Saturday, October 12, 2013

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!

1 comment:

  1. Hope you don't mind----I re-posted a photo from this article and a link to this article at which is a group page at Facebook called World Wide Warren Web. Let me know if this is OK!