Friday, October 25, 2013

Getting spooked in Connellsville

It was a dark and stormy night ...

I never thought I would begin a post about library history in this manner. But then again, I didn't anticipate that I would be at the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville just before Halloween.

When snow started to fall at Seven Springs, I decided to quit the PaLA conference, pack my bags, and check out, hoping to beat the exodus of librarians after the closing luncheon. Thus I had arrived at Connellsville around 11:00 a.m., a few hours earlier than planned. Judy Takoch, the Children's Librarian, knew I was visiting that day, but was just about to begin a story hour. So she led me to some file cabinets in the board room that would keep me busy for a while. I yanked open a drawer and soon found a transcription of the deed to the library's grounds. Since the document was quite long, I pulled out a pen and started to take notes:

" ... a parcel of land ... beginning at a post on the west side of Mountain Alley ... being the same land for many years known as the Connell Grave Yard ..."

My eyes widened. Wait a minute. Say what?

I read it again.

"... the same land for many years known as the Connell Grave Yard ..."

A little while later, Casey Sirochman, the library's director, checked in on me. Indeed, she confirmed that her workplace was built upon a cemetery. No eternal rest for people who died in the 1810s to 1860s, apparently. According to local genealogists, nearly 200 bodies were disinterred and reburied in Chestnut Hill and Laurel Hill so that the Carnegie Free Library could be built. Furthermore, Ms. Sirochman informed me that the library's location was only one of several controversies in its long history. In 1905, a dead newborn was found on its grounds, and a nearby priest was accused of rape and murder. Searching Google Books on my iPhone, I quickly authenticated this story in a history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church which is hosted on the web site of the surviving Catholic congregation and includes copies of contemporary news articles.

Just before leaving, Ms. Sirochman told me that she and many locals believe that the library is haunted. Once, when she and volunteers were throwing out old books, she told them that the library's ghosts wouldn't be pleased by what they were doing. Just at that moment, an item flew off a shelf. Staff have heard unexplainable footsteps and noises around the building, too The Pittsburgh Paranormal Society has investigated and the library has been the subject of an episode of Raw Fear. If I wanted, could purchase a copy of the DVD at the circulation desk, she said. Since I was spooked enough already, I replied, "No, I think I'll pass."

On that note, I continued slogging through the library's records as rain and sleet rapped against its windows. Outside, the sky eventually grew dark and I was reminded that I hadn't yet arranged lodging for the evening. So, after completing my search through a box of records, I decided to call it a day.

I'd spent hours reading thousands of pages of meeting minutes, so my vision was rather blurry. And in the rush of trying to get a week's worth of research accomplished in just 2 days, I'd missed lunch and dinner, so I was a little light-headed. Thus, when I exited the front door of the library at about 7:30 p.m., I found myself in utter darkness and very disoriented. There were no lamps along the walkway. I had forgotten about steps until I stumbled down the first two.

Or was a soul from Connell's Grave Yard reaching up through the pavement and grabbing my ankle?

My pulse quickened.

Blindly brushing wet leaves off my pants, I tightly gripped the handrail and felt around with wet toes for my footing. Suddenly, I heard what was probably a squirrel scampering across the grass.

Father Monta's baby is coming to get me!

If you're my age, you've probably seen -- and can't unsee -- Chucky from the Child's Play horror movies. My heart started to pound.

Finally, I had completed my cautious descent to Pittsburgh Street, only to recall that in the afternoon I'd moved my car from the 1-hour parking zone to Carnegie Street, back uphill behind the library. At that moment, cackling from a group of teenagers burst from an alley nearby and I nearly peed myself.

Long-departed Boltons, Frasers, Seatons, and Vances are gathering for a chase!

I calmed myself by squeezing my keys tightly and unlocking my pepper spray. Picking my way around the block, I tripped again, this time on a crumbling bit of sidewalk. The noise of my palms hitting the pavement and my expletives hitting the ether apparently triggered animatronic mummies on a porch across the street to screech "HAPPY HALLOWEEEEEEEN!"

That's it -- I'm losing it! 

I hit the panic button on my key fob and my Ford's highlights flooded the street with welcomed illumination. At that point, I didn't give a damn whether my bleating car horn pissed off the neighbors as long as it kept dead babies, disinterred bodies, and all the other ghouls at bay. Finally inside my car, I locked all the doors twice, heaved a sigh of relief, and sped away.

Although the Carnegie Free Library is beautiful in daylight and its staff were very kind to me, I don't think I can stomach another visit on a rainy autumn night. Yikes!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing laborers into library history: Fred Greenlaw and the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville

Monday through Wednesday, I decided to make the most of a long car ride by batching my attendance at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference at Seven Springs with research visits to the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library in Somerset and the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville. Before I set foot in the libraries, I knew this was going to be a "fast job." Since it normally takes me an entire week or more to thoroughly use all the primary sources pertaining to 1 library, I had no expectation of completing 2 sites in just 2-3 days.

I felt especially pressed at Connellsville, because there were complete ledgers of board of trustees minutes back to 1900, plus two large file cabinets and several cartons stuffed with other documents. So, rather than sitting in a chair, I remained standing and used both hands to flip rapidly through each item in every folder. My haste apparently generated an updraft, because small scraps of paper sometimes floated into the air and then fluttered toward the floor. Most of the time, they were insignificant notes or receipts. But 2 items that took flight at the same time made me pause after I grabbed at them and took a moment to read them.

Two notes found within the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville's archives
One was a torn bit of paper with a pencilled message. In part, it read: "this Chimley was Built by Fred Greenlaw of St Catherine Ont Canada March 14th 1902 60 [pounds?] per house"

The other scrap of paper explained the first: "This notation was found in a whiskey bottle in the chimney by workers who were doing repairs under the C.W.A. on January 19, 1934."

