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. 

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