Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Calling architectural historians!: visit the James V. Brown Library!

There are many subtopics in library history that I would love to explore if only my grasp exceeded my reach. One of them is architectural history. What does it say about the audience of a library, when the building is sited near fraternal lodges and social clubs, versus near churches, or schools, or low-income districts? How should we interpret a children's department that is located in a basement or on an upper floor? Does it mean anything when a building's design employs Grecian columns and pediments? Why did so many libraries choose green wall paint and oak furniture?

Since I am not well-trained in analyzing architecture, I will tip off other researchers: check out the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport (JVB). Designed by architect Edgar V. Seeler, built by E. S. Gilbert and Company, and opened in 1907, JVB is one of the oldest purpose-built libraries in its region. Judging from early floor plans, it had a different layout than many I have seen. It was partially-closed/partially-open stack -- meaning, many volumes were stored in a "stack room" at the back of the building, but alcoves and shelving in the reading room enabled customers to browse new titles and displays on special topics.

First floor plan of JVB. From the 1908 Annual Report. 
Original reading room of JVB. From the 1909 Annual Report. 
Although the original circulation desk has been replaced with an iron, gazebo-like sculpture, this part of the building retains much of the character of the old library. Outdoors, the front facade has not changed much in a century.

Front of the James V. Brown Library, Williamsport, PA.
Inside, natural light still streams in from a beautiful stained-glass skylight above, and staff still use the alcoves in the reading room to promote materials on special topics. During my visit, there was a display of histories and travel guides for the "Pennsylvania Wilds" -- the forests and mountains of which Lycoming County is a part.
Inside the JVB reading room today. 
The building itself is one primary source for architectual historians, but JVB has retained a substantial archive of correspondence and photographs as well. One binder, labeled "Letters from Architect Seeler to the Board," contains voluminous letters. In addition, JVB has retained another binder, labeled" "Letters and Invoices from the Contractor." There is also a copybook containing letters to Seeler, Gilbert, and others involved with the building. This material provides much information about the materials used in the construction and their costs; the contents of the building's cornerstone; even the equipment and supplies from the Library Bureau that early staff used. One reads of concerns over the likeness of donor James Brown in the bust above JVB's entrance. There is also evidence of conflict between contractor E. S. Gilbert and Pennsylvania Marble and Granite Company over the quality of stone and the promptness of its delivery.

Added to such textual records, there is a photograph album which documents several months of construction. Having an interest in non-librarian workers, I was delighted to catch a glimpse of the working-class people who actually "built" JVB. The album might also provide clues to researchers who are interested in how buildings were physically erected -- what types of processes and tools were used. Downstairs in JVB's local history room, the photograph collection contains additional images pertaining to construction.

Photograph album showing unfolding stages of JVB's construction. 
A photograph from early in the library's construction. From the JVB's photograph collection. 
It seems to me that there is much research to do in terms of library architecture. There is Donald Oehlert's classic Books and Blueprints, as well as Black, Pepper, and Bagshaw's book on British libraries. There are works about specific buildings, such as the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Carnegie libraries have been the subject of studies by Dierickx, McCormickJones, Van Slyck, and others. Certain architects, like Henry Hobson Richardson are popular, too. Yet there may be many architects and buildings of regional importance, like Edgar V. Seeler and JVB, that are worth consideration as too. I hope some of my colleagues and students will attempt such efforts!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Old swag from the James V. Brown Library

Last week, while combing through historical records of the James V. Brown Library (JVB) in Williamsport, I braced myself to heave a large carton which I assumed was filled with 40 pounds of paper. Yet when I lifted the box, I found it surprisingly light. After I cracked the lid and sifted through wadded-up craft paper, I found some delightful artifacts from the library's opening days: matching cups, pipe dishes, plates, and other ceramics decorated with an image of the library building; a silver spoon, also showing an image of the library; and a silver trowel which was used at a ceremony to lay its cornerstone.
Ceramic pipe dish showing the James V. Brown Library.
The library also has cups, plates, and
other items with the same design.
Silver spoon showing the
 James V. Brown Library. 
Ceremonial trowel used to lay the cornerstone
of the James V. Brown Library
I didn't find many clues about these items in extant records at JVB. The trowel's inscription indicates it was presented by the contractor, Edwin Gilbert, to the library's Board of Trustees. Other than crude "Made in Germany" stamps on the bottom of the cups, the ceramics provide no hint where and when they were made or sold. Unfortunately, in trying to fill the gaps I have little personal knowledge to draw upon. I have published a scholarly article about the benefits and difficulties of using old postcards as primary sources, but "librariana" (ephemeral artifacts which depict libraries, librarians, or librarianship) is mostly uncharted territory for me. When members of the Library History Round Table ask questions, I can only answer, "yeah, what Larry Nix said" or "read Norman Stevens' book."

Still, I sense that these artifacts could prompt valuable insights about everyday people's relationships to new libraries. For example, the silver spoon reminds me of souvenir spoons which were often sold at amusement parks, county fairs, capital cities, and other popular destinations during the 1880s-1910s. If JVB's spoon is of the same vintage, it lends to an interpretation of the new building as a tourist attraction -- a "sight to see." The ceramics remind me of commemorative plates that have long been used to celebrate historic events or important people. If JVB's items are part of this genre, this points to a library opening as a significant happening in the life of the community.

