mundane reports published in the New Era from the late 1930s through the summer of 1941, Margaret Critchfield disappeared without a trace. An article in the July 8, 1941 edition announced the appointment of a new librarian, Clifford B. Wightman. Coming to Lancaster from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wightman was heralded by the board as "the first step in the enlargement of the usefulness of the library." The article lauded his bachelor degree from the University of Michigan, his graduate coursework at the University of Chicago (this being a time when an MLS was not the required degree), and even the fact that his wife was president of the Grand Rapids YWCA. Regarding Critchfield, it merely states that she resigned on April 1st, offering no accolades, reasons, or forwarding address. Given that the woman served Lancaster for nearly a decade, the silence seems insulting. To me, it reads something like, "don't let the door hit your behind on the way out."

In spare moments I hope to figure out what happened to Margaret Critchfield. Did she take another library position in another state? Did she marry or die suddenly? I don't think it's at all crucial for my research, but somehow I feel the need to right a lapse in the historical record. In addition to contacting the college archives of Pratt Institute and Lock Haven, I can use various historical newspaper databases, (especially the Social Security Death Index), and the Pennsylvania State Archives' collection of death records. But I suspect the road won't be easy. Maiden/married names and previous decades' lack of interest in women will be substantial barriers. Still, I will try. I think the world knows all too much about businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It knows a bit about the most famous librarians. It knows nothing of everyday women who served their communities well -- the women who are most of us.

Microfilm goes hi(?)-tech

Yesterday while I was in a cavernous room using a microfilm reader, I became aware that someone was watching me. My eyes adjusting from my bright screen to the darkness, I spied an elderly woman smiling broadly at me. "Sorry to scare you, honey," she said. "I'm just amazed at how you handle that thing! You remind me of my grandmother at the loom, the way you're able to turn knobs, pull levers in and out and such, so fast without taking your eyes away from the screen!" I just shrugged and told her it is probably because I have been using microfilm for years. When I was in college in the 1990s -- i.e., the days before one could find U.S. Census records on! -- I worked in the Microfilm Research Room of the National Archives. There were more than 100 machines in MMR, and my job was to assist people in using them. I believe most were NMI 2020's or a similar make -- they projected images from lenses overhead, down to a stark white tabletop, much easier on the eyes than other readers with backlit screens. Made of simple metal parts, and heavy as hell with sides of unscratchable faux wood veneer, they could withstand the abuse of thousands of frustrated, ham-handed genealogists. After my first week on the job, I could load film using my teeth or toes if I had to. And, like learning to ride a bike, once you learn to use one microfilm reader, you basically know how to troubleshoot them all. The first crucial question typically is "is this one an over-under loader?"

Many county historical societies cannot afford to digitize all their microfilm collections, so knowing how to use them is a helpful skill. Nonetheless, I was pleased to find that the technology has upgraded. Yesterday, I learned how to use the ScanPro 2000 (see photos below), a reader that creates digital images from microfilm.  Although loading the film still requires a certain touch, image adjustment and output options are far better than they were years ago. Refocusing and rotating images can be done with the click of a mouse (no need to pull lenses in and out!). And when you drag the edges of a cropping box around your article of choice to print it, the ScanPro automatically fits your image to 8x11" paper or uses several pages if necessary.

One of the added benefits of a sabbatical project like mine, in which I will use dozens of libraries, is the exposure to many different types of technologies, as well as new ways of serving researchers. I'm looking forward to encountering more of this while I'm on the road!

The ScanPro 2000 at LancasterHistory

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Libraries and the land

Yesterday I got the "gear switch" or "over the hump" feeling that every historian gets when he or she has used all the major sources of information about a topic. On my checklist for Pottsville Free Public Library, I had crossed off the library's annual reports, board minutes, and scrapbooks, as well town and county histories, the index to the county historical society's journal, and newspaper indexes. I had searched for dissertations and other student papers in the library's online catalog, the historical society's finding lists, and WorldCAT. I had even sought biographical information about the library's founders and early librarians using city directories, obituaries, and vertical files. When you reach this point, it is time to check notes, develop a list of unanswered questions, and find creative ways to answer them. In other words, the real detective work begins!

