Monday, December 9, 2013

Lebanon, PA gets its first "Red Box": The Tabard Inn Library

All day today I've been cooped up at home, fighting a freezing rain that threatens to turn my front sidewalk into a lawsuit. Every few hours I pull on my boots, parka, and gloves, venture outside, chop up newly-formed ice, and throw down more salt. It is exhausting work. After I step through my front door and peel off my outerwear, I flop helplessly on the couch. Then I open my laptop and continue searching an online version of the Lebanon Daily News for articles about the history of the Lebanon Community Library.

By noon I was getting stir-crazy. So rather than go back inside, I laid my shovel against the porch and shuffled down to Turkey Hill, a convenience store a few blocks away. Just outside the entrance, several mothers and young children were shivering beside a Red Box, the saving grace of many a snow-day.  I didn't pay much attention -- just stomped my boots on the pavement, entered the store, bought a bucket-sized cup of Coke Zero, and returned home.

When Red Boxes first appeared about a decade ago, I remember the media marveling at such an "innovative" service. But as any historian knows, today's "new" is often older than we think. As it turns out, partnering with local stores to rent cultural materials has been a business model for more than a century.

Coincidentally, today I found some articles pertaining to Lebanon's Tabard Inn Library. As Larry Nix describes, the Tabard Inn Library was a subscription service which provided small towns with access to new fiction. Apparently, its founder, Seymour Eaton, targeted communities with at least 2,000 residents. He sought "men of good standing and education" to represent his company and "attend to the distribution and exchange of books" (for example, see ad in Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin, May 8, 1902, pg. 8). These men installed revolving cases of books which held about 120 volumes, and refreshed them with new materials once or twice each week (for example, see Bucks County Gazette, May 8, 1902, pg. 3). For a few dollars' fees, members obtained cards which enabled them to borrow and return volumes from a network of "stations" nationwide. Each time they borrowed items, they paid an additional few cents per week.

Since the company was based in Philadelphia, it's no surprise that Tabard Inn Libraries were quite common in Pennsylvania. I have found articles about them in many local newspapers, including the Bedford GazetteBucks County Gazette, the Chester Times, the DuBois Morning Courier, the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel,  the Lock Haven Express, the New Oxford Item, Titusville Herald, the Tyrone Daily Herald, the Wellsboro Agitator, and Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin. In Lebanon, a Tabard Inn Library opened in August 1902 at Ross's Drug Store on Cumberland Street. Later, it moved to Boger's Drug Store on South 8th Street.

Unfortunately, Eaton's incarnation of this sort of business didn't last long. According to Larry Nix, he declared bankruptcy in 1905. Perhaps Eaton was unable to compete with free public libraries, which were beginning to become ubiquitous in American communities around the same time. Inexpensive books and periodicals were also widely available. I have yet to explore newspapers from 1905 and later to learn what happened to the Pennsylvania collections.

Good ideas sometimes revive, though. Watching the line of eager customers outside of Red Box today, I pondered the fact that both a 19th-century children's book author, and one of the world's largest corporations (McDonald's) established the same type of business. The notion of placing books and DVDs in commercial places, where nonreaders congregate, is apparently a popular idea, but it is one which professional librarians have been slower to embrace.

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