One could also think about JVB's items and the evolution of library "swag." Our tastes have changed in terms of the items we like to use. A century ago, a ceramic pipe dish was a common and useful item; however, in many circles, smoking is no longer socially accepted -- especially not in libraries, where the stock-in-trade could easily go up in flames! Also, new technologies make it possible to create bric-a-bric that our grandparents couldn't imagine. For example, companies like Janway print library logos on ear buds, and on cups that change color when you fill them with liquid.

Do you collect librariana? If so, what types of items? What does your collection tell you about the history of libraries?

A new muse?: O. R. Howard Thomson

After years of learning about the lives and careers of other people, you sometimes begin to think of them as friends. Gradually uncovering and assembling biographical details great and small makes dead people seem just as alive as your neighbors, work colleagues, and, sometimes, even family members. Your attachment to their stories can be so compelling that these people from distant eras fill your work hours, your social conversations, and even your wee-hour thoughts. 

Much like some of my relatives gossip about soap opera characters as if they were real, I sometimes find myself talking about -- and *to* -- "Hannah."  Hannah Packard James (1835-1903) was the first librarian of the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre and a founder of the Pennsylvania Library Association. I spent nearly 3 years seeking out any scrap of paper that could help me understand her  -- not only library records and professional correspondence, but even the deed to her home and the epitaph on her tombstone. I spent another 2 years struggling to make sense of all the material and trying to interest a scholarly journal in publishing it. After "Yankee Librarian in the Diamond City" made it to print, though, I hadn't come across another librarian that could motivate me to research his or her life story so obsessively. 

Until now.  

His name is O. R. (Osmund Rhoads) Howard Thomson. Born in London in 1873 and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Ursinus, Thomson was working at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, when he learned that Williamsport was building a public library. 

Although O. R. H. was the son of nationally-known librarian John Thomson  and was working within one of (if not the) largest library systems in Pennsylvania, the Williamsport job wasn't necessarily his for the taking. Correspondence files reveal that some trustees were concerned about hiring Thomson because he had no formal library education and had never organized a library from the ground up. Furthermore, he was working in an institution run by his father, a situation which could be professionally limiting or overly forgiving of his faults (letter from JVB board of trustees to Melvil Dewey, April 16th, 1906, JVB). Yet, Thomson came highly recommended by Thomas Lynch Montgomery, the State Librarian of Pennsylvania, who happened to be Thomson's predecessor at Wagner (letters from Montgomery to Edmund Piper, January 23rd and February 19th, 1906, JVB). Thus despite the board's temporary misgivings, Thomson was hired. From 1906 until his death, he remained head librarian of the James V. Brown Library (JVB) in Williamsport. In 1915-1916, he was also president of the Keystone State Library Association (the forerunner to the Pennsylvania Library Association). 

Thomson was a prolific author and public speaker. Within the library profession, he may have been particularly recognized for his expertise on tax levies for libraries, and for his knowledge of library budgeting. In 1920, 1927, and 1939, JVB won increased municipal funding through public referendum, a feat that is hard to accomplish once, let alone 3 times. Following a KSLA conference presentation about library budgeting, Thomson wrote a handbook, A Normal Library Budget and Its Units of Expense (1913), which was published by the American Library Association. He later revised and expanded this work, titled Reasonable Budgets for Public Libraries and Their Units of Expense (1925), which was again published by the American Library Association.

I am fascinated by the fact that Thomson stayed in Williamsport until the end of his career. Over the years, I have come across many other competent men of Thomson's era who would vie for positions in larger libraries whenever opportunities arose. For example, Charles E. Wright, who organized the Erie Public Library, soon left it to head the Carnegie Library of Duquesne, PA, a grander building close to Pittsburgh. Edwin H. Anderson, who once directed Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, moved on to the New York Public Library. Unlike such men, Thomson became and remained a Williamsporter. 

As Hannah Packard James was intimately involved in numerous social welfare causes outside of her library, Thomson made himself a "leading part ... of the cultural life" in Williamsport ("Library and Librarian," Williamsport Sun, February 19th, 1937). Local residents were more likely to know Thomson as a bibliophile, historian, and poet. Soon after JVB opened, it offered annual lecture series and art exhibitions. Thomson himself was a frequent speaker, alongside faculty from regional schools and colleges. At JVB and the Lycoming County Historical Society, one can find scripts of dozens of talks he provided to regional groups of librarians, teachers, churchgoers, women's clubs, and the general public. In addition, LCHS preserves copies of "Every Other Saturday," a twice-monthly column on historical and literary topics Thomson wrote for the Willismsport Sun in the 1920s. The historical society also offers copies of original poems that Thomson composed and distributed to friends each holiday season from the 1910s through the 1940s. Importantly, it seems Thomson was not an egoist who only enjoyed his own work. Trying to instill a similar love of poetry in young people, for decades he personally sponsored an annual poetry-writing contest among area high school students. Finally, LCHS also has delightful photograph of Thomson in a tennis uniform -- apparently he enjoyed some team sports as well! 

