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.

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