I took a quick break and ventured outside to visualize where Fred Greenlaw had hidden his special message. As I suspected, he had been quite high off the ground. My knees started to buckle as looked upward and imagined him taking a final swig from a bottle while gazing at the church spires,  shops, and other buildings downtown (for a turn-of-the-century view of Connellsville, see an 1897 map digitized by the Library of Congress). Since the Carnegie Free Library was situated on a hill, Greenlaw may have enjoyed an impressive view. Back then, could he have seen the railroad and the Youghiogheny River?, I wondered.

The chimney where Fred Greenlaw hid his note.
Then I felt a stab of guilt. My research has rarely if ever mentioned "laborers" like Fred Greenlaw and the C.W.A. employees. Usually, we historians focus on donors, trustees, and (head) librarians. We often completely overlook library assistants; development, human resources, public relations, janitorial, and other "non-librarian" staff; and library volunteers and friends. Perhaps this is because most available records are silent about their activities. It shouldn't be this way, though. In some cases they served the community for decades. Particularly in the cases of library assistants, volunteers, and janitors, they also may have had more contact with library customers than "leaders" who worked behind the closed doors of board rooms and private offices.

At that moment there wasn't much I could do about the nameless Civil Works Administration employees who found the note in the chimney. To identify them by name, I don't currently know of an alternative besides wading through more than 7 million cubic feet of W.P.A. records at the National Archives. So right now, all that might be said is that since they were participating in a federal relief program intended for the unskilled unemployed, they were likely desperate people, willing to brave a rooftop climb to keep starvation at bay.

Luckily, since the Carnegie Free Library had a subscription to, I could attempt to learn something about Fred Greenlaw. Typing his name into the database, I found only one person with a similar name who was from Ontario and resided in Pennsylvania: a Frederick W. Greenlaw who was born sometime between 1866 and 1868 (depending on which record you choose to cite) and who was married to Mary Jane Greenlaw. Checking the 1891 Census of Canada, it appears that his parents were James Greenlaw, born in Scotland, and Mary Greenlaw, born in England; that he had several siblings; and that the family's religion was Baptist. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, he emigrated to the United States around 1889 and lived in Titusville (Crawford County), about 150 miles due north of Connellsville. It may seem odd that the 1891 Canadian census lists him, while the later U.S. Census seems to indicate that he was already living in Pennsylvania that same year, but perhaps he shuttled back and forth over the border to earn money, as many Canadians of that era did. Or maybe, when asked by the 1920 census worker, whoever answered the question misremembered the year Greenlaw immigrated. Ultimately, however, it appears that he decided to remain in the United States. Checking other censuses, I learned that he and Mary Jane lived in Titusville from at least 1900 through 1940. They had at least 3 children -- Frederick J., Joseph J., and Marion E. Greenlaw.

Checking Google Book Search, I uncovered an interesting advertisement he apparently contributed to the December 1913 issue of Ohio Architect and Builder. There, billed as "F. W. Greenlaw, General Brick Contractor," he claimed he was the contractor or mason for the Titusville Library, the Titusville Y.M.C.A., and various churches (see pg. 76). Using Google, I also found tantalizing thumbnail images, including a portrait of the man later in life, a picture of his tombstone, and his obituary, but when I tried to click on the links, I was perturbed to find that they were hidden behind Ancestry's expensive pay wall.

Given that I am trying to sort out the histories of more than 20 different libraries over the course of the year, I certainly cannot spend much more time delving into the life of a single person. But as I said previously, people like Greenlaw should be acknowledged when we write about library history. Hopefully, some of his descendants will see this post and be tickled to learn how Greenlaw and his note brought a smile to the faces of C.W.A. workers, the Carnegie Free Library's staff, and a harried academic researcher who was almost too busy to notice.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Library history as women's history

Sometimes, I need to encounter something numerous times before it registers as a “trend” that I need to investigate further. When I was researching the history of the Lebanon Community Library this week, I finally looked up from a folder of century-old, carefully-handwritten meeting minutes and realized, “this library wouldn’t have existed without women.” And: "Most libraries wouldn't have existed without women."

I have yet to fill out the story with information from Lebanon’s newspapers, but the records of Women’s Club of Lebanon, available at the Lebanon County Historical Society, seem to show that “the ladies” were the public library’s first and most steadfast friends. According to informally-written histories of the club, it began to send “traveling libraries” (boxes of books) to various schools in Lebanon County around 1901 and continued this activity until about 1914. During World War I, when the American Library Association’s Library War Service called for volumes for military camps, the club’s Education Committee harvested about 40 “desirable books” from their traveling libraries and sent them to soldiers (WC Meeting Minutes, May 4, 1918). Later in 1918, the women consulted with other organizations and decided to try to raise funds for a proposed “community house” which would memorialize local military heroes while hosting a historical society, a public library, and various local organizations (WC Meeting Minutes, November 18, 1918, November 15, 1919, December 13, 1919, January 3, 1920).