O. R. Howard Thomson, n.d..
From the Lycoming County Historical Society. 
Some of the annual Christmas poems published by Thomson.
Copies available at the Lycoming County Historical Society. 
As Thomson grew older, his correspondence at times seems cantankerous. For example, an undated copy of a letter to the editor of the American Library Association Bulletin, protesting the development of rental book collections in public libraries, bellows about "the betrayal by those now high in the counsels of the Association, of an ideal that men in the Library profession fought for when these defeatists were in their cradles" (JVB). Similarly, when Thomson became frustrated that the concerns of mid-sized public libraries were becoming a "side-show" within PaLA conference programs, he contacted all libraries in Pennsylvania which served populations of 15,000-100,000, and hosted his own forum for them at Williamsport (letter from Thomson to libraries, June 30th, 1942). These curmudgeonly aspects endear him to me, though. 

I have been told that biographers are most attached to subjects whose experiences or personalities are like their own. That is true in my case. I grew up in New Bedford, a short distance from the James homestead in Scituate, so I readily identify with the culture shock Hannah Packard James encountered when moving from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. In contrast, O. R. Howard Thomson and I seem to have nothing in common geographically. Yet I feel a connection to his love for scholarship. Like him, I write about history and I dare to take the podium in academic settings even though I am a "practitioner." I also empathize with his bluntness and his apparent impatience when "leadership" becomes more chain than command. It would be a long quest to track down comprehensive biographical details and to analyze all Thomson's writings, but I hope I will make the effort someday!

Pennsylvania libraries and the floods of 1936

If you were to ask someone to recall an environmental disaster of the 1930s, most likely he or she would mention the drought which turned much of the southern plains into a Dust Bowl. However, Pennsylvania experienced quite a different catastrophe: the Great Flood of 1936.

In the winter of 1935/1936, many areas of the state received unusual amounts of snowfall. Across Pennsylvania, an average of 5 extra inches fell in December, plus nearly 9 extra inches in January. Temperatures remained lower than normal through February, enabling the ice and snow to accumulate. In contrast, March 1936 was warmer than typical. Then, two storms hit. The first, on March 11th-12th, dumped 1-4 inches of rain on much of the state. While such precipitation wouldn't normally cause rivers to overflow, this time the rush of water was amplified by melting snow. A second storm, pelting west to east on March 16-18, "resulted in the greatest floods known" along the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio, Susquehanna, and other rivers. Ultimately, at least 80 people were killed, 2,800 were injured, and more than 57,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. In addition, millions of dollars of repairs were needed for Pennsylvania's bridges, roads, rails,  mines, and utilities (J. W. Mangan, The Floods of March 1936 in Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, PA: Department of Forests and Waters, 1936, pgs. 14-20, 119).

Map showing rivers affected by the 1936 flood. 
From the J. W. ManganThe Floods of March 1936 in
Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Department of Forests and Waters, 1936).
Public libraries were among the many institutions struggling to recover from the great flood. Interestingly, when doing so, they may have set important precedents in terms of state funding for Pennsylvania libraries, and in best practices for reclaiming water-damaged materials.

I have yet to find a list of all the public libraries damaged by the flood, but an April 1936 article in Pennsylvania Library and Museum Notes mentions that Harrisburg, Huntingdon, Johnstown, Kingston, Lock Haven, Milton, Pittsburgh, and Williamsport were among them (see "Flooded Libraries," vol. 15, no. 3, pgs. 57-59). Of these, I currently know the most about the James V. Brown Library of Williamsport (JVB) which I visited this month. Both JVB and the Lycoming County Historical Society maintain papers of O. R. Howard Thomson, JVB's director during the flood.  Also, within JVB's correspondence files is a copy of a sworn statement by Thomson enumerating the damage to his library -- a claim of more than $40,000. Within these documents he stated that "water commenced to seep into the Library building on March 12th," and he used nearly 30 volunteers to lug 7,000-8,000 items from the cellar to the first floor. When the water continued to rise, they carried as many books as possible up to the 2nd floor, but available space couldn't hold all the library's contents. By March 18th, 22 inches of mud and water stood on the library's main floor.

View of the back of James V. Brown Library during the flood of 1936.
 From Cliff Waters, Flood: West Branch Valley's Answer to Disaster
(Williamsport, PA: Cliff Waters, 1936).
Wanting to salvage as many items as possible before mildew set in, as well as to clear the building promptly for cleaning and repair, Thomson decided to immediately truck thousands of items to the Universal Publishing Syndicate of Philadelphia, a bookbinder with the capacity to dry and fumigate large quantities, rather than task his staff with making salvage decisions and recording each book's disposition at the flood site. Later, he sent 3 staff members to Philadelphia to assess each title coming from the ovens and decide which ones were worth rebinding, versus those that should simply be discarded and replaced. The librarians then contacted colleagues at other institutions to request duplicates from the other libraries' collections. The State Library of Pennsylvania, Penn State libraries, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore all provided replacement copies for JVB (letter from Thomson to Superintendent of Public Instruction Lester K. Ade, August 20, 1936, JVB). In addition to Thomson's narrative statement and official correspondence, JVB retained a ledger, the "Flood Fund Journal," which itemized all expenses related to rehabilitation.

