Wednesday, January 1, 2014

At the half

Pennsylvania is an interesting place to celebrate the New Year. As a person who grew up watching the same glittery ball drop each year on my grandparents' TV screen, I am fascinated by the bolognas, chocolate kisses, pickles, roses, strawberries, and other eccentric items which make their annual descent in nearby towns. Unfortunately, I can't "hang" with the night owls though. I typically nod off between 10 and 11 p.m., then jolt awake when others start shouting during the final seconds before midnight.

I appreciate the day more than the eve. For me, the turn of the year is an important opportunity to reflect, to be honest with myself, and to recommit to pursuing career and personal goals. I try to awake before dawn so I can watch the sunrise. In past years, I followed that up with a long hike. The quiet of a secluded trail allows me to breathe deeply and to pray without interruption. Seeing barren branches encourages me to shed unnecessaries and focus on important priorities.

I got up early enough this morning, but my back and shoulders throbbed responsively when I glanced at the thermometer. An icy 19 degrees. No hiking for now. So I curled up on the coach with my cats.

I have been so immersed -- almost frantic -- with research for the past 5 months that naturally, my thoughts drifted to "the project." My sabbatical leave is more than half finished, but January 1st seems like the appropriate half way point between 2 semesters. So I created a map of the sites I have visited and compared it to an earlier map I submitted with my sabbatical proposal. It's hard to say whether I am ahead, at, or behind pace. On the negative side, in August the director of the Lancaster Public Library got cold feet and barred me from further use of its materials. In September, I postponed my work with the Dauphin County Library System so that I could assemble a presentation on libraries during World War II for the Pennsylvania Library Association conference. This month, a trip to Hershey Public Library fell through. Also, I canceled a trip to Easton Area Public Library so that I could receive regular chiropractic care.

There was another surprise, too. I am still deciding whether Newspaper Archive, a database newly available at Penn State, is a boon or bust for my work. When I learned of our subscription and scrolled through its title list, I felt the queasy exhilaration of someone on a roller coaster. I was thrilled to have access to such a goldmine, but quickly realized the enormous amount of work it could add to my project. Even though Newspaper Archive was not part of my proposal, its existence compels me to exploit it as much as possible, even if I can't enjoy the feeling of closure that I deserve whenever I return home from a road trip. In the case of Lebanon, Newspaper Archive has proved vital in providing information about libraries which preceded the current institution. For