Although it seems the idea didn't come to fruition at that point, the Women’s Club did not give up. In 1922, it invited Mary Titcomb of the Hagerstown, MD public library – a well-known innovator in bookmobile services – to speak to its membership. Titcomb “gave a very comprehensive and most instructive address on ‘A County Library’” (WC Meeting Minutes, November 18, 1922). Also, the club’s Legislative  Committee worked strenuously to register female voters in advance of upcoming primary elections at least in part because “the Club always goes on record as approving a Public Library” (WC Meeting Minutes, November 10, 1923). Governmental funding still did not materialize, so they threw open the doors of their own club library -- about 600 volumes -- in 1924 (1924/1925 WC Education Committee Annual Report) . At this point, the library was open one afternoon per week, only to “the children of the city” (WC Meeting Minutes, November 28, 1925). In early 1925, they began to offer Saturday “story hours." A year later, they hired a part-time librarian, “Mrs. Abbott,” to staff the facilities (WC Departmental Conference Meeting Minutes, February 23, 1926). Apparently, the story hours attracted throngs of children: by the Spring of 1926, they placed a “temporary rail to help confine” the kids to the library (WC Meeting Minutes, April 3, 1926).

In 1926, the Women's Club made the first of several fateful decisions which lead to a public library. That Spring, they opened the library to adults and decided “there will be no charge for books” (WC Meeting Minutes, April 17, 1926). Later in the year, a connection with the Kiwanis lead to a $100 donation for new books and a promise that half the proceeds from its minstrel show would be given to the library (WC Meeting Minutes, October 30, 1926 and February 26, 1927). They gradually expanded the library's hours. Then, some of Women's Club members approached local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis, the Lions Club, and the Quota Club about forming a “Library Advisory Board” whose members would be drawn from each organization.  For its part, the Women’s Club agreed to continue opening the library 3 days each week and paying expenses in “the same amount” as they had given toward the library in the past. They also agreed to transfer the entire collection to a new location if the library ever relocated. The new Library Advisory Board, however, would need to find funding for further extension of services (LCL Board Minutes, November 29, 1926). By early 1927, the group had drawn up a list of needed equipment and supplies and each sponsoring organization had contributed between $10 and $100, depending on the relative size of its membership (LCL Board Minutes, January 17, 1927). The same year, the board rented space at 38 S. 8th Street, and the library truly passed from the Women’s Club to the community. Thenceforth and into the 1950s, it was funded through a “welfare fund” (later the "Community Chest"), a variety of fundraising events, rentals of popular fiction, and several appropriations from the Lebanon County government (for example, see LCL Board Minutes, January 21, 1931, July 22, 1931, April 25, 1932, and February 26, 1941).

Starting in the late 1920s, the Women's Club's records do not mention the nitty-gritty of administrating and growing the library. Nonetheless, they contributed to it on an regular basis until at least 1954 (the point when I stopped poring over the library’s board minute books). For example, a highly successful puppet show held on October 22, 1930 attracted more than 1500 children and cleared $250.35 for the library (WC Meeting Minutes, November 1, 1930). In the 1930s, the Women’s Club also hosted “bring a book” days, where donations of reading material were accepted in lieu of club dues (see WC Meeting Minutes, November 26, 1932, November 15, 1933, December 1, 1934, and October 19, 1935). On occasion, they devoted some of the income generated by their card parties to the library (for example, see WC Meeting Minutes of January 27, 1934). By the 1940s, they were using these monies to purchase “some outstanding thing for the library” each year. The library’s board minutes show that they gave a new typewriter in 1949, a dictionary stand and a book stool in 1950, a magazine cart in 1951, 2 “book ladders” in 1952, and an American flag in 1954.

For some reason, women’s history was not a focus of this project when I wrote my sabbatical proposal. However, reflecting on evidence I have gathered from Lebanon and other sites I have already visited, I now see that women could be a viable “unit of analysis” (to borrow a phrase from the social sciences). Like Lebanon, the Clarion Free Library was started by a group of women who raised funds and staffed the library for more than a decade before other funding became available. The Warren Library Association, another site I researched this month, made a conscious decision in the 1870s to encourage membership among women, and they too raise funds for the local library. It  almost goes without saying that vast majority of library staff, particularly in smaller communities, where female.

There are many excellent resources regarding women's involvement in libraries in other states. Perhaps the best known book is Dee Garrison's Apostles of Culture, which explores how and why librarianship became dominated by female employees. Another helpful work is Paula D. Watson's 1994 article in Library Quarterly.  It seems, though, that this line of research has many unanswered questions in Pennsylvania. In terms of women and libraries, is Pennsylvania's experience different from other states -- perhaps because of regional culture or laws? What prompted so many of our women to become involved with libraries, in addition to (or rather than) other community efforts? What challenges and opportunities did they face, possibly due to their gender, in the library workplace? How did Pennsylvania women gain access to library collections, jobs, board seats, etc., in localities that used to offer them to men? Did gender influence the dynamics between our library employees, library directors, library boards, funders, and the general public? What collections and services, if any, were specifically developed to appeal to Pennsylvania women or serve their needs?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I'm fully up to the task. Part of my trouble is that I'm not well-read in women's history -- especially not in feminist perspectives and methods of analysis. Also, I have found that many of the works recommended to me do not embody my own outlook. They are often written by baby-boomers who had vastly different experiences than I did. As a person who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, I never personally knew a world where girls weren't allowed to enroll in many colleges or use their schools' athletic facilities. I never saw a classified ads page where most job advertisements explicitly demanded male or female applicants. No one has ever called me "Mrs. Michael Lear" rather than "Bernadette Lear."  I am not saying that women my age don't experience gender discrimination, but that for all too many of us, it's almost ... livable.  It does not seem immediately pressing as being barred from certain facilities or job opportunities. Also, growing up in a decade when the word "feminazi" became part of the vernacular, perhaps some of us have been made to feel unreasonable if we demand further reforms -- especially ones that supposedly impinge on others' "personal freedom" to think along sexist lines, utilize demeaning language, or display raunchy images of us.

