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.


  1. Yeah I live in Kentucky and over 80% of the public libraries here were first started by women's group. Also everyone talks about Andrew Carnegie's role but he only gave grants to libraries that had already been in existence for at least one year and a lot of those libraries were started by, you guessed it, women's groups.

  2. Thanks so much for reading my blog, and also for your comment. Contrary what many folks believe, Carnegie did not provide a lot of libraries in Pennsylvania, either. It's true that he built dozens of branches for the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh library systems, outside of those cities, only about 25 communities in Pennsylvania received Carnegie grants. Here, many of the late 19th century libraries were given by a local donor or family, while in the 20th century, women's groups often played important roles.