Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A first week on the job: Alice R. Eaton, Harrisburg, May 1913

Have you ever seen the film The Color Purple? If so, you may recall the scene where Celie enters her husband's kitchen for the first time. It is absolutely filthy, with dirty dishes and rotting food all over the floor. Bucket in hand, Celie is determined to clean up the mess. Putting aside the obvious historical and socioeconomic differences between Celie and us, I think many librarians act as she did on their first days of new jobs. They visually survey scenes that appear absolutely chaotic, if not disgusting. They calm an instinct to despair or flee. They pick a starting point and make a mental list of priorities. They grip their tools, they get to work, and they make it right.

I was thinking about The Color Purple this week when I began my research at the Dauphin County Library System and found a certain item sent by Alice R. Eaton to the Board of Trustees. Within a stack of century-old documents that DCLS Director Richard Bowra fished from his office files, there is one with the date -- "12 May 1913" -- written in ink at the top. It stands out because it is handwritten, while from June 1913 onward, nearly all Eaton's communications were meticulously typed. I was delighted to realize that I was holding perhaps the very first artifact of what would be a 40-year career in Harrisburg. The fact that it is penned lends to the presumption that she was in the thick of hard, new work -- maybe no typewriter available, or perhaps she hadn't had time to get comfortable with Harrisburg's yet.

First page of Alice R. Eaton's first report to the Harrisburg
Public Library Board of Trustees, May 2013.
DCLS, which was then the Harrisburg Public Library, had been in operation since 1889 (for information about the library's history, see Anthony Arm's book, The Years Speak Volumes, Camp Hill: Plank's Suburban Press, 1976, as well as the library's 100th anniversary web site). Having only just begun my research, I don't yet know what condition the building, collection, or staff were in when Eaton arrived. Yet she faced the substantial task of preparing for the library's impending move from 125 Locust Street to a new building on the corner of Front and Walnut Streets. As she reported to the board, her first effort was to examine 12,000 volumes which then comprised the collection. Eaton apparently set up a triage:
 "1. Books in good condition ready for cataloguing and use.
2. Book recommended for binding.
3. Books reserved for use if needed but not of sufficient value to catalogue.
4. Books soiled and worn out which should be discarded."

Within her first 2 weeks on the job, she had sorted about 2,000 items.

It is clear that Eaton was highly capable of what we would today call "project management." Weeding the collection was prerequisite to cataloging and packing, since the fewer items that needed to be handled, the less expensive the entire process would be. Within her first days at work, Eaton also investigated haulers, the best option apparently the Harrisburg Transfer Company, which offered a 1-horse/1-man wagon at 50 cents an hour, or a 2-horse/1-man wagon at 60 cents an hour. In addition, Eaton arranged to borrow boxes from the State Printing Office, and requested bids from several local "junk dealers" to remove unwanted books and paper.

Given that Eaton was reporting on only 2 weeks of activity, her accomplishments seem astounding. In addition to breaking down the Locust Street location, she was also responsible for outfitting the new library on Front and Walnut with all the necessary equipment and supplies. She communicated with the Library Bureau, compiled an order list, and received an estimate. She also obtained information about the Library of Congress's card distribution program and recommended that her library receive LC's pre-printed cards as a way of sparing the catalogers' efforts. Eaton carefully considered the human resource needs as well. She asked the board to fund 2 "trained and expert" catalogers immediately. However, before additional assistants were hired, she advised them to determine policies for scheduling, vacations, illness, and "attendance at library institutes" (i.e., professional development).

Alice R. Eaton, n.d., published in Anthony Arms,
The Years Speak Volumes. Location of original unknown.
Although Alice Eaton's 7-page report is daunting to read, ultimately it inspires me. I have yet to learn all the details, but I know that within a short time this indomitable woman developed a "training class" to recruit and raise competent junior staff, and began to distribute reading materials to local schools. I was (and continue to be) highly interested in her because she developed one of the first county library systems in Pennsylvania, and because she was highly active in the Pennsylvania Library Association -- including a presidency in 1927. Although the city had hosted several failed libraries over the years, with Alice Eaton in charge I knew the Harrisburg Public Library was here to stay.


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  2. Thanks for blogging this. I work at McCormick Riverfront Library as it is now named and while researching people that influenced the library's beginning I came across your blog. To work in the same spaces as Alice Eaton once did and to be able to carry on her mission is humbling, exciting and an honor. D Delp

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed this post! Yes, Alice Eaton is an inspirational character.