Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Haynes, Davies, and Statistics of Public Libraries: the next chapter

Haynes McMullen was a pre-eminent scholar of early libraries in the United States. He wrote a series of articles documenting libraries in various states, including an article on Pennsylvania. Several years ago, his notecards were added to the Davies Project, a database compiled by Harold Shapiro, Vivian Shapiro, and Stephen Ferguson which attempts to identify all the libraries that existed in the United States prior to 1876.

When I first learned of the Davies Project, I was floored by the amount of painstaking effort it represents. I was especially impressed by McMullen's use of state-level legal resources. At first, such tomes might seem like odd sources for library historians, but for states like Pennsylvania, they are very helpful. Prior to 1874, when a new state constitution and incorporation law was enacted, citizens who wished to organize a company of any kind needed to obtain a charter from the state legislature. Thus, pre-1874 volumes of Laws of Pennsylvania include documentation of the founding of dozens of libraries and related associations. For libraries after 1876, there is no equivalent to the Davies project. Most historians rely on Statistics of Public Libraries (title varies), which was published every few years by what when then the U.S. Bureau or Office of Education. To this day, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a national directory of public libraries and collects data about their staffing, collections, and funding. In Google Books, one can find the full-text of the 18761886, 18931897, 1903, 1909, and perhaps other editions. Tables within these volumes attempt to list every library in each state having a certain minimum number of volumes (300 in early years, 1,000 in later years).

Although all these resources are invaluable starting points, I am learning that they are far from comprehensive. This week I have been "laid up" with a bad back. Wanting to remain productive from my sofa, I have been searching a digital version of the Lebanon Daily News. I am hoping to reset communal knowledge on a certain point. 'Word around town is that no public libraries existed in Lebanon prior to the 1920s, when the local Women's Club opened its book collection to residents. Yet my gut instinct, formed from years of researching library history in dozens of Pennsylvania communities, tells me that there were likely attempts to establish libraries long before then. Using the Lebanon County Historical Society's collection of city directories, I found listings for various libraries and literary associations over the years. However, it is impossible to tell from a name and address how long each one existed, how many books it had, whether its collection was open to the public, or whether it was widely used. Since neither Lebanon Community Library or LCHS held records of these organizations, the Lebanon Daily News was my last resort.

Given my past experiences searching newspaper databases, I was skeptical that a long run of the Lebanon Daily News would be available cover-to-cover as the vendor claims. Yet for this particular title,  I haven't yet noticed any substantial gaps in Newspaper Archives' offerings. So far, I have used all issues from 1873 through 1887. I can confirm that there were in fact *many* libraries in Lebanon prior to the 1920s, including one which called itself a "Public Library."

In Lebanon, one could find libraries in churches and among religious groups. The local Catholic Club, the St. Mary's Literary Institute, the Salem Lutheran Church, the First Reformed Church, and the Chestnut Street Evangelical Church all had book collections for their members (LDN, April 8, 1873, pg. 1, September 8, 1874, pg. 1, August 27, 1883, pg. 1, February 19, 1885, pg. 1, and September 25, 1886, pg. 4). The Sunday School of the Methodist Episcopal Church held a strawberry and ice cream "festival" and a "pink tea" to build up its library (LDN, June 8, 1882, pg. 4, and March 8, 1887, pg. 1). When a new building for the Young Men's Christian Association was erected in 1872, the space included "library rooms" on either side of the entrance (LDN, December 7, 1872, pg. 1). Of these libraries affiliated with religious organizations, it appears that the YMCA was the most enduring, visible, and widely-accessible in the community.

Lebanon schoolchildren, educators, and professionals also organized libraries. Within the school system, the Gibraltar Literary Institute, a club for high school girls, repeatedly raised funds for a book collection as did the Franklin Literary Institute, a club of grammar school boys (for Gibraltar, see LDN, February 14, 1881, pg. 1, October 28, 1882, pg. 1, February 17, 1883, pg. 1, and February 5, 1885, pg. 1; for Franklin, see March 21, 1882, pg. 1, March 24, 1883, pg. 1, and December 2, 1884, pg. 4). A library for county teachers was proposed, but as of 1887, prospects were "not flattering" (LDN, January 26, 1887, pg. 1, and February 15, 1887, pg. 1). The G. Dawson Coleman Institute, which offered educational courses to working class men, mentioned a library in its advertisements (for example, see LDN, November 1, 1883, pg. 1). Lebanon's Amateur Scientific Association had a library as well (LDN, March 8, 1879, pg. 1). At the same time, attorneys in Lebanon formed a county law library (LDN, February 26, 1878, pg. 4).

In addition, some fraternal organizations and social clubs possessed book collections. For example, the local camp of the Patriotic Sons of America frequently sought funds for its library and occasionally exhibited their collection to the public (LDN, June 11, 1881, pg. 1, June 22, 1883, pg. 1, September 26, 1883, pg. 4, July 26, 1884, pg. 4, June 16, 1885, pg. 1, and June 20, 1885, pg. 1).

There were even some attempts among business entities to avail reading material to Lebanon residents. For example, from 1875 to 1881, Miss Clara A. Sherk operated a "circulating library" of popular fiction out of her stationery shop on Cumberland Street (LDN, May 18, 1875, pg. 1, and March 28, 1881, pg. 4). Even Miller & Co., an organ manufacturer, invited the public to use its book collection of more than 3000 works on organs (LDN, April 17, 1876, pg. 1).

The most tantalizing one I have found so far, though, is a "Public Library" started by the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The library got off the ground around 1879 and was still in operation as of 1887, where I left off in my newspaper searching this morning (LDN, January 30, 1879, pg. 1). Using fundraising methods strikingly similar to the Warren Library Association, this group held a "Loan Exhibition" during the winter of 1883 to raise money for books, and required users to purchase "tickets," a form of annual subscription (LDN, January 19, 1883, pg. 1, January 22, 1883, pg. 4, January 26, 1883, pg 1, March 13, 1883, pg. 1, March 19, 1883, pg. 1, January 13, 1885, pg. 4, and January 20 , 1885, pg. 4). The Public Library opened on April 4, 1883 at 618 Cumberland Street with about 625 volumes with hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays (LDN, April 4 , 1883, pg. 1). I'm definitely eager to trace it in subsequent pages of the Lebanon Daily News.

Checking these institutions against the 1876 and 1886 editions of Statistics of Public Libraries, I am struck by the federal government's  poor grasp of the number and variety of libraries in our country. There are no Lebanon libraries listed in the 1876 volume. The 1886 edition lists only a "Public Library" (probably the one established by the WCTU), which was then a subscription library of 2,000 volumes; an unheard-of "James Coleman Memorial Library," which was a free, general library of 1,300 volumes; and a "Public School" library of 1,000 volumes. Of course, any experienced library historian would tell you that the government's classification of libraries during this time is problematic at best. Yet it still seems troubling that Lebanon's YMCA, church, and club libraries seem to go unmentioned.

Historians who look no further than federal sources may fail to understand the pervasiveness of literature and reading activities in their communities. Given that newspapers come online each day, I wonder if we are approaching the next chapter to McMullen's and the Shapiros' grand projects. When will scholars use newspapers to uncover additional libraries during the colonial and antebellum period and add listings to Davies? When will we use newspapers to supplement any database that may be created from Statistics of Public Libraries? I am not sure I want to spend thirty years of my life, as McMullen did, on a national undertaking. But I now know that I need to use more newspapers as I expand my knowledge about Pennsylvania. Instead of limiting my searches to the date when the current public library was founded, it may be fruitful to search all years available.

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