Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thinking about historians and sustainability

A while ago, I posted a photo on Facebook as a way of announcing to my friends that my trip to Erie had been successful. On my last day of research, I stuffed more than 1,000 photocopies and hundreds of index cards into a manila folder, snapped a picture, and posted it.

I felt like what I imagined sport-fishermen do after a weekend on the water. I had invested much in "lures," worked hard, and was proud of my catch.  Each morning for 2 weeks, I knocked on the door of the library's business office to buy 2 rolls of quarters, and by the end of every day, only a couple of coins jingled in my pocket. At night, I gingerly rotated and iced my ankles, which were swollen from standing at the copier. I also carefully cleaned my filthy hands and dabbed Neosporin on the fresh paper cuts.

But my pains were slight compared to the joy of what I'd hooked: not only fat documentation of Erie Public Library's early years, but also the beginning of the Northwest Chapter of the Pennsylvania Library Association; backstory behind Pennsylvania's 1911 and 1917 library laws;  the State Library's role in public library development; the American Library Association's Library War Service and Victory Book Campaigns (World War I and II); and the working relationships -- even friendships -- isolated public librarians cultivated in part through their letter-writing. 

Yes, I was returning home with a nice string of keepers.

And then a friend who'd seen my hefty manila folder commented, "man, that's a lot of dead trees!" 

Reading those words were like slipping on a slimy rock and plunging waist-deep into icy water.
It got me thinking ... When all's said and done, this project is going to have a substantial environmental footprint. 

For grant-report and income-tax purposes, I have been keeping a log of all my sabbatical expenses in a spiral-bound notebook (trust me, this old-school method is faster than fooling with apps like Expensify). Just 2 months into it, I already don't look forward to adding up all the dollars and cents. But a stab of conscience prompted me to tally the mileage and photocopies. So far, I have put more than 2,800 miles on my Ford Focus. Also, I have made at least 2,200 copies -- counting only the ones I have had to pay for, not the gratis copies I received from PaLA and Scranton Public Library. There have been several times when I have eaten at chain restaurants, too, and one can only wonder how much of that food was trucked in from other states. 

Some might wonder why I don't do more research using digitized materials, or why I insist on index cards and paper copies. The answer to the first question is that libraries' institutional records aren't a high-priority for digitization, so most primary sources are only available on paper. The second question? At this point, most scanning and notetaking software just isn't elegant, fast, or reliable enough for me. It's already enough of a pain in the ass to download dozens of images from my iPhone, label them with metadata, and ensure they are all saved and backed up properly. And, after 9 years of researching the history of Pennsylvania public libraries, plus 7 years of serving as the archivist for the Pennsylvania Library Association, I have already gobbled up the 10GB in maximum storage space offered by ITS and find myself shuffling documents and photos between external hard drives and "clouds" I don't completely trust. I am utterly daunted by the prospect of having to do this  for even more documents. Given a New York Times article I read not long ago about the energy consumed by electronic devices, I am not even confident that digitizing all my materials is the most environmentally action. 

But is this a case of excuses, excuses?

Academia has begun to promote environmental sustainabity. For example, Penn State's Green Paws program provides many actionable tips for college offices, and its Sustainability Institute offers advice for science laboratoriesArchivists and public historians have started to discuss sustainability, too. My colleague Heidi Abbey has been researching this area, and it's the theme of the 2014 National Council of Public History conference. NCPH also offers a "point paper" which advocates the inclusion of natural resources as priorities for preservation, as well as the inclusion of sustainability in the field's best practices. Environmentalism has become an responsibility in many workplaces, so why not among historians like me? 

I admit that I don't know very much about this topic, but it seems there may be more to do toward promoting environmental responsibility among individual humanities researchers. I was surprised that H-Net, which seems to offer online discussion groups for every era, geography, and subspeciality of history, as well as for various member demographics and pedagogical issues, doesn't have an "HSustain." I do not recall any discussions about environmentally-friendly research practices at any of the state-level American Studies or Pennsylvania Historical Association conferences I have attended, nor did my readings in grad school mention it.

