Sunday, November 24, 2013

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. 

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