Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Having a blast at the library: early public programming in Lock Haven

An interesting ad for a library program!
Lock Haven Express,
September 23, 1914, pg. 2
Those who aren't familiar with historical research may be surprised to learn that many public libraries have spotty records concerning their own beginnings. Even though they often serve as repositories for their communities' history, libraries don't always retain their own annual reports, meeting minutes, correspondence, and other documents. Several years ago, when I undertook a study of library ownership of Mark Twain's works, I contacted nearly 4,000 public libraries across the United States, asking whether they still possessed old printed catalogs, accession ledgers, or other lists of their materials. Only 48% replied, and of those, only a third (or about 16% of all libraries contacted) maintained the records I needed (for further details about that project, see pgs. 9-11 of the November/December 2009 issue of Public Libraries, and pgs. 189-224 of the September 2009 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

Sometimes, the lack of documentation isn't the library's fault. Such is the case in Lock Haven, PA, a city of about 10,000 people on the banks of the Western Branch of the Susquehanna River. There you'll find the Annie Halenbake Ross Library, which is one of the older libraries in the region, has two branches (at Beech Creek and Renovo), and serves other Clinton County residents through the mail. Unfortunately, the Susquehanna flooded Lock Haven more than a dozen times between 1889 and 1972, repeatedly destroying artifacts and documentation of local heritage. When I visited earlier this month, director Diane Whitaker stretched to show me the high water mark left in her library in '72. Even today, Ross Library holds an incomplete run of its annual reports. Some early photographs are stained and warped by muddy water.

Thus I have been using Newspaper Archive to reconstruct the library's first days. Although the current institution recently celebrated its centennial, libraries actually have a long history in Lock Haven. Like many other Pennsylvania communities, the town's schools and YMCA offered libraries, as did several churches. Sometime in the 1870s, Philip M. Price, one of the largest landowners and benefactors in town, donated his ownership of Highland Cemetery to a corporation which would use the proceeds to establish a public library. His hope was that income from the sale of cemetery plots, plus modest annual subscriptions from library users, would support the library financially (S. R. Peale, "The Merging of Lock Haven's Two Libraries," news article in Ross Library scrapbook, November 26, 1908, original source and page not given).

Thus far, I have not found trustee meeting minutes or other records concerning the initial days of the Price Library. But as of the early 1890s, it had 2,000-3,000 volumes, was open Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and charged $1.50 per year for members who did not own stock (Lock Haven Express, June 21, 1890, pg. 1, and January 4, 1892, pg. 1). In 1892, the Price Library expanded its hours, opening daily from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. (Lock Haven Express, November 28, 1892, pg. 1). Such terms were in place at least through the end of the decade (Lock Haven Express, September 16, 1899, pg. 1). A woman named Elizabeth Karskaddon apparently served as secretary of both the cemetery and the library associations. When Annie Halenbake Ross, surviving spouse of lumber dealer and banker Franklin M. Ross, bequeathed her home and part of her estate to the city, to be used as a free public library, Karskaddon wrote a substantial editorial to support the merger of the Price Library and the newer institution (Lock Haven Express, September 26, 1907, pg. 4; October 16, 1907, pg. 8; August 5, 1908, pg. 4; and September 8, 1908, pg. 3). Several years later, Karskaddon attended the unveiling of a memorial plaque which the Ross Library dedicated to Price, thus providing a living connection between Lock Haven's old and new libraries (Lock Haven Express, December 1, 1911, pg. 4).