The LCHS collection includes friendly letters between Thomson and Helen Vogel (later Helen White), the secretary of his close friend, Henry F. Marx of Easton Area Public Library. This informal correspondence compliments official accounts by revealing Thomson's personal reactions to the flood and its aftermath. For example, on March 13th (after the 1st storm), he wrote to Vogel that the Susquehanna River had gone "on a rampage," but it appears that he felt a crisis had been averted. Items previously stored in the library's cellar had been successfully shifted to 1st floor, and a "light freeze" in temperature had slowed the rush of water from surrounding mountains. The Susquehanna River had begun to subside. Although Thomson "suppose[d] that two or three of us will have colds," it was "a great blessing to be safe for the moment." He was confident that the library was "built sufficiently high to be out of reach of any flood less than thirty-four feet" (letter from Thomson to Vogel, March 13th, 1936, LCHS). But little did Thomson know, rain would fall again a few days later. Cresting at 33.6 feet, the Susquehanna flooded more 6,000 buildings across more than 3,000 acres of Williamsport.

Aerial view of Williamsport during the flood of 1936. From Cliff Waters,
Flood: West Branch Valley's Answer to Disaster
(Williamsport, PA: Cliff Waters, 1936). 
Since correspondence with Vogel is sparse over the next few weeks, Thomson may have been in crisis mode. Such interpretation is reinforced by the half-sentences he typed to Vogel on April 11th:
"Well we're up for breath anyhow. Fifteen thousand volumes water soaked ... Frantic appeals to Washington, Harrisburg, and other places for duplicates of documents and Pennsylvaniana. Years of correspondence ... destroyed beyond salvage; records being ironed and the staff attired in overalls, knickers, pants. The Librarian in hip-boots and leather jacket as he had to wade around in the cellar. No heat for a week so whiskey administered to everybody twice a day and anti-typhoid injections made once a week. Bills being contracted for up to $25,000 and not a cent in sight! Great time."
Letters to Vogel further reveal that the clean-up process proceeded slowly. More than a month after the flood, the walls of the library's cellar still "weeped" water and the building remained closed (letter from Thomson to Vogel, April 22th, 1936, LCHS). A month later, JVB was still receiving materials back from the bindery (letter from Thomson to Vogel, May 29th 1936, LCHS).

Records available at the Pennsylvania Library Association Archives show an additional side of the story. PaLA President Frances H. Kelly appointed a special "Flood Relief Committee" to obtain rehabilitation funds from the state. The group consisted primarily of librarians at flooded institutions, including O. R. Howard Thomson; Mary E. Crocker of the Annie Halenbake Ross Library, Lock Haven; Alice R. Eaton of the Harrisburg Public Library; Margaret Jackson of the Hoyt Library, Kingston; and "Mrs. Hasenplug" (possibly Louise Hassenplug?) of Milton Public Library. 

Interestingly, Kelly chose Charles W. Carroll, the President of Universal Publishing Syndicate, to lead this group. Although not a librarian, Carroll had first-hand knowledge of the damage the floods wrought. His Philadelphia-area bindery was one of few, if any, companies in Pennsylvania equipped with large-scale drying ovens, fumigation equipment, paper-presses, and other machinery necessary to handle thousands of waterlogged volumes. As previously mentioned, his company had processed flooded materials from Williamsport.

More importantly, it appears from PaLA's Flood Relief Committee records that Carroll was politically well-connected and savvy. No later than April 4th, 1936, he had already spoken to 2 state legislators. While 1 was fully supportive of providing rehabilitation funds to libraries, the other was "a bit skeptical," but might agree if libraries made "an honest effort to salvage their books," rather than just "throw[ing] their stuff out on the junk pile." Thus at this early stage, Carroll advised librarians to generate, collect, and forward news stories which could illustrate both how the floods had affected institutions statewide (i.e., in all voting districts), and how librarians were making heroic efforts to refurbish their buildings and collections (letters from Carroll to Ralph Munn, April 4th and April 16th, 1936, PaLA). He also directed libraries to compile itemized lists of their losses, obtain at least 2 bids on repairs, and submit the information into "one folder so that it will be in presentable form." Carroll believed that "if you have an equitable case presented in an honest and straightforward way, [legistlators] will always give you consideration," and he was determined not to give them any "fake figures" (letter from Carroll to Frances H. Kelly, May 4th, 1936, PaLA). This said, when the bill was first introduced on May 12th, 1936 by Representative Joseph A. Simon of Lock Haven, it asked for $150,000, which was substantially more than the libraries needed. Figured in was probable "paring down" by the House Appropriation Committee and the Governor (letter from Carroll to Ralph Munn, May 21st, 1936, PaLA).

When the ink was dry, flood-damaged libraries in Pennsylvania obtained $100,000, about $16,000 less than they actually wanted (letter from Carroll to Frances H. Kelly, July 1st, 1936, PaLA). Reading the legislation, the money was actually appropriated to the state Department of Public Instruction. In order to receive any funding, libraries had to "file sworn proofs of loss," which were reviewed by the department. DPI then made recommendations to the State Council of Education, which set the dollar amount that each library would receive (H.R. Act 60, introduced May 12th, 1936, copy at PaLA). Carroll wisely counselled libraries to meet together ahead of time, to plan how they would trim each institution's request, thus shaping how funding would finally be apportioned. He himself believed that the larger libraries, like Pittsburgh, could better afford less-than-complete reimbursement than smaller institutions, and he hoped that they would "scale down their losses voluntarily" (letter from Carroll to Frances H. Kelly, July 15th, 1936, PaLA). This claims process likely generated Thomson's official correspondence and the Flood Fund Journal that exist at JVB today.