For Pottsville,  one thing I continue to wonder is why Schuylkill never developed a county library system. Since 1931, Pennsylvania has provided funding for this purpose -- now called "county coordination aid." Schuylkill's neighbors to the south, including Dauphin, Lebanon, and Berks, receive tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars each year through the program. Yet this past year, the Pottsville Free Public Library was the only Schuykill library awarded money of this kind, and its grant was among the smallest, just over $10,000. Comparing state maps to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's recent Summary of State to Public Libraries, I saw that several other counties in mountain regions, like Carbon, Northumberland, and Perry, also seem to lack county libraries.

My thoughts sloshed and tumbled in my mind as I drove from Pottsville to Tuscarora State Park to go hiking. Instead of taking route 61 north to 81, I decided to take 209, which dates from the 1920s and passes northeast through a number of old villages and towns. Although MapQuest predicted the 16-mile trip would only take 30 minutes, it took me more than 40. Not only did I judiciously slow down as I passed through populated areas like Port Carbon, New Philadelphia, Middleport, and Tamaqua, but I often had to tap my brakes when descending steep, curvy grades, or when rustling foliage in the adjacent forest alerted me to the possibility of deer bounding across my path. Along the way, roadside memorials to fathers, mothers, children, and friends were a somber reminder that caution is the better part of valor. As the gas in my tank dwindled to fumes and nerves dried my mouth, I longed for a Sheetz or Turkey Hill and saw none until Tamaqua. When I finally stopped in the day-use lot of the state park, I carefully stretched to relieve the tension in my hands, shoulders, and neck. Imagine driving 209 everyday, back in the 1920s-1960s before 81 was created! What a slalom it would be on an icy winter day, past or present!

Perhaps the travel was more stressful for me than it would be for others because I didn't learn to drive until I was 29 years old. Also, because I walk to work, I seldom drive. Yet my harrowing experience in this small part of northeastern Schuylkill County might serve as a window into the question of why county library systems did not develop in certain parts of Pennsylvania. Thinking about what such systems tend to do -- including interlibrary loan, professional supervision and training, and sharing staff -- they would have had to literally traverse mountains to make it work in places like Schuylkill. Staring up at the forested hills that surrounded them on all sides, especially in the days without cars that offer turn-by-turn vocal directions, favorite music that will keep you entertained on command, cupholders for your beverage of choice, and roadside assistance contracts that will pull you out of the ditch, it's no wonder that town and village libraries are so independent. They had to be. Geography may be an important factor toward explaining how our un-system of public libraries developed.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Meeting Doc Pete

As a Penn State faculty member, I am blessed to have millions of digitized primary sources at my fingertips. For instance, from my laptop at home I can easily access a complete online backfile of the New York Times to 1851; hundreds of 19th century magazines within the American Periodicals Series; and even an online collection of Civil War letters and diaries. So recently, when I was a graduate student in Harrisburg's American Studies program, it's no surprise that many in my cohort defaulted to their keyboards. Even "older" students like me who predate the World Wide Web have transitioned to using computers first, and paper next, when doing historical research.

Thus my visit to the Schuylkill County Historical Society exercised skills I haven't used in a while. Located within an old school on North Centre Street in Pottsville, the Society's building has retained the high ceiling, "cloak room," chalkboards, and highly polished wooden floor of a century-old classroom.

Schuylkill County Historical Society Library
The library doesn't have an online public access catalog of the kind that I often use. The organization scheme isn't Dewey or Library of Congress. Instead, call numbers beginning with "CW" point to Civil War material and "M" numbers indicate mining books. Those who wish to search the collection must thumb through a battered, red binder labeled "Library Contents." In this environment, computer skills are useless, but meticulous note taking, thoroughness, and time-management skills are invaluable.

Although I was able to locate a lot of items  on my own, I discovered that if you want to find any/everything, a chat with Peter "Doc Pete" Yasenchak, the SCHS Director, is a sine qua non. At 84 years old, this Korean War veteran and retired school guidance counselor not only knows where to find books, memorabilia, and photos, but he has often lived through the history documented in them. Whatever your topic, he can immediately suggest related people, organizations, places, and events, thus providing infinite angles of approach for your research. Most importantly, he has a limitless interest in his community, and in people who want to understand it better.
Doc wasn't around when I first arrived because he was attending the funeral of a member of his church. But immediately upon meeting me, he swept me into a warm hug. He sat down to see what materials I'd already used and slapped my shoulder approvingly when my research skills impressed him. While I don't think he is professionally trained in running a library, his formal education in counseling and his sunny personality have served him just as well, if not better. For in terms of service-orientation he would definitely put many members of my own tribe to shame.