It seems like some pro-environment consumer choices are translatable to a research situation. For example, although my statewide project necessitates many hours on the road, I have chosen a vehicle that is relatively fuel efficient. I have also "batched" some of my research sites (such as Clarion, Franklin, and Warren next month) to minimize the number of times I have to cross the state.  When I'm working at the State Library or in Philadelphia, I use public transit. Whenever possible, I lodge in cabins in state parks, since their simple furnishings are highly affordable and don't draw much power. I also bring food from home so that I can prepare many of my own meals. And I ask locals or use an app called iRecycle to learn how to separate and depart with my trash.
This said, I would really like to learn additional ways to decrease the environmental impact of my research. After all, what's the point of doing it if future generations won't be around to read it?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thousands of books for 2 cents apiece: Pennsylvania's Victory Book Campaigns

Two Saturdays ago, while combing through the vast correspondence records of the Erie Public Library, I was thrilled to find a file drawer that seemed to document its activities during World War II. Because it was late in the afternoon on the last day of my visit, though, I blindly photocopied 3 entire folders, trusting my instincts that "good stuff" was inside. Similarly, I made a quick run to the PaLA archives in Mechanicsburg last week in search of material on the association's efforts during the 1940s. I hurriedly copied those items, too. Thus I brought 2 hefty tote bags filled with paper back to my home in Middletown.

These past few days I have felt like a trick-or-treater who dumps her loot on the dining room table and sorts the Milky Ways (yum!) from the Mary Janes (blah!). When I finally got to the papers of William Bacon, EPL's director during the 1940s, I felt I'd hit the mother lode. In 1943, Bacon was the state coordinator for Pennsylvania's Victory Book Campaign (VBC), part of a nationwide effort sponsored by the American Library Association, the Red Cross, and the USO to gather used books for soldiers. Yet at the moment, I didn't see a publication opportunity there, because Patti Clayton Becker has already chronicled the VBC from a national standpoint. Also, at least one state-level effort (Oregon's) is documented through a reputable web site.

Still, Bacon's papers proved fascinating to read. They evidence his role as state coordinator, as well as the book drives of Erie city and Erie County, which were led by his staff. They show Bacon's own sense of humor, which clearly ingratiated him with staff at national headquarters (a March 31, 1943 letter from Bacon to John Connor, complaining about short-staffing at Erie Public Library, described departed colleagues as "1 WAAC, 2 wooed, 2 worn out"!). Furthermore, Bacon's files include copies of material from the previous year's campaign, which was coordinated by Horace Byrnes of the State Library of Pennsylvania. I was grateful that Erie Public Library kept this material, because Pennsylvania Library Association Archives, the State Library, and the State Archives do not offer such a rich collection of pertinent correspondence and reports. 

Judging from the materials I have found, the VBC was quite a sophisticated network of volunteers. I marvel at what they accomplished, especially given the relative lack of instantaneous computational, inventory, and word processing software that we have at our fingertips today. The national headquarters in New York was responsible for designating state coordinators, which it often appointed at the advice of state librarians. It also supplied posters, press releases, radio scripts, and other publicity. In addition, headquarters received and compiled statistical reports of the number of books collected, and coordinated the distribution of the volumes  to military installations.

In Pennsylvania, state coordinators Byrnes and Bacon identified county-level leaders for the campaign, often, but not always, choosing the head librarian of the largest library. They also assigned each county a quota for the number of volumes to be collected. Byrnes and Bacon ordered appropriate numbers of publicity materials and distributed them throughout the state, while also adapting national press releases and radio scripts for Pennsylvania audiences. In addition, they handled day-to-day procedural questions from county and local campaign directors. Finally, they kept statistics on the number of volumes received from each county, and controlled a small fund that could be tapped to pay for publicity or transporting materials.

The Victory Book Campaign aimed to raise the morale of servicemen and others associated with the war effort. (Folder 42, Box 29, Oregon State Library, OSA)
Victory Book Campaign poster. Image courtesy of the Oregon State Archives, "Books Join the Battle: The Victory Books Campaign,"available online at

In Pennsylvania, it appears that the duties of county- and local-level coordinators varied depending on the size of municipalities. Judging from what I have seen of Erie's records, as well as those of the Albright Memorial Library (which coordinated the VBC of Lackawanna County -- see documents in its vertical files under "Scranton Public Library"), county VBCers often identified leaders within each city or town to spearhead the campaigns. Also, in many Pennsylvania counties, county coordinators were assigned the highest book quotas, so their efforts to sort and pack donations were particularly intense. Local VBCers were typically expected to coordinate volunteers (often local troops of Boy and Girl Scouts) who collected the books. Local VBC leaders also collaborated with nearby businesses, community organizations, and news outlets to spread word about the drive. As donations came in, they weeded and packed materials. However, in some rural areas, county-level coordinators assumed some of these responsibilities, especially for communities that lacked public libraries.