Although today's librarians probably don't remember the Great Flood of 1936 as a major date in the history of public library funding, Carroll viewed it as an important historical moment. The library law of 1931 had recently appropriated funds to the State Library, which could then buy books and reappropriate money to county library systems; yet there was no authorization for the state to provide funding directly, nor to individual, (municipal) libraries. Carroll hoped that emergency funding following the 1936 disaster had "broken down a precedent of many years standing," and that sometime in the not-too-distant future, Pennsylvania would provide direct assistance to public libraries on an annual basis (letter from Carroll to Frances H. Kelly, July 15th, 1936, PaLA). He was right in expecting the task to require "the patience of Job" -- the hoped-for appropriation did not come to fruition until 1961!

Interestingly, it appears that Pennsylvania public libraries' experiences after flood may have also helped to advance professional knowledge about disaster response in libraries. In 1937, Carl Milam, the Executive Secretary of the American Library Association, apparently contacted Ralph Munn of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for advice about treating water-damaged materials. Munn referred Milam's letter to O. R. Howard Thomson in Williamsport, who sent a 2-page reply and encouraged contact with Charles W. Carroll (letter from Thomson to Milam, January 29th, 1937, JVB). Furthermore, when St. Louis libraries were swamped floods that year, Harold F. Brigham telegraphed Thomson asking for "essential dos and don'ts." Brigham found Thomson's detailed instructions, sent on February 8th, a "God send." Furthermore, when Thomson read an journal article by John Archer on the "Treatment of Water-Soaked Books," he wrote to the publisher that Archer's method was utterly impractical for libraries dealing with thousands of wet volumes. He shared personal knowledge about another library which had followed methods similar to Archer's and was now rueing its decision. In Lock Haven, trustees had "haggled about costs of salvaging" the library's books and sent fewer than 2,000 to Carroll's commercial bindery (letter from O. R. Howard Thomson to Frances Kelly, April 21st, 1936, JVB). Instead, librarian Mary Crocker used WPA workers "spreading, turning, drying, and cleaning books for weeks," often laying items on the library's lawn during sunny days. However, the slow drying process led to mildew and stains. Worse, the library reopened prematurely in June, and dampness spread to other materials. In the end, Lock Haven "had to discard as a total loss nearly all of the books retained" (letter from Mary E. Crocker to Franklin Price, undated, copy at JVB). Judging from his correspondence files at JVB, Thomson shared his and Crocker's experiences with various colleagues at the state and national level.

Thus the dark clouds of 1936 seem to have had some silver linings. It would be interesting to probe this topic further, supplementing the material I found at JVB, LCHS, and PaLA with contemporary articles in the professional literature, newspaper coverage, material from the ALA archives (if information about the 1936 flood can be found there), and any extant documentation at other flooded libraries. Is there anyone who would like to collaborate? I think this is a very achievable project for a graduate student or newbie researcher who has access to library records in Lock Haven, Johnstown, Pittsburgh, or other localities. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering the little gal I left behind

"It's funny how silence speaks sometimes when you're alone and remember that you feel" (Creed, "Faceless Man")

There is a stretch of US 11/15 south of Selinsgrove that is particularly scenic by day but quite desolate by night. On one side of the road is the Susquehanna River, which sparkles through the trees on any sunny day. On the other side of the pavement, craggy cliffs rise. Only occasionally are they punctuated by villages that haven't changed much in the past century. This time of year, candles wink from the windows, and evergreen wreaths hang on the doors, of the federal and gothic-style homes. Seeing them, you might be convinced that you've been transported into pages of a old sentimental novel. Yet when it's late on a Saturday night and your car is running on fumes, the same place can seem frightening. You might encounter an adult video store or Amish gone a-courting in their buggies -- sights that seem to be equally probable on rural Pennsylvania byways. But on this part of 11/15, you won't pass an open gas station for miles. Say a Hail Mary before you try to call someone on your cell phone. 

I was speeding along this road, groggily sipping the flat dregs of a Coke Zero when my car's low fuel light came on. My range was approximately 35 miles. And then I passed a highway sign that said Harrisburg was 42 miles away. "I guess I can walk 7 miles if I need to," I told myself. 

Yeah. In utter darkness. In 20-something degree weather.

In order to take my mind off my dilemma, I commanded my car to shuffle and play some favorite tunes I'd downloaded to my phone. I commanded myself, "think happy thoughts." 

I mentally climbed above the nitty-gritty of my recent trip to Williamsport and wandered broadly over all the sites I'd visited. Having been on the road for more than 3 months, I had a choice of terrain. I thought with gratification about an outline of a book that has been forming in my head. I also remembered some of the fantastic hiking I had done, especially at Seven Springs Resort in Fayette County,  and on the Pine Creek Trail in Clinton County. 

At that moment, a favorite song by Creed blasted from my speakers. As the lyrics begin by describing a walk through nature, it matched my thoughts. I cranked up the volume. Yet, perhaps  because of my fueltank anxiety, my thoughts began to crawl down a thorny path. Ultimately, I think "Faceless Man" is about having the courage to acknowledge and confront who you are, where you have tread, and how you respond to your experiences. 

