Saturday, October 5, 2013

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. 

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