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!

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