As I page through thousands of online articles from the Lock Haven Express, it is particularly interesting to observe the beginning and development of library public programming. Although the Price Library advertized new reading material from time to time, the newspaper is largely silent regarding other activities. However, the professional librarians at the Ross Library soon introduced public events. Within days of opening its doors, librarian Anne V. Taggert instituted "story hours" for children. Typically held at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings from November through May, they introduced a generation of Lock Haven residents to the legends of King Arthur (Lock Haven Express, November 26, 1910, pg. 4). Florence Hulings, who arrived from Oil City when Taggert resigned in 1911, continued the successful children's program (Lock Haven Express, July 20, 1911, pg. 5). During her tenure, Ross Library also offered a series of lectures for adults, delivered by faculty from the local "normal school" (now Lock Haven University) and Pennsylvania State College (now Penn State University). The first one, featuring Professor Homer H. Gage, concerned what he called "the social burden." Arguing that it cost the state greatly to house Pennsylvania's population of persons with mental illnesses, it appears that Gage advocated eugenics, an effort to improve public health through human sterilization, immigration control, and other stern measures many would oppose today (Lock Haven Express, May 6, 1913, pg. 4).

Several weeks later, the library provided an entirely different event. Nelson P. Benson lectured on "Three American Poets of Originality," Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sidney Lanier (Lock Haven Express, June 3, 1913, pg. 5). Hulings herself delivered a lecture on the work of Charles Dickens (Lock Haven Express, March 17, 1914, pg. 4). Throughout the year, other speakers delved into "Our American Character,"  "The Social Problems of Today," and "the Home and the School," (Lock Haven Express, October 27, 1913, pg. 5; October 31, 1913, pg. 4; December 12, 1913, pg. 4; and February 23, 1914, pg. 4). For those not interested in literature or the social sciences, Ross Library offered other topics, including Alaska exploration and gardening (Lock Haven Express, February 24, 1913, pg. 4, and March 31, 1914, pg. 4). One item in particular caught my eye. Entitled "Dynamiting at the Library," it advertised an upcoming lecture by a "Mr. Twomey" who would demonstrate the latest methods farmers were using to loosen rocks, roots, and soil. Apparently, the Ross Library was willing to risk its apple tree being blown up on a Sunday morning in the name of attracting people to its events (Lock Haven Express, September 24, 1914, pg. 1)!

For reasons unknown, Ross Library pared down its adult lecture program by the end of the decade. Perhaps World War I, during which time Hulings was responsible for sorting and shipping all donations from Clinton and Centre County for a national books-for-soldiers campaign, left little energy for other initiatives (Lock Haven Express, November 17, 1917, pg. 5).  Maybe limited funding was a problem as well, for during the 1920s, Huling's successor, Mary E. Crocker, emphasized the need for additional money in many of her annual reports and public speeches (for example, see the library's annual reports of 1923 and 1924; Crocker's history of the institution, "Fifteen Years of the Ross Library," published in the Lock Haven Express, November 27, 1925, pg. 5; and her speech to the Rotary Club, published in the Lock Haven Express, December 9, 1925, pg. 1, 3). In addition, some libraries in Pennsylvania were looking toward underserved populations outside town borders. Following favorable state legislation in 1917 and 1931, those in rural areas shifted their attention to book wagon/bookmobile services. The fact that Clinton County commissioners began to provide appropriations to Ross Library lends to the idea that Crocker's interest in countywide service was growing (Lock Haven Express, January 13, 1925, pg 5). Also, more than her predecessors, Crocker took a leading role in the Pennsylvania Library Association, of which she was President in 1935.

Needless to say, any, all, or none of these reasons led to less experimentation in terms of public programming. Trawling Newspaper Archive, one find that Ross Library occasionally mounted art displays and other exhibits, but nothing like the course of adult lectures it provided before World War I. It appears that by the 1920s, it had settled into an annual routine of children's story hours during the winter and spring months with some additional activities during Children's Book Week, which was celebrated in November back then. Perhaps to free herself for other work, Crocker encouraged the formation of a "league" of local storytellers, whose members frequently "took charge" of the kids (Lock Haven Express, May 20, 1922, pg. 1).

Although Ross Library was not the first to offer public story hours or educational lectures, it is interesting to examine how this aspect of library work began and evolved in small cities like Lock Haven. It seems that the initiative of individual librarians was vital, and each person brought different interests and personal connections to the task. I am eager to learn whether Ross Library developed additional programs in the 1930s and 1940s, especially to help residents meet the challenges of economic depression and war.

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