Patti Clayton Becker has determined that the VBC was mostly a failure. Even after extending deadlines repeatedly, the book drives of 1942 and 1943 did not gather 20 million volumes (10 million per year) as ALA had hoped. The effort was not repeated in 1944. Becker cites confusion over the purpose and operational procedures of the drive; poor distribution of resources (especially advertising materials); the low quality of donated items; and lack of military support as reasons for the VBC's shortcoming. While I don't necessarily disagree with her conclusion, it is worth noting that her book relies largely on the ALA archives, published articles in the library professional literature, and primary sources from selected libraries in the Midwest. In her chapter on the VBC, Pennsylvania does not figure prominently, even though it generated nearly 1/10 of all the volumes collected. All that is said is that William Bacon and other Pennsylvania librarians had "not-so-tender recollections" when informed that the 1943 effort was being planned. Becker also states that only half of the books contributed by Pennsylvania were considered usable by the military. (Becker, Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II, 131-134, 136-137, 142-145, 147-148).

After examining records at the Erie Public Library, the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, and the Pennsylvania Library Association Archives, I am not certain that Pennsylvania's campaign was so ill-starred, especially compared to other states. A February 28, 1944 form letter from Neola Carew, Administrative Secretary for the national Victory Book Campaign, indicated that Pennsylvania gathered 1,058,182 volumes in 1942, and 564,709 in 1943, a total of more than 1.6 million books. Thus it ranked #3 among the states. Perhaps such a high total should be expected, given that Pennsylvania was the second most populous state at the time.

Statistics reported by Bacon in 1943 suggest substantial variation in different counties' ability to answer the call. Notably, Pennsylvania's most populous areas often fell shy of their quotas, while rural populations frequently went "over the top." For example, in 1943, Philadelphia collected 13,255 volumes, only 26.5% of its quota; Montgomery County, 2,046 (20.1%); Lackawanna County (which includes Scranton), 2,808 (28.1%); Lancaster County (including Lancaster city), 4,200 (46.8%); and Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh), 27,409 (78.3%). On the other hand, tiny Snyder and Sullivan Counties exceeded their quotas by more than 500%, and Crawford and Monroe Counties more than doubled expectations. Clinton, Elk, Forest, Montour, Potter, and Wyoming Counties, all among Pennsylvania's smallest, brought in more volumes than they were assigned  (undated letter from William Bacon to county VBC Coordinators, Erie County Public Library, Correspondence Files, "Victory Book Campaign" folders).

There is no way of knowing whether such statistics simply reflect low expectations of rural areas and unrealistic goals for urban communities, or whether they illustrate more interesting cultural phenomena. Was there a greater tendency to read among country people, or were they especially eager to participate in wartime charity? The facts that VBC headquarters expected coordinators to obtain their own packing materials, transportation, and other support from local companies; that publicity materials from headquarters were scarce; and that wartime restrictions on gasoline and unnecessary travel complicated the collection of books over wide areas, all suggest that we view rural areas' achievements in a new light. As Bacon reported to local press, he was quite proud to have moved more than 40,000 books through Erie at a cost of 2 cents per volume (Erie Dispatch, April 24, 1944). Although I initially didn't think that more needed to be said about the Victory Book Campaign, I now sense that more histories of state, county, and local efforts should be written.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Librarians' in-house stereotyping, now, then, and no more

This week, I was thinking about a game an old friend and I have played whenever we meet up at an American Library Association conference. It goes something like this:

Emma nods in the direction of a middle-aged woman wearing glasses with zany, multi-colored frames. Stuck to her jumper are all kinds of pins, including one that flashes like a strobe light. In each hand, she is lugging large Baker and Taylor bags stuffed with fanciful posters, review copies, and other giveaway items.

"Children's librarian," Emma says.

"Yep, I think you're right," I reply.

Sure enough, when the woman passes close by, her name badge reveals that she is a Youth Services Librarian from Ohio. I push the "pot" of candies and pens in Emma's direction.

Next, we ante up, her offering a foam stress toy in the shape of a computer terminal, and me providing a bumper sticker with the slogan "librarians do it by the book."

I point a pen toward a group of men in similar, expensive-looking suits who are confidently striding through the conference hall. 

"Vendors," I say.

"Really?" says Emma. "No, they look more like academic library directors to me."

I toss a miniature Hershey Special Dark bar into the pot. "Nope. First of all, the guy who is doing all the talking is older than the rest, and the younger guys are listening really closely to what he's saying. If they were college library heads, I think they'd be closer in age, they wouldn't be as good-looking or wearing as nice suits. No, it looks to me like the older guy is the lead rep, and the other guys are junior salesmen."

Emma mulls over my logic, then adds an Ingram pen to the pot. "Heck, I need that chocolate! I'll stick with academic library directors."