Still, I think I would be an irresponsible scholar if I did not attempt to think further about library history as women's history. This winter, I will certainly try to squeeze in a visit to the State Archives to use the records of the Pennsylvania General Federation of Women's Clubs, and use backfiles of its magazine, Pennsylvania Clubwoman. Also, moving forward, I can attempt to make better note of women's involvement and issues when I encounter them in library records. I would welcome anyone's recommendations for seminal articles and books to read, too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fundraising and community building in the 1880s: Warren's "Library Loan"

Last Saturday, I double-checked the Warren Library Association's online catalog one last time to ensure that I had found every item pertaining to its 140-year history. I realized that I hadn't yet seen something titled "Warren Library Loan Daily." At first, thinking it was some type of circulation ledger, I debated whether or not to track it down. Some historians, like Ron and Mary ZborayChristopher Phillips, and faculty at the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, have made hay of those kinds of library records, but they are too granular for the type of research I do. This said, the bibliographic record indicated Warren Library Loan was some type of newspaper. In the interest of due diligence, I asked the library's staff to bring it to my table.
Front page of the Warren Library Loan newspaper, April 21, 1884. 
Turns out, the "Warren Library Loan Daily" is an interesting group of artifacts. In late 1883 or early 1884, the library's executive committee decided to host a series of entertainments in its newly-constructed Struthers Library Building. The multipurpose building included not only a public library, but also meeting rooms, stores, and a theater. Kicked off on April 21, 1884, the week-long schedule of events was planned both to raise awareness of the new building and to generate funds for its library. Collectively, the effort was called the "library loan" because local residents were asked to "lend" talents and salable items.

A local newspaper, the Warren Sunday Mirror, volunteered its press for the purpose of publishing a short-run paper, the Warren Library Loan, which was printed each afternoon from April 21st through 26th. Sold in Warren and surrounding villages, it recapped the previous days events and advertised upcoming ones. It also announced out-of-towners who were arriving at local hotels, thus enabling old acquaintances to reconnect. The Warren Library Loan also included information about local stores, many of whom were holding special sales to entice visitors. For instance, Theodore Messner's was offering free majolica pitchers to its first 100 visitors, and a prize for anyone who bought a pound of premium coffee.

For a town that boasted fewer than 3,000 citizens at the time, the number and variety of happenings were impressive. A group of high-powered residents, formally presided by former Pennsylvania Governor Charles W. Stone, but really run by J. P. Jefferson, C. H. Noyes, Mrs. A. D. Wood, and Anna Sill, formed a special "Loan Committee" to coordinate everything. Others headed up subcommittees for "antiquities," entertainments, pamphlets, refreshments, and other tasks.

One room at the top of the building was reserved for an art exhibition of more than 300 canvasses. In the library proper, there were a variety of exhibits, including civil war relics and industrial machinery. There were also special displays, including an autograph collection, a baby show, and a baby alligator (yes, live!), owned by Mrs. Charles W. Stone. There was even a microscope exhibit, with slides changed during the afternoon and evening, through which many Warren residents likely saw life on the cellular level for the first time.

Each night, different events were scheduled in the building's opera hall, including an "old folks concert" on Tuesday evening, a showing of stereoscopic views on Wednesday, a "musicale" (concert) on Thursday, and a performance of the "Merchant of Venice" on Friday. Cake, ice cream, and other treats were served each day from noon until 10:00 p.m.. There were also full meals served each night, including a "New England Supper" on Tuesday. Being born in Massachusetts, that dinner menu in particular made my mouth water: ham, roast beef, creamed corn, baked beans, cabbage salad, chow-chow, "Saratoga potatoes" (i.e., potato chips), pumpkin and apple pies, doughnuts, and much more. The Philadelphia and Erie Railroad ran a specially-scheduled train to Kane to enable people up to 25 miles away to attend nightly events (to document the above paragraphs, see pg. 1 of each issue of the Warren Library Loan Daily, April 21-26 1884).

Broadsides advertising Warren's "Library Loan."
These days, public libraries undertake a variety of fundraisers. I am growing fat on candy, since a tempting box of local dollar-bars can be found at service desks in Clarion (Dan Smith's), Pottsville (Costa's), and many of my other research sites. Pennsylvania libraries sponsor golf tournaments, quilt auctions, and many other events, too. Still, I think we may be able to derive some new approaches if we brainstorm while we examine the efforts of yesteryear's libraries. Can we use community dinners, industrial technology, group sing alongs, and other unusual activities to attract new users, as Warren Library Association did so many years ago?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

My f*ck-it list

My cabin at Chapman State Park
3 a.m. one morning this week, the unmistakable burned-tire smell of Mephitis Mephitis curled around my throat and I started to choke. I tried to bury my head more deeply in my sleeping bag but to no avail -- the nefarious odor pervaded all. "Good grief!," I groaned, "Man, I am addin' this to the f*ckit list!"

Ever since a certain comedy about two men with terminal lung cancer taking a road trip, it's challenging to converse with baby boomers for any length of time without one of them referencing a "bucket list." Being in my 30s, I haven't thought much about unseen places to explore, untried hobbies to pursue, and other "wanna do's" before I die. But I DO have a list of things I have ALREADY done and NEVER want to do again.

When in polite company, I call it my "unbucket list." Privately, it's my "f*ckit list."

I'm not talking about annoying but mundane items, such as eating canned vegetables, scooping out the cat box, or being stuck behind pickups going 20mph under the speed limit on 1-lane country roads. No, the things on my f*ckit list are gestures every bit as grand as visiting the Eiffel Tower or skydiving out of an airplane. But in a bad way.