It had been nearly a month since my cat Filomena had died, but I scarcely acknowledged her passing. My stomach turned when I imagined her unburied ashes still in their small cardboard box on my fireplace mantle. She had been ill, vomiting regularly and losing weight for several months before my sabbatical began. Multiple veterinary visits only offered a continuum of uncertain diagnoses ranging from irritable bowl syndrome to cancer. No treatment worked. Just before I left home for Warren in early October, I held her in my arms, gently fingered the protruding bones along her shoulders and spine, touched my forehead to hers, and commanded, "you must get well." I prayed for her. 

Then I left. 

I was in Franklin about a week and a half later when my husband called and somberly suggested maybe I should come home. Fili hadn't eaten for days and was barely moving at that point. I laid on the floor beside her that night, awakened repeatedly by her pained cries. I brought her to the vet the next morning and had her put down. 

It took a week for the crematory to return her to us. By that time I completed my next research site, Lebanon. I didn't have the guts to bury her, so I left her on the mantle and headed on the road to Williamsport. 

Driving home from Williamsport on a dark night with nothing but my thoughts, the enormity of what I'd lost -- and what I might be losing by undertaking such an intense project -- hit me. 

Filomena hadn't stayed with us long, but as her name suggests, she was much loved. As many pet adoptions are, meeting her was happenstance. One night I was mourning the loss of another cat and procrastinating an errand to Home Depot when I walked into the PetSmart in the same plaza. I hadn't meant to visit the adoption area but soon found myself on the other side of the glass, peering at the sleeping kitties. I quietly opened the door, and "Floppsy"'s ears and nose twitched. She stood, arched her back, and reached with a white-tipped paw through the cage. Among a dozen or so animals, she alone seemed interested by my presence. We silently looked into each others' eyes, and then I acknowledged, "you don't belong in a cage." The next day, which was a few days before Christmas, I brought her home. She was my 2nd most loyal friend (yes, humans included) until her death.

Fili on her first night with us, December 2010. 
And I left her. Again and again.

Driving home from Williamsport, I realized  she would no longer greet me at the door or curl up in my lap when I arrived. I pulled to the side of the road and bawled as I should have done weeks earlier. Guilt, anger, and despair washed over me. Research seemed bloody well pointless, really. I couldn't help but imagine a future where hundreds of unsold copies of my stupid work shared the $1.98 bargain bin with Sarah Palin's damned Christmas book. 

So what to do? 

After wiping the snot from my face, I opened a window and gulped the icy air. I started up the engine and resumed driving. It's all you can do. All I can do. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Laborers and library history, part 2: the death of John Anderson in Warren

This week, while searching the Newspaper Archive database for articles concerning the history of the Warren Library Association, I came across a story that I didn't recall finding in any published description of the library. On Monday, August 13, 1883, while the Struthers Library was under construction, a worker named John Anderson fell from a ladder and died of his injuries. The article mentioned that this was "the first accident to life since the work began," so he definitely perished while on the job (Warren Ledger, August 17, 1883, pg. 8).

The Struthers Library Building in Warren,
 soon after its completion.
Image courtesy of the 

Warren Library Association. 
The Ledger doesn't mention the man's specific occupation, or the precise circumstances or location where he met his fate. But apparently some people in the community thought well of him. Unusual for many laborers of the time, Anderson received a substantial obituary in the local newspaper. It mentioned that he and a brother had emigrated from Sweden approximately 10 years earlier, and that he was married. Although "poor and entirely ignorant of our language" when they arrived, the Andersons "by industry and economy and a strict regard for good morals ... acquired a comfortable little home, and a familiar knowledge of our language, with the respect of all who knew them." Construction on the library was halted so that other laborers could attend the funeral, and the services were paid for by the library's donor, Thomas Struthers (Warren Ledger, August 24, 1883, pg. 5).

I wanted to learn more about Anderson. From Our Scandinavian Heritage, a recent book by Barbara Ann Hillman Jones, I learned that there was a Swedish "enclave" in Warren County which extended north to Chattauqua County, New York. A search of the 1880 U.S. Census via Heritage Quest showed there were at least 3 men named John Anderson who were born in Sweden and living in Warren County in the 1880s -- never mind additional men with variant spellings of the surname! Comparing their home addresses to an 1878 map of Warren County, the likeliest was a John Anderson who lived in Conewago Township, which at that time included North Warren, where "my" John Anderson was residing when he died in 1883. Other bits from this census record matched the obituary: John Anderson of Conewago Township was born in Sweden, a laborer, and married to a woman named "Sharlott." Also, an Erick Anderson (possibly the brother mentioned in the obituary?), also born in Sweden, a laborer, married, and in his 30s, lived next door. Given how common the name is, however, I can't be sure.

It isn't my task to uncover every detail of such men's lives. Hopefully a descendant or local historian will find this post and figure it out. But I think it's important for people in Warren and beyond to know the bodily sacrifices some families made in building the institutions we enjoy today.

Libraries in (and not in) the lives of their communities

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent much of the past 2 weeks huddled at a microfilm reader, searching for newspaper articles on the history of the Clarion Free Library. Neither the library nor the county historical society held much information about CFL from the time it was founded by a local Women's Club in 1914 through its move into the present building in 1930. Having no other choice, I bussed to the State Library, which thankfully retains the "paper of record" for each of 67 counties in Pennsylvania -- plus additional titles, in many cases. SLP offers a complete run of the weekly Clarion Republican, which I can hand-search at the rate of about 1 year per 2 hours.