When the men charge by, it turns out I am right. I am not overly enthused about stress toys and more pens, but am glad I proved my point.

For about a half an hour, small piles of writing utensils, Post-It notes, a USB drive, candy, and other exhibitor loot will trade hands as Emma and I guess at the identities of an electronic services librarian (male, polo shirt and khakis), LIS students (young, all either hipster or comic-con), and other colleagues.

Our game came to mind this week, because a research "find" prompted me to rethink about librarians stereotyping the various subcultures within the profession. While I was in Erie, I came across a little booklet called "The Song of the Library Staff," written by Sam Walter Foss and illustrated by Merle Johnson. According to the "Library History Buff," Larry Nix, Foss was both a librarian and poet, and he read his work before the 1906 ALA conference. It must have been quite popular -- so much so, that a copy found its way to the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, anyway. Below are some images:


As delightful as the poem and illustrations are, some of the possible implications between the lines may be troubling. In the bags around the Cataloger's eyes, her description as "perpetually jogging," and the piles of books and wastepaper nearby, there may be signs of overwork, or perhaps a person who worries too much about small details to get much accomplished. The Head Librarian, like the Cataloger, is cramped between piles of books and receipts. Interestingly, he is the only male employee, the only person to merit more than a page of verses, and yet, with long hair, a balding pate, and a slight build, he seems meek. An interesting choice of characters to bracket the beginning and ending of a poem/booklet about librarians.
Viewing the page about the Reference Librarian, there is strong praise of her "erudition." However, exclusive emphasis is placed on her cognitive apparatus, with no acknowledgment of other reference skills, such as asking probing questions of customers. The illustration reinforces such an interpretation, because her "cranium" is oversized, her mouth is tiny and closed, and her head is perched on a shriveled body. On the other hand, the "Desk Attendant" (circulation worker) is blond and shapely -- but ultimately faceless. More importantly, the text describes such attendants' efforts as some kind of battle, the throng being like "beasts at a circus," and books akin to "un-inspected canned beef" and "spare-ribs" thrown to them. In fact, of all the library employees, only the plump Children's Librarian is smiling about her work and is warmly engaged with a patron. What do these words and illustrations say about how library employees think of each other and the public?
So, as enjoyable as Emma's and my annual ritual has been, I may pass on it next summer. Thinking about how she and I discuss other colleagues, I have come to realized that some of the attributes we've identified with certain groups aren't completely kind, nor are they accurate of every person of the same type of institution or position. Librarians get highly annoyed when outsiders portray us with hairbuns, glasses, humorless expressions, and calf-length skirts, so it's wrong to pick on each other in a similar fashion. We should value and study the unique subcultures within the profession, but we shouldn't resort to stereotyping as a convenient way to kill time.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

O.R. Howard Thompson on libraries and politics (1943)

Next month I am giving a presentation on the history of public libraries during World War II. So this morning I was in Mechanicsburg at the Pennsylvania Library Association's archives, hoping to find documentation of its activities at the time. Nestled among crinkly onionskin in the Executive Board files, I found several fascinating letters between O. R. Howard Thompson, head librarian of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport; Alfred Decker Keator, director of the State Library and Museum; Alice Sterling of New Castle Public Library, who was then president of PaLA; Richard E. Minnich of Easton Public Library, who was then PaLA's treasurer; and Joseph E. Wheeler, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, who was organizing a regional library conference on post-war planning.

At issue were the demise of PaLA's National Defense Committee, which had been established in 1940 to prepare booklists and assist federal and state governments in wartime services; the mission of PaLA's Planning Committee, which focused on the needs and future of public libraries in Pennsylvania; and the goals of the newly-created Public Libraries Section (which is now PaLA's Public Libraries Division). Thompson, who led one of the most respected public libraries in the state and was a PaLA past-president, had been asked to chair the Planning Committee, and then later the Public Libraries Section. Instead, he asked Sterling to offer the chair of PLS to Minnich, and allow Thompson himself to lead a "War Activities Committee." Unfortunately, by that time World War II had pervaded all aspects of library work and PaLA's Executive Board believed the conflict was "broader than any mere committee." State Librarian Keator determined that the Board and the State Library should lead cooperative efforts with the American Library Association, federal agencies, and other national organizations, and that individual libraries should assume responsibility for addressing local war and post-war agendas (letter from Sterling to Keator, March 27, 1943; letter from Keator to Thompson, March 31, 1943).