I started my f*ckit list at the tender age of 15. I wanted to travel to Europe, but even after choosing the least expensive summer trip offered by AFS, I still couldn't afford to go. My parents and I sent beg-a-grams to all the businesses we patronized. I hosted Tupperware parties (or something like that). But the bulk of my funding -- more than $900, if remember correctly -- came from tag days I did, sometimes with my brother's help, at local grocery stores. Yes, I spent hours each Saturday for weeks on end, entreating neighbors to give me spare change so I could visit a country most people couldn't find on a map. At the end of each day, Ma and I would pry open the coffee cans, dump them on the dining room table, and roll thousands of coins. My feet would be sore and my hands smelled like dirty metal through Tuesday. 

I made it to Czechoslovakia, had a wonderful time, and after all was said and done, I am proud that I raised the money myself (well, with my family's help). But:


Next time I'll just break out the credit cards!

A few times these past few weeks, I have been thinking about my decision to lodge in state parks during my sabbatical. I made this choice because I enjoy the outdoors, and because cabin rentals stretch out my grant funding. But I have to admit, living this way every day hasn't always been easy. For $25-35 per night, the only thing one can reliably count on is a roof, an electrical outlet, a vinyl-covered bunk, and some form of heat. None of the cabins have bathrooms or sinks. Most lack running water. Some don't offer a cook stove or refrigerator. Wifi is unavailable in many of the state parks, and is sometimes inaccessible for miles in any direction. So heaven help you if evil, shotgun-toting rednecks a la "Deliverance" come knocking at the door. Added to this, I have discovered that my "absent-minded professor" character doesn't jive well with backwoods survival.

I thought about the f*ckit list on Sunday night when my police-grade Mag light rolled off the shelf in my shower stall, smashed my 2nd toe, and I left me limping for a week thereafter.

I thought about the f*ckit list on Monday night when I lost my way walking back from the group showers, dropped my dirty drawers somewhere on the trail, and realized I'd never find them again.

I thought about the f*ckit list on Tuesday, after a long hike, when scratching dozens of bug bites on my calves.

I thought about the f*ckit list on Wednesday when I forgot to close the drain plug on my cooler, left my cabin for the day, melted ice leaked all over the floor, and ruined one of my notebooks.

I thought about the f*ckit list on Thursday when, for the fifth morning in a row, the only song that I could hear clearly on the radio was Tyler Farr's "Redneck Crazy."

And I thought about the f*ckit list on Friday when that damn skunk sprayed my brand new Ford Focus.

Yet, I think there's still hope. For every accident and annoyance that I have experienced, I have surprised myself with new capabilities or discovered joys that I didn't expect.

On Sunday night, I had an amazingly clear view of the stars and I think I picked out the Leo constellation.

On Monday night, my lungs filled with the freshest air I've ever breathed as I laid in my bunk and read poetry.

On Tuesday, I righted my own way after getting horrifically turned around on a poorly-marked trail.

On Wednesday, I chowed on an impromptu skillet of whole wheat spaghetti, chicken, feta, and sundried tomatoes, made on a hotplate in my cabin.

On Thursday, I discovered I kind of enjoy Rascal Flats' "Why Wait" and Chris Young's "Aw Naw."

And on Friday, I encountered numerous blue jays, a flock of wild turkeys, deer, and other critters besides the skunk.

I guess only time will tell. In 20 years, I'll look back and think this was either the worst or best time of my life.

Walking in Mary Weiss's footsteps: more on library workers' rights and rewards

Nothing provides a greater sense of how libraries used to operate than a visit to one that hasn't been substantially renovated. So I squealed with delight last week when I dropped in at the Struthers Library Theatre and theater manager Dana Simmons kindly unlocked the doors to what is one of the oldest library spaces in northwestern Pennsylvania.

In the early 1880s, a local millionaire named Thomas Struthers erected a multipurpose building which included meeting rooms, stores, and a theater. He hoped that rental income would support a free library for Warren residents. Over the years, the Warren post office, Blair (then known as the New Process Company), and many other organizations used the Struthers Library Building's spaces. As it turned out, rents never fully covered the library's operating costs. Nonetheless, the Struthers Library, which was located on the 2nd floor, served customers continuously from 1884 to 1916.

Struthers Library Building in Warren, PA. 
The Library was on the 2nd floor.
Even after the new Warren Public Library opened in 1916, the Struthers Library remained accessible for a few hours per day to offer a pleasant reading space to the public. It continues to house an "overflow" of older books not immediately needed by today's everyday patrons. Other than a renovation in the early 1900s, some fresh varnish in the 1940s, and a major restoration in 1984, I haven't found evidence that the interior has been altered very much. In fact, the library looks very much like it did in historic photos of the 1910s.

Interior of the Struthers Library, as it would
have been seen by its early customers.
So I immediately clambered up to the top tier of the closed, wooden book stacks. My heart momentarily skipped a beat as I heard them creak under my weight. But I couldn't resist asking Dana to snap my picture, as any proud tourist would.
Me at the top of the closed stacks, Struthers Library.  

Today, I have been scrolling through dozens of images from my visit, fascinated details that escaped notice during my previous excitement. Call me "Debbie Downer," but I am reminded how difficult library work must have been back then.

In the early years, librarian Mary Weiss routinely worked 12-hour days, shutting the library for an hour at lunch and an hour at dinner so she could have some kind of break. Because the bookshelves were off-limits to customers, she (and/or her assistants) had to climb dozens of steps whenever customers wanted materials. It was challenging enough for me to do it once wearing roomy cotton pants and lightweight sneakers. I would never want to do it repeatedly in a long, full shirt and heeled shoes.

