Sunday, November 24, 2013

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!

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