What appears on the surface as a spat over turf is actually a conversation that has professional significance, both then and today. As it turns out, Thompson's reason for declining to serve on the Planning Committee and the Public Library Section was a concern about libraries' appropriate role in a society that was undergoing great change. Writing to Wheeler to explain why he was not going to attend the regional institute on post-war concerns, he explained that "it gives the impression that the libraries are to decide what the new world shall be, including the place of the conquered nations, the solving of racial, color, and religious prejudices, the employment problem and practically everything else. This seems to me all wrong." Instead, Thompson advocated that libraries "secure material that will enable the people to decide these issues." In other words, he felt that "the library is a place for the making of choices," and that "to help people arrive at a conclusion is one thing, to provide them with a blue-print made by librarians another" (letter from Thompson to Wheeler, March 25, 1943). He equated PaLA's Planning Committee and Public Library Sections as proponents of certain political stances,  perhaps because related programs at the 1941 conference had been themed around "Preparedness for a New World Order" (Conference Files, 1941 conference program). As the state association received communiques from Carl Milam and other ALA leaders through PaLA's state chapter councilor, Thompson may also have been aware that the American Library Association was led by librarians who strongly supported United States intervention in the war and who advocated that libraries assume a variety of new roles in winning the peace (for an excellent analysis of ALA during this time, see Patti Clayton Becker's Books and Libraries in American Society During World War II).

Although Thompson was immensely respected, perhaps he seemed a member of the "old guard" to those whose careers were on the rise during the 1940s. He had headed the James V. Brown Library for more than 35 years and thus was part of a generation that tended to occupy itself with the practical/technical aspects of building libraries from the ground up, acquiring and organizing materials, and beginning community outreach programs. Younger professionals like Keator, Minnich, and Wheeler reaped the benefit of well-established institutions and were thus perhaps more open to an expanded role. I admit this bit is conjecture, though -- I will be visiting Williamsport this winter to learn more about Thompson, his library, and his professional and social views.

Still, I think his words remain very relevant today, particularly given the increasingly political stances taken by the American Library Association. Over the past decade, ALA's Council has passed resolutions on Civil Marriage Equality Regardless of Sexual Orientation (2009), Endorsing Universal Health Care (2009), and Support of Immigrant Rights (2007) which do not reference traditional "library" concerns such as information access. As sympathetic as I am personally to these positions, I have often wondered if it is the proper role of our professional organizations to be advocating them. Rory Litwin was writing in favor of librarians questioning the centrist bias of so-called "mainstream" information sources, but I think his classic article, "Neutrality, Objectivity and the Political Center" (Progressive Librarian no. 21, Winter 2002) encourages us to think about the left-of-center bias (or any bias) that may be developing in our profession. O. R. Thompson's words from 1943 remind us that the conundrum of libraries and political action is not at all new. He gives us a great springboard for thinking about the difference between enabling customers to learn about a way of life, versus compelling them to live it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Let me tell you about Jean Hard

Each afternoon at around 2:00 p.m., after hours of squinting at century-old library records, my vision becomes blurry, my shoulders and lower back start to ache, and my legs feel like lead. Time for a seventh-inning stretch. While at Erie County Public Library, I have typically hobbled the same clockwise path: out of the Heritage Room, through youth and adult fiction, a pause to gaze at the ship in Presque Isle Bay, and then I wend my way downstairs. Another clockwise path through reference and past circulation, nodding to comrades-in-arms as I go, and out the library's main entrance to the bathroom and snack counter.

Before heading back upstairs to my work, my last stop is the copy center. On a wall nearby hangs a portrait of an elderly woman: Jean Ashley Hard, head librarian at what was then Erie Public Library from 1903 to 1927.

I have often stared at her portrait for minutes at a time. It is very rare to find a librarian depicted in oils -- they usually do not come from money, marry well, or earn enough to commission portraits of themselves. I *want* to better understand Hard through her portrait but I fail. Generally, all but the most overt body language and facial expressions are difficult for me to decode. So I pause at different angles, leaning this way and that, trying guess her emotions and thoughts.

"Jean Ashley Hard," by Arthur Woelfe, 1929.
Hanging in the Erie County Public Library
Other people think they "get" her right away. Invariably, they smirk at me and the painting, grimace, and growl her last name. To them, something about an unsmiling woman with a gray up-do and simple clothing always suggests primness if not severity -- especially when she has a surname like "Hard." Before I started researching the history of Erie County Public Library, I thought much the same way. 

But we've all been wrong. 

Let me tell you about the Jean Hard I have come to know. 

