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.


  1. My great grandmother, then Lulu or Lula James (later Mrs. Walter William Wilkins), worked at the Albright Memorial Library around the time of its opening.

    Online you can find a digitlized photo of the First Library Staff here: [http://content.lackawannadigitalarchives.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/SPL/id/36/rec/13 (accessed 23 Sept 2016).

    There is a photo of the back of the original photograph with the names of the first employees listed including that of LULU JAMES: http://content.lackawannadigitalarchives.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/SPL/id/35/rec/12 (accessed 23 Sept 2016).

    What a thrill it must have been for my great grandmother, Lulu James. to work in a building that resembled the Musée de Cluny!
    From: Lynne McDermott

  2. Nice to hear from you, Lynne! Yes, the Albright is a great building -- definitely worth a visit if you haven't seen it. Do you or anyone in your family have photos or further information about Lulu or the library?