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?

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