Jean Ashley was born in Buffalo, New York in 1859. Her mother died soon after. Infant Jean, who was an only child, was sent to Erie to be raised by a relative, Dr. Robert Faulkner. She graduated from Erie High School, but from there, certain biographical facts are challenging to uncover. Her obituary states that "she married many years ago the late Arthur Hard, founder of Hard Manufacturing Company," who apparently passed away sometime before she became a librarian (Erie Daily Times, May 3, 1927). However, Sabina Shields Freeman and Margaret L. Tenpas assert in their 1982 book, Erie History: The Women's Story (Benet Press) that the couple lived in New York State after their marriage, and then Jean moved back to Erie when "problems developed in the marriage" (95).

Whether Hard was a widow, otherwise separated from her husband, or both, I can say definitely that she was appointed in 1898 to work in the library's circulation department. Further, when head librarian Katherine Mack left to be married in 1903, Hard served as "acting librarian" for a time and then was made head of the library. At the end of April 1927, she had just returned from a three-month trip to the Western United States when she contracted pneumonia and died suddenly (May 28, 1927 letter from Charlotte Evans to Mrs. W. L. Mitchell). 

There is much more to Jean Ashley Hard's story, however. Her decades-long effort to place reading material in people's hands is remarkable. Not much more than a year after she had been appointed head of Erie Public Library, Hard realized that "the question how to reach the people still further is a very important one" and hoped to bring books  to "the homes, shops, Boys' Club, Soldier's home, and various other institutions" (1903/1904 librarian's annual typescript report to the board of trustees). At the time, much of her library's collection -- everything except children's and reference works -- was stored in closed stacks, inaccessible to customers who preferred to browse the shelves. In the fall of 1902, Hard's predeccessor had persuaded the board to place some items in the rotunda for walk-in patrons to see. Staff eagerly refilled this bookcase each morning (November 3, 1902 librarian's monthly report to the board of trustees). After this "experiment" effectively encouraged people to borrow more books, Hard repeatedly asked the board to investigate necessary equipment and funds to convert the whole library to open-shelves (for example, see Hard's 1906/1907 annual report and November 2, 1908 monthly report). After further experimentation with an "open shelf room" on the second floor, Erie Public Library finally opened all its stacks in 1924 (Erie Daily Times, April 14, 1924).

During Hard's administration, Erie Public Library undertook several outreach campaigns. For example, in the Fall of 1908, she sent circulars to all the labor unions, ministers, dentists, physicians, fire departments, police stations, and retirement homes, to advertize the library's resources (November 4, 1907 librarian's typescript monthly report to the board of trustees).The following spring, she sent more than 10,000 flyers to factory workers "stating in concise form the contents of the library and urging the men to use it" (June 1, 1908 monthly report). Later, she visited the largest shops in person, talked to employees during their lunch hours, and tacked typewritten lists of books around the factories (1909/1910 annual report). Recognizing that she did not have time to do this work consistantly on her own, she eventually persuaded the trustees to hire an "extension librarian" to focus full-time on community outreach. Mary A. True, who admirably filled the position from 1919 through the 1930s, deserves a blog post of her own!

Hard also seemed to take a special interest in children, once writing that "in no other department of the Library is a more important work being done," for " these little readers will soon be our adult ones" (1903/1904 annual report). During her tenure, the library began to offer story hours. In May 1904, she also visited libraries in Buffalo, New York and Somerville, Massachusetts to make "a thorough examination of their systems of supplying books" to teachers and pupils. She then obtained her board's approval to work with schools farthest away from the library, opening Erie's first two "branches" at East Ave. and 22nd St., and Popular and 17th Sts., in January 1905. At first, the schools simply received titles pulled from the main library's collection, but in the spring of 1905 Hard received the first of many authorizations she would seek to purchase items specifically for her work with students (May 31, 1905 monthly report). In subsequent reports to the trustees, she urged additional branches and deposit stations throughout the city. By the time of her death in 1927, Erie Public Library operated 5 "Citizens Libraries" (open to adults) in the schools, 4 additional drop-off "deposit stations" (also in schools), plus graded collections of books sent out regularly to 30 other classrooms (Erie Public Library, 1926/1927 Annual Report).