Closely examining the stack's construction, it appears there were few safety considerations. Given the combination of oak stacks, stuffed with paper materials, lit by gaslight, with "cozy" fireplaces nearby, it's a wonder the place didn't burn down. There are no railings on the steep back stairs to the top stack, and only a 1 or 2-inch oak dowel at waist-height to keep people from plummeting to the floor below. It is not for mere aesthetic reasons that I am kneeling and gripping the rail in the picture above -- I am terribly afraid of heights and climbed up there on my hands and knees.

Stairs leading to the top tier of the stack
One can't help but wonder if librarians felt well-compensated for their exertions and risks. It seems the answer depended on the worker. In August 1889, librarian Fanny Smith informed the board that she would resign effective October 1st, unless "her pay could be advanced." They found "it was impracticable to pay a higher salary than now paid and Miss Smith's resignation was accepted" (WLA Board of Control Minutes, August 31, 1889). Mary Weiss, who served as Warren's librarian for the next 42 years, was hired at the same rate, a mere $40 per month. They did increase her wages, though. In February 1894, they increased her monthly salary to $50; then in March 1898, $60; then in March 1902, $70; then in February 1905, $80; and then several dollars more every few years after that (see WLA Board of Control Minutes). When she retired in 1931, the board also decided to pay her an annual pension of $900 per year -- a lifeline in an era before Social Security was enacted.

Mary Weiss. Photo courtesy of the Warren Library Association.
Was this a good living for the time? It is difficult to compare library salaries with other occupations, since most federal reports of the era focus on farm and manufacturing jobs. A 1903 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that the average income for a family of 5 in the North Atlantic states was about $830 per year, roughly equivalent to what Weiss was earning that year. So perhaps she lived comfortably as a single woman. It also appears that she was greatly appreciative of whatever economic, personal, and social opportunities her position as Warren's librarian provided. For example, during the dedication ceremony of the new library on June 8, 1916, the board surprised her by publicly presenting her with a Vacheron and Constantin gold watch. At first she was "overcome," then "secured some control of her voice" and said that "first I wanted a catalogue, then a children's room, and finally I dared to hope for a new building. That dream has come true and I feel especially thankful this evening" (Warren Mail, June 15, 1916). Although the board minutes indicate that junior staff in later years occasionally petitioned them about salary, benefits, hours, and other labor issues, there is no record that Mary Weiss herself did.

As fun as it may be to visit a 19th-century library, and as content as early librarians like Weiss appeared to be, I am thankful of the many regulations that protect us today, as well as common customs (like a 5-day workweek) that are now ubiquitous in many workplaces. Even if someone gifted me a luxury timepiece in return, I don't think I'd want be expected to routinely work 12-hour days, or repeatedly climb stairs without sturdy railings!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Literature, history, philosophy ... community?

I can only afford to spend a week or so in Warren, so I have been spending 10:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday at the library and brown-bagging both lunch and dinner. Usually I just pack 2 of everything, wolf half of it down between 1:00 and 1:15, and the rest from 5:30 to 5:45. But after 4 10-hour days in a row and 4 days times 2 of turkey on wheat, this afternoon I allowed myself a full half-hour on the library's front lawn.

I tossed my sandwich to some squirrels, sipped my tea, and people-watched. My eyes followed a young but exhausted-looking female who was pushing two kids in a double stroller, had an infant strapped to her back, and was hollering at a preschooler who had run too far ahead. My eyes followed her up and across Market Street and into the library.

As she entered the building, the swinging doors broke my concentration. It was then that I took a minute to read the inscriptions running across the library's front façade.

Original front entrance to the Warren (PA) Public Library
Directly above the main entrance is:

The storehouse of knowledge, the record of civilization. The fulcrum for the lever of progress."

Then, to one side:

The story of the human race in conflict with nature and with its own elemental passions but ever aspiring."

And to the other side:

The thoughts of men about human thinking reasoning and imagining and the real values in human existence."

Then, on the sides of the building are additional inscriptions about biography and religion.

My academic pals no doubt would have a field-day analyzing these phrases. I myself mused over the definition of history which apparently places people and their environments in competition -- I tend to think many of the short-sighted things we do, especially when we extract nonrenewable resources from the Earth, stem from such an attitude about humanity's place in creation.

But critiquing things written in 1915 through a 2013 mindset is as stale as my turkey sandwiches. It's so easy to do that it's already been done a zillion times. So let's take this conversation in two different directions. 

First of all, there is an interesting story behind the inscriptions. Surprisingly, when you consider that Warren Library Association is situated in a small city within a rural county, the architects of the library were Warren and Wetmore of New York, who designed Grand Central Station in New York City and many other notable buildings. Their plans for the Warren's public library allowed for 5 brief inscriptions. It proved surprisingly difficult to identify a series of quotations that were short, meaningful, timeless, and harmonious. Judging from extant correspondence in box 18 of the Wetmore Collection at the Warren County Historical Society, it appears that either the architects or the library board first consulted with John Cotton Dana. Dana, who was then the head of the Newark (New Jersey) Public Library, was widely considered one of the most progressive librarians of his day.

Dana chose to focus on the evolution of speech, language, writing, printing, and libraries. The first two 2 in his suggested series of quotations were:

"Each man once had of nature's moving picture only the narrow glimpse his own eyes gave: speech came at last and told him what others saw."

"With speech came words: the tools of thought, the messengers of knowledge, the crucibles of wisdom and the bonds of  social order."

Then, Dana's suggested inscription for the panel directly above the entrance was: 

"Writing made words visible, held learning fast, bridged space and time, and through world wide knowledge promised world wide peace."

(Awesome, right?)

After that come 2 more:

"Printing bade learning and wisdom knock at every door, made truth immortal and gave each to know himself and his proper task."

