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 entrée 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"!