Hard's impact extended far beyond the city limits. Her contributions to the development of library professionalism in Northwestern Pennsylvania were substantial. At the urging of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission, librarians began to organize regional "institutes" (meetings) to swap ideas. At the first gathering in Northwestern Pennsylvania, which Hard attended, she offered Erie as the following year's site and her proposal was accepted unanimously. Thus she helped to ensure that the gathering wouldn't be a mere one-time event (June 30, 1905 monthly report). Hard continued to support the regional movement. In 1913, when there was a question about whether such activities harmed or helped participation in the state and national library organizations, she contacted dozens of comrades for their opinions, learned of regional meetings' ongoing value to new and under-resourced institutions, and thus helped to firmly justify the continuation of an annual Northwestern gathering. Decades later, these "institutes" developed into chapters of the Pennsylvania Library Association.
Looking beyond surrounding counties, Hard was active on the state level, too. Her predecessors had not attended meetings of the Keystone State Library Associaion (the forerunner of PaLA), but after attending her first conference in Williamsport in 1906, Hard became a firm advocate (for example, see 1906/1907 librarian's annual typescript report to the board of trustees).  When meeting organizers couldn't find enough speakers, she usually chipped in, sometimes taking responsibility for topics that were less familiar to her so that others could have their preferences (for example, see February-March 1913 correspondence between Hard and Clara B. McJunkin of Butler Public Library). After serving in KSLA in various capacities, Hard was elected president of the association in 1917.

Hard promoted library professionalism through many informal channels as well. Poring over Erie Public Library's correspondence files, there is much evidence of the courtesies she extended to colleagues, such as selecting and sending materials on various topics -- in other words, going beyond customary interlibrary loan of specifically-requested titles. She generously shared sample copies of Erie's forms and publications. Hard even welcomed calls for assistance from other states. For example, when the librarian of Conneaut, Ohio asked Hard to allow community volunteers to observe Erie's children's story hours as a way of training, Hard gladly agreed (for example, see December 8-9, 1913 and January 1914 letters between Hard and Marie J. Brown of Conneaut Public Library). For prospective students who could not afford to travel to Case Western, Drexel, or Pratt Institute for library school entrance exams, Hard was always a dependable proctor. 

Such assistance won her some steadfast friends in the library community. Over the decades, it is heartwarming to observe increasing informality and personal information in their correspondence (for examples, see letters between Hard and Anna MacDonald of the State Library of Pennsylvania; Carlina Monchow of the Dunkirk, New York Free Library; Susan Sherman of the Carnegie Public library of Bradford; and Eliza May Willard of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh). This seems to belie some scholars' assertions that she was "intimate with very few" (Freeman and Tenpas, Erie History: The Women's Story, 96).

The portrait which hangs in Erie's library today is also an expression of the warm relationships Jean Ashley Hard cultivated with many people, and their gratitude for her. Believing that "there should be a permanent record" of her achievements, Hard's successor Charlotte E. Evans was inspired by an exhibit of the work of Arthur Woelfe, a New York artist, displayed at Erie's art gallery in December 1928. She contacted the artist, and then solicited donations from numerous library patrons, managing to raise $750 for a 25" x 30" portrait. 

Although Woelfe only had a few photographs of Hard to work from, Erieites were generally pleased with the resemblance -- except for Hard's mouth, which they thought "is not so much like her as it might be." Woelfe agreed to redo it during a future visit to Erie, but I cannot be certain from extant correspondence that this was accomplished (November and December 1929 letters between Evans and Woelfe). In other words, the unsmiling image we see today may not reflect the person that Hard's colleagues and friends knew. 
With all this in mind, it's highly ironic that people think they "know" Jean Ashley Hard simply by sizing up the painting. It is their false assumptions and impressions that I hope my research will help to correct. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Riffling through another librarian's desk

Sometimes, I think that field anthropology or forensic police work may have been viable careers for me. I enjoy examining the material items people choose to surround themselves with, and the detritus they leave behind. In the workplace, you can learn a great deal about a colleague by furtively glancing around his or her office. For instance, one librarian I know has a wooden artist mannequin, a large Color Cube puzzle, and calligraphic signage in her workspace -- all pointers to her artistic interests and training. Though she is very orderly, other librarians' desks rival archeological sites or crime scenes in terms of fascinating mess.

I encountered such an archeological/forensic prize this week at the Erie County Public Library. Its director led me to "the vault" where materials about the library's century-long history are kept. There were shelves of ledgers, scrapbooks, and other items, but I gravitated toward a long run of faux hardbound books on a low shelf. "Letters" (woo-hoo! primary sources!) was the prominent label on each volume. Another label, "The Falcon File," added an irresistible mysteriousness to them.

Letters to and from the Librarian of Erie Public Library, early 1900s
As it turned out, these large, accordion files comprise the head librarian's incoming and outgoing correspondence for 1898 through the 1910s. Amazingly, it appears that every.single.letter was retained. There are several volumes per year and items inside are arranged alphabetically by personal or institutional name. The "Falcon" label isn't a codeword, nor does it refer to the topic of the letters as I thought -- it is just one of many name brands of office filing systems that were in use at the turn of the century.

