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

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