If you've never used microfilm, let me tell you, it can be a dismal pursuit. The glare of the screen, especially in sharp contrast to the surroundings of an older library, has temporarily blinded many historians! My beginning efforts were rewarded by finding documentation of the exact date the library opened, the names of its early librarians, and the titles of some of the first books on its shelves. But by the 1920s, I was sighing audibly with each turn of the reel. It seemed that after CFL established its own board of trustees and folded its fundraising efforts into Clarion's yearly Community Chest campaign (the forerunner of the United Way), the Women's Club didn't take as much of an interest in the library. After World War I, news articles about Women's Club activities scarcely mentioned CFL. Whereas the 1910s yielded several juicy pieces per month, by the 1920s I was slogging through three months' of issues (sometimes more) without finding a single tidbit.

So I couldn't help but be distracted by other stories that appeared in the paper. Clarion city and county certainly were vibrant communities at the time. Located near the Allegheny National Forest as well as significant gas and oil fields, the area had active lumber and drilling industries at one time. Agriculture was an important sector in the local economy, too. Although enrollment rose and fell from one year to another,  Clarion Normal School (now Clarion University) added to the diversity of interests in town as well. This is not to say that everyone would have felt eager to live in Clarion at the time, however. Alongside "booster" perspectives, I found several disquieting articles and advertisements for the Ku Klux Klan, which may have had a substantial presence. According to scholar Philip Jenkins, more than 200,000 Pennsylvanians of all were members of the Klan during the 1920s.

Ad for the KKK, Clarion Republican,
August 19, 1926.
If I were asked which civic issue mattered most, based on coverage in the Clarion Republican, I would say "roads." By the first decade of the 20th century, many Pennsylvanians wanted improvements to their dirt highways, and the demand increased exponentially in the 1920s when automobiles became more affordable. During the early 1930s, one of Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot's priorities was to "get farmers out of the mud." The state assumed control of more than 20,000 miles of roads, many in rural locations, and "macadamized" them. The Republican reported much excitement about PA route 66, which connected Clarion northwards to Kane and southwards to Kittanning, and the "Lake to Sea Highway" (now known as PA route 322) which ran from Erie southeast to Philadelphia. On a similar note, annual auto races in drew spectators from miles around.

Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries are my favorite periods of American material cultural history, I also enjoyed the growing number and sophistication of advertisements in the newspaper. In the early 20th century, the Clarion Republican grew from 8 to 12 pages, much of it ads. In the 1920s, it published annual special issues on automobiles and radios, informing its readers of the latest models and features. It appears that Clarion residents had access to a plethora of new machines and products, including telephones, electric refrigerators, stoves, and washing machines, ready-made women's clothing, and bottles of soda pop. I was thrilled to find large ads for Crush soda, one of my favorite drinks. Its assertion of the beverage's "real food value" is quite funny when read with today's knowledge about diabetes, obesity, and other diet-related ailments. Mothers, were told that the American Medical Association endorsed the syrupy beverage and that they could give their children as much Crush as they liked "for it is good for them."

Ad for Crush soda, Clarion Republican,
March 18, 1926.
After days of eyeballing old newspapers, I am now taking a mental "step back" to think about what it means to find so little coverage about the library, and so many stories and ads on other topics. I am reminded of Wayne Wiegand's call to study "libraries in the lives of their users" -- to supplant the traditional library historians' focus on institutions' foundings, administrations and growth, typically using annual reports and public statements authored by librarians and trustees, with an emphasis on how and why everyday people used libraries, which involves seeking out and listening to users' voices. With Dr. Wiegand's perspective in mind, one possible conclusion is that the Republican did not cover or address itself to the people who avidly enjoyed the books or social opportunities the library provided. If that is true, how do we find library fans in Clarion? Another possible answer is that in Clarion during the 1920s, the library simply was not a focal point. As much as we librarians deserve and seek out our community's attention, the lack of coverage isn't a surprise -- it confirms our quiet disappointment when one of our long-planned events attracts poor turn-out, or when "short-sighted" government officials cut our funding. Yet again, it's not "all about us."

Our communities, at least sometimes, have different priorities than we do. Are we OK with that? Should we be?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Our newspaper problem

When I wrote my sabbatical application, I included a methodology section which carefully listed all the primary sources I hoped to use at each research site. I am told that the thoroughness of my planning was impressive. But now I will let everyone in on a little secret: keeping my fingers crossed, hoping no one would notice, I quietly omitted a substantial group of records from my proposal:


Scholars who concern themselves mainly with books and scholarly journals may not appreciate the bibliographic "wild west" that local newspapers represent. Engineers may rely on Compendex, and Psychologists may trust PsycINFO, but there is no comparable database that contains "most" old newspapers. Today, companies like Gannett and Tribune Company own dozens of media outlets. Yet, most small-town papers have been, and continue to be, locally owned. Thus, it is not easy for database aggregators to identify, license, and digitize their content. Hometown publishers themselves sometimes provide an online archives ... more often, they do not. In other words, the odds of finding decades of a newspaper available online are less than random.