So far, I have used about a decades' worth of correspondence. At first I was a little disappointed. For all the ache in my back and shoulders, grime on my shirtfront, and paper cuts on my fingertips, it seemed I hadn't found many "quotable gems" about Erie County Public Library's history. Yet, when I sat back in my chair and thought about the assemblage more broadly, I realized I was seeing a rare, day-by-day record of (literally) everything to come across an early twentieth-century head librarian's desk. Such documentation gives us a sense of what it was "really" like to be a librarian back then. Not unlike today, the job was long on the mundane, but occasionally peppered with controversy or triumph.

Apparently, Erie's early librarians spent a great deal of effort on collection development. The vast majority of the correspondence deals with books, government documents, organizational reports, and periodicals the library hoped to obtain. Staff wrote a handful of letters in order to get pricing, make an order, pay the invoice, and acknowledge receipt of single volume like Smull's Legislative Handbook or an English-German dictionary. Unlike many of my other research sites, Erie was a port city, so nautical charts and new editions of the Blue Book of American Shipping were frequent purchases.

Even more interesting to me is the network of information-sharing that clearly existed between librarians of different cities. Although Erie's head librarians corresponded with some Pennsylvania peers (especially in Pittsburgh and Scranton), their city's location in the Northwest corner of the state prompted an interest in Central and Western New York, Eastern and Central Ohio, the upper Midwest, and Ontario as well. Erie's first librarian, Charles E. Wright, was the cousin of Mary Wright Plummer, the famous library educator, and consulted with her often (for an excellent article on MWP, see Mary Niles Maack's excellent piece in the January 2000 issue of Library Quarterly). He and subsequent librarians also corresponded frequently with their counterparts in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Contacts made through attending American Library Association and Pennsylvania Library Association conferences often blossomed into strong working relationships, if not friendships, as evidenced in the letter below.

Part of letter from Minnie Dill of Decatur Free Public Library to Charles Wright of Erie Public Library, July 3, 1900. Note the combination of chattiness and shop-talk between two colleagues.
As I moved forward in time through the massive folders of correspondence, I also observed Erie's growth as a regional leader in library services. Today, it is a District Library Center, providing interlibrary loan, reference service, and professional training to others in Erie and Crawford Counties. Although Pennsylvania's "district library center" plan was formalized in the 1960s, Erie was acting informally in this capacity long before then. From 1898, when it opened in a new, purpose-built building, the librarians received numerous queries about its architecture, floor plan, and furnishings. Librarians Charles Wright, Katherine Mack, and Jean Hard promptly sent copies of the library's biannual report, book catalogue, forms, rules, and other publications to any colleague who asked, thus raising awareness of Erie's resources and its methods of operation. In 1905, when the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission and the Keystone State Library Association began to encourage regional meetings of librarians, Jean Hard objected to the commission when another site was chosen for the first "Northwest Institute." In 1906 it was held in Erie and two years later Hard was chosen president of the group.

As the archivist for PaLA and a chronicler of the (now defunct) commission, Erie's Falcon Files are proving to be a gold-mine in terms of understanding how these organizations operated. Founded in 1901 as the Keystone State Library Association, I now know that its first calls for membership came from John Thomson of the Free Library of Philadelphia. I have also found additional evidence that KSLA/PaLA's chief concern was addressing the needs of librarians in small, rural communities. In addition, there is much documentation in Erie's files that the commission hoped to serve as a clearinghouse for any and all questions about Pennsylvania's libraries, and that it consulted with Erie and other institutions when crafting legislation.

Finally, certain silences in the Falcon Files pique my interest. For example, other than materials from 1898 to 1900, when Erie's library was first organizing, there is very little documentation of the Board of Trustees' discussions or actions, or its interaction with the librarian. Curiously, the end of the evidence occurs around 1900, when a male librarian (Charles Wright) left and a female (Katherine Mack) took his place. Does this point to gender's influence on working relationships between each librarian and his/her trustees? If so, what might it mean? Was Wright able to interact more with the board as a male? Or does it imply just the opposite -- that Mack and Hard's face-to-face relationship with their trustees was so strong that little was communicated through writing? Or do documents of the Board simply exist in another place or form?

I feel very blessed to be riffling through a librarian's desk. In my experience, precious few of us keep all our correspondence so assiduously, and unfortunately what they did retain was later ditched by their successors.

"Librarian's Office. From Erie Public Library, 1913-1916 Report, pg, 29