There were a few items I simply couldn't find, especially old city ordinances, maps, and photographs. Doc pulled off his glasses, nibbled their frame, pacing through a map in his mind. After a few moments, he pulled a flashlight from his pocket and pointed the beam at a low, dusty shelf. "Right there." Then he proceeded to help other customers, answer the phone, and basically keep all of us productive for the rest of the afternoon.

As helpful and jolly as Doc was, something he said haunts me, though. One of the times he returned to my table, he apologized for arriving late. I told him I was sorry about the funeral, and that I was very thankful to have ANY assistance from him. After all, within a few moments he'd found those damn law books that I failed to see despite crawling all over the stacks! Doc smiled, tapped this temple and said, "yes, it's all in my head." Then he paused thoughtfully and said with a touch of urgency, "and I don't have anyone to pass it on to." Perhaps this comment was born of an emotional experience earlier in the day, burying a friend who was a decade younger than he is. But having worked in archives earlier in my career, and being a heavy user of them now, I might guess what else he could have meant. In my experience, many volunteers who "love history" don't enjoy learning the ins and outs of finicky library organization schemes. And although everyone at SCHS was kind to me, my experiences at other repositories informs me that volunteers sometimes weary of being at the beck and call of researchers with weird topics like mine.

My visit at Schuylkill County Historical Society was a reminder that even in 2013, there are many resources that aren't available -- are in fact, completely invisible -- online. And the most important ones are people like Doc Pete who not only know where the facts are buried, but are personally dedicated to helping people uncover them.   

Thursday, August 1, 2013


The adventure begins!

Last night I didn't sleep very well -- partially because I NEVER sleep well, partially because of the humidity, and mostly because I can't wait to get on the road and start my research. I had wanted a sound sleep because I knew I'd be driving over a hundred miles to and from Pottsville today. But my eyes popped open at 1:00 a.m., again at 3:15 a.m., and again around 4:30 a.m.. So I gave up and rolled out of bed.

At least I used my "found time" productively. I made a decent breakfast -- scrambled Egg Beaters with chopped green peppers and onions, with a not-so-healthy palmful of shredded Colby Jack mixed in. An English muffin with peach preserves, too. I also paid all my bills for the month.

Then I got the bright idea to create a packing list of all the things I'll need when I go on day-trips. I dumped out the stray pen caps, old lip balms, broken pedometer, lint, and other junk in the bottom of my gym bag and added much-needed items to it. I thought back to all the snafus I'd faced in the past, especially when visiting rural sites with poor cell phone reception, few stores, and minimal conveniences for researchers. Road atlas, AAA card, $50 in cash, and a roll of quarters (for parking, pay phones, photocopies). Stuff that I am likely to forget at the crack of dawn but better bring with me or I'm screwed: keys, driver's license, health insurance card, cell phone, wallet. And in case things get really bad: Advil and a book of American Indian poetry.

My travel bag and packing list

While packing, one thing I discovered about myself is how "analog" I am, in terms of how I collect data. It's odd, because as a librarian, I use computers all the time. In the course of my daily work and living, I regularly use all kinds of apps on my iPhone -- CardStar (organizes store loyalty cards), Duolingo and Google Translate (learning and understanding foreign languages), Pandora (music), White Pages (address/phone directory), and more than 50 newspaper apps. And yes, Candy Crush Saga and Facebook too. And I snap a lot of photos with my iPhone. But oddly, when it comes to taking notes, I prefer index cards and pens. I always have. Sometimes, I have no choice, because the small archives I tend to use often don't offer wireless interact access or convenient power outlets. Yet I also confess I tend to remember information better when I handwrite it -- as if the words become absorbed through my ink-stained fingers, flow through my bloodstream, and seep into my brain and heart. I feel antediluvian when I see other researchers my age with laptops, and I know that they are able to retrieve odd bits of data more readily than I can. But is it encoded in their bodies as it is in mine? Does it churn inside them when they try to sleep, as it does in me? Does it pour forth when an opportunity to tell a good story arises, as it does from me? I'm not sure.

One thing I would like to do while on sabbatical is explore how technology can enhance my scholarship. I am already doing this in one way, by blogging about my experience. But giving up handwriting? -- I am not ready yet!