Being a faculty member at Penn State, I am very fortunate to have access to the Newspaper Archive. For the communities I am researching, this database provides access to the Bedford Gazette (1899-2012); the Connellsville Courier (1879-1977); the Gettysburg Adams Sentinel (1811-1942), Compiler (1857-1950), Gazette (1803-2004), Republican Banner (1833-2012), and Times (1909-2013); the Huntingdon Daily News (1922-2012); the Lebanon Daily News (1872-1970); the New Castle News (1891-2013); the Warren Ledger (1864-1895); and the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin (1869-1955) and Sun-Gazette (1929-1973). In addition, I can obtain the Harrisburg Patriot (1854-1922), the Philadelphia Inquirer (1860-1922); and the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (1892-1922) through another database, America's Historical Newspapers. This said, I have not yet located online backfiles for many other Pennsylvania cities, including Erie and Scranton. 

Even for localities which appear to be "covered" by a long run in AHN, Newspaper Archive, or another web site, a question few seem to be asking is whether the title which is available digitally was considered to be the "paper of record" in its era. Would most of the town news have been published in it? How accurate and reliable was its reporting? Was it widely-read? Many communities published more than one newspaper, sometimes representing different political views, addressing various readerships, or capturing "morning" versus "late-breaking" events. Yet convenience, more than anything else, seems to govern which titles have been digitized. To take one of Pennsylvania's major cities as an example, a site called purports to provide an "Erie Newspaper Archives." Many amateurs might find it sufficient to "tell the story of [their] ancestor's lives as they lived it and watch [their] family history unfold as never before," as the site promises. Looking at the fine print, however, may be of limited usefulness for professional historians because neither of Erie's most important papers, the Dispatch or the Times, are included there.

Despite the fact that I'd prefer to have access to the Warren Mail, I have been using Newspaper Archive's version of the Ledger, which is the only online title that covers the Warren Library Association's early years (1870s-1880s). Hours of hands-on practice has prompted additional concerns about digitized newspapers. It can be a interesting scene when the peculiarities of 19th-century news authoring confront the limitations of today's technology. For example, since fonts and space were limited, editors of yesteryear placed articles wherever they would fit. They frequently published columns consisting of dozens of "newslets," 1-2 sentence blurbs. As shown in the screenshot below, each newslet was a discrete story. I have found them invaluable for establishing the dates of minor events, such as an upcoming library fundraiser (like Warren's "Library Comedy Club"). However, since such small notices lack headlines, they are seldom indexed individually. The only way to access them is through a full-text search of the entire newspaper. Thus, researchers like me must wade through thousands of irrelevant articles and advertisements to find them.

"Newslets," such as the ones published in the first column of the November 29, 1878 issue of the Warren Ledger, were often published in 19th and early 20th century newspapers. They are seldom individually indexed in online databases.
Another difficulty is that full-text searching relies on optical character recognition software that converts scanned images to machine-readable text. No human eyes have made sense of abbreviations, hyphenations, spelling mistakes, typographical irregularities, or flyspeck that are all-too-common in old newspapers. To put it another way, Newspaper Archive is searching transcripts of articles, and those renditions often contain substantial and numerous errors. This screenshot illustrates the messiness of OCR-generated content:

Screenshot of a results list from Newspaper Archive. Note several errors in the extracted text from the January 16, 1891 Warren Ledger article (for example, "OfiHcera Keport" should read "Officers Report").

Thus appalled by the eccentric title choices and faulty transcriptions which seem epidemic in historic newspaper databases, I reverted to a method that no one under 50 uses anymore:

The microfilm "hand-search."

That's right: start at January 1st, and doggedly read every article, on every page, of every issue, of reel after reel, year after year.

I decided to test this "old school" method with Clarion, because neither the Clarion Free Library nor the Clarion County Historical Society holds significant scrapbooks or vertical file material concerning CFL's early history. Also, neither of Clarion's two major papers, the Democrat and the Republican, appear to be available online. Both titles are on microfilm at the State Library of Pennsylvania, just a $1.75 bus ride from my house.

Gratefully, SLP now has ScanPro digital readers, which all but eliminate the motion sickness I used to experience when using older equipment. Unfortunately, however, the new technology doesn't reduce the time needed to complete a hand-search. After 3 days, I'd only looked at Republican issues from 1920 to 1926 and 1929 to 1930. In other words, on average it took me 1 1/2 to hand-search a single year of an 8-page weekly -- longer if you factor in requests for microfilm reels from storage, the machine's occasional breakdowns, walks to and from the State Library's circulation desk to retrieve printouts, and a few restroom breaks. This translates to about 100 hours required to complete a 50-year run ... of a weekly (nevermind a daily!). Due to strain on my eyes and back, I can only realistically sit at the reader for 5 hours per day. In addition, SLP is only open to researchers 3 days per week. So, calculating everything on a scrap of paper, I figure that hand-searching the Clarion Republican from 1900 to 1950 could be a 2 month-long effort! And then, to be politically balanced, I suppose I'd have to load up the Democrat after that! Yikes. Given the number of libraries I am researching for this project, hand-searches of local newspapers are completely unfeasible.

Thus my initial instinct was correct, not to commit my sabbatical to searching newspapers. Yet I can't help but wonder how much valuable information I am missing. Will my resulting publications will be as definitive as they could be? What to do?

I need to find a strategy for this "newspaper problem."