Thursday, August 29, 2013

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.

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