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.

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