"The library gathers learning for learning's increase; sets opinion free that truth may prevail; and asks all men to seek for wisdom."

So why isn't THAT on the building today?

One possibility is that Dana's verbiage simply didn't fit within available space. Importantly, Dana felt the phrases "must stand on the building in the order in which I have numbered them." This would have placed the phrases on speech and libraries out of view for many people approaching the building head-on. This said, placement of the inscriptions didn't seem to trouble the architects at that point. In fact, Warren and Wetmore felt Dana's suggestions were "very good indeed" (letter from Warren and Wetmore to Edward D. Wetmore, April 3, 1915).

Mary Weiss, Warren's librarian, also liked Dana's words "very much." She even checked their readability by sharing them with the library's janitor, who "seemed to grasp" their meaning. However, she admitted Dana's language was "a little stilted" and that "no doubt a more simple word could be used here and there" (letter from Mary C. Weiss to Edward D. Wetmore, April 10, 1915). 

Although it appears that Warren and Wetmore initially had no concerns about the length or placement of Dana's words, a problem may have cropped up later. An intriguing letter from library board secretary W. H. Jones to Edward D. Wetmore referred to the architects' "rigid requirements" on the inscriptions' length. There is also a possibility that one or more members of the library's board were not enthused by Dana's suggestions. In the same letter, Jones stated that while one board member preferred Dana's words "provided some changes were made," she was "alone in that opinion" (letter from Jones to Wetmore, May 31, 1915). Finally, in the Wetmore Collection there is a letter from Charles W. Eliot to W. H. Jones. In it, Eliot provided the inscriptions that ultimately appeared on the new library (letter from Eliot to Jones, August 14, 1915). Eliot, who had recently stepped down as the longest-serving President of Harvard University, was apparently well-known for composing verbiage for public buildings and memorials -- there is actually a collection of these writings, published in 1934.

Besides learning about the quotes that ARE, and ones that MIGHT HAVE BEEN, I also find it fun to think of inscriptions that COULD BE. An addition to Warren's public library was built in the 1980s, and the façade of that wing is a blank canvas awaiting our generation's words.

What would you write?

I suppose many of my colleagues would suggest TECHNOLOGY, given how hard we strive to be at the cutting edge of communication and information sciences.

But instead, I would suggest COMMUNITY. Without people and the rewards of positive social relationships, there wouldn't be much meaning to any of the other stuff libraries do. 

When a library truly becomes "public": Warren, 1894

In my experience, every public library yearns to be "first" -- the first library in its county to be established, or the first to be freely available to the public, or the first to offer such-and-such service. Or, if it cannot be "first," it hopes to be "before" -- especially before a big-city or Carnegie library. In staking such claims, the public library sometimes pieces together a tenuous lineage back to a defunct private or subscription organization, which, other than perhaps donating a dusty book collection before shutting its doors, had little or no relationship to the public institution which now claims to be 125, 150, 175, or even 200 years old. 

What may seem like historical hair-splitting is actually high-stakes business to some. On more than one occasion, a director has barred me from further access to the library's historical records, after I told her or him that the popular story about colonial beginnings couldn't be supported with existing documents. Although founding dates are sometimes open to interpretation, and although I want my research to help (not embarrass) libraries, I definitely draw some ethical lines in the sand and refuse to be a knowing party to fudgery. 

So, when I crossed the threshold of the Warren Library Association (WLA) I was a bit nervous. Could its 1873 founding date be true, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating public libraries in Pennsylvania's Northwest? What about the "Struthers Library Building" I had read about? Would the connection between the WLA, Struthers, and today's public library be clear in primary sources? Or would I have to disappoint someone?

Fortunately, through looking at its meeting minute books, I could confirm  that the Warren Library Association adopted its constitution on November 18, 1873, thus legitimizing 1873 as a founding year. According to extant minutes, officers meetings took place regularly after that and were often officiated by the same group of people, thus showing the continuity of the association. In 1882, Thomas Struthers, a local magnate who had few heirs, approached the WLA with an offer to erect a multipurpose building with space for a library, stores, and a theater, hoping that the latter 2 would generate sufficient annual income for the library. The WLA created a committee to interact with Struthers and raise money to purchase land (WLA annual meeting minutes, January 9, 1882 and February 13, 1882). Thus a strong link between the WLA and the Struthers Library is substantiated.

The Struthers Library Building, Warren, PA
The library opened on the corner of Liberty Street and 3rd Avenue in 1884 and remained in operation there until a new library was built on Market Street. As a condition of their gift, J. P. Jefferson and Edward D. Wetmore, the donors of the new building, required Warren Borough to provide annual funding via taxation. The Warren School District agreed to give the library 1 mill in property taxes (WLA Board of Control Minutes, October 8, 1914, May 6, 1915, and September 9, 1915). In other words, meeting minutes and other documentation available at WLA show a strengthy chain of events from the early 1870s down to the present day. 

Yet to my mind, one of the most important details of WLA's history has been omitted from some of the "go-to" secondary accounts I have read so far.  For example, a series of articles in the September 1983 issue of Stepping Stones (the county historical society journal), commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Struthers Library Building does not mention this crucial date: 

June 1, 1894: the day borrowing books became FREE for all Warrenites.

Up until this time, anyone could enter the library and use materials on-site in the reading room. However, if he or she wished to take books home, there was a "initiation" fee and an annual "ticket" to be purchased. In 1874, the Executive Committee voted to allow non-members to rent books for 1 cent per day, plus a refundable deposit equivalent to the value of the book, but it appears this opportunity was rescinded a few years later (WLA executive committee minutes, January 15, 1874 and WLA annual meeting minutes, December 16, 1878). The costs were tinkered with several times over the years, especially in regards to "permanent" and "life" members who had given large donations to the library, and for households who had more than one library member (for instance, see WLA annual meeting minutes, December 16, 1878). Nonetheless, paid memberships remained part of WLA's modus operandi for the first two decades of the library's existence. 

