Saturday, November 9, 2013

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?

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