Then, in his public address of 1894, WLA Vice President A. D. Wood pledged $10 per year to the library if 24 other residents would do the same. Such a donation could completely replace the ticket system and enable all residents to borrow books for free. Wood's strikingly modern argument for this action is worth repeating verbatim:

"While the small price charged for an annual ticket to the Library would seem a trifling bar to its advantages being open to almost everyone, I feel satisfied that any charge for the privilege of taking books from the Library acts in an important measure as a restraint on its use. I know it is urged that the principal of giving something for nothing is a bad one and leads to indifference and want of appreciation, but in its application to libraries this result does not seem to follow. Perhaps it is not so much the price charged, as the feeling that it is a class privilege that is maintained, which deters many from being ticket members. The revenue derived from tickets has been required all along to help sustain the Library, but as soon as possible (and a distinct effort should be made to bring it about), we should throw open our doors to all and offer to the public an absolutely 'free library'" (WLA annual meeting minutes, January 8, 1894). 

Other Warrenites stepped forward promptly and that year, WLA became a free, public library. The impact of this policy change appears to have been enormous. By the beginning of 1895, the library boasted 1060 borrowers, as compared to 250 ticket holders before the annual fee was abolished. Monthly circulation also jumped from 437 books per month during the "pay system" to 3145 per month with free borrowing (WLA annual meeting minutes, January 14, 1895). 

I am not sure why this story isn't more widely told. Perhaps reading the WLA's 1873 constitution, which states that the "object" of the organization was the "maintenance of a public library," some chroniclers assumed that it was always free, as the public library is today. 

I admit I still have much to learn about WLA. I may even find additional documents that will prompt me to revise my preliminary interpretation of this important event in WLA's history. If nothing else, however, I am reminded of the need for great care when describing library change-ings as well as beginnings. 

In the footsteps of Robert P. Bliss

Several months back, a friend who is not in my profession asked me, "who was Pennsylvania's most important librarian, ever?" It seems like such a simple question, but it's impossible for me to answer. First of all, my work primarily focuses on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so I am reluctant to name anyone as the best "ever" when my knowledge of other time periods is limited. Also, since there are no articles, books, or dissertations that broadly survey the history of librarianship in Pennsylvania, and my own research is incomplete, I bet there are quite a few important librarians I simply haven't encountered yet.

These disclaimers made, though, I would encourage anyone to learn these names: Helen Price, Anna MacDonald, Evelyn Matthews, and Robert Bliss. All were longstanding employees of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission, later subsumed by the Extension Division of the State Library of Pennsylvania. They are due at least partial credit for founding dozens, if not hundreds, of free public libraries throughout the state. There may have been others in the Commission or Extension Division that are worth mentioning, but Price, MacDonald, Matthews, and Bliss are the ones that I've encountered repeatedly in documents at the Pennsylvania Library Association Archives and in the historical records of various public libraries.

At this point, there are many gaps in my knowledge about their lives and work. Helen Underwood Price was hired as a "library organizer" sometime between 1906 and 1908. There is a delightful article she published in ALA Bulletin (see the volume for 1910, pages 715-721) in which she describes the many challenges of establishing public libraries in Pennsylvania.

I am not sure precisely when Anna A. MacDonald came to Harrisburg, but I can place her as an employee at Penn State's library (main campus, State College, Centre County) from 1895 or 1896 through 1906 or 1907 (Pennsylvania State College, 1907/1908 Annual Report). Later at SLP, she traveled all over Pennsylvania to speak with community agencies and to assist them in organizing libraries. MacDonald  was also a frequent lecturer, if not one of the original organizers, of a summer training program for library staff held annually at Penn State that started in 1911. Within the  historical files in the SLP director's office, there is a fascinating typescript of a speech she gave in 1917 describing her efforts. From 1924 to 1927, MacDonald served as acting State Librarian. According to her obituary, she remained with SLP until her retirement in 1931 or 1932 (Centre Daily Times, May 22, 1954). 
Of Evelyn Matthews, I can only say, judging from correspondence I've seen, that she worked for the Extension Division for at least 15 and possible as many as 20 years -- from the 1910s through 1930s, roughly. 

The stories of Price, MacDonald, and Matthews are no less compelling than that of Robert P. Bliss, but it is him that I often think about when I am on the road, especially when driving to Erie and Warren. Formerly the librarian at Crozer Theological Seminary (in Upland, Delaware County), Bliss was hired in 1906 as the Assistant Secretary of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission. In the first years of his tenure, he was sent into the field to develop a list of all the public libraries in the state. By undertaking such a "survey," he was able to share with State Library Thomas Lynch Montgomery eyewitness reports of the distribution, efficiency, and quality of services. One of the first regions he visited was Northwestern Pennsylvania, where I am doing research now. While here, he met with teachers in 20 different counties to discuss traveling libraries with them. He also made sure that "the newspapers were interested in the work of the Commission" (State Library of Pennsylvania, 1906 Annual Report). After the Commission hired Helen Price, it seems that Bliss stayed closer to home. By the 1910s, much of the correspondence I have seen under his signature pertains to library law, policy, and standards. In 1937, he wrote a booklet, A History of the State Library of Pennsylvania, which stands today as the best description of the library yet written. 

Like Bliss, I have spent a great deal of time on the road. And like him, I write about the history of libraries. I hope in time I will evolve the broad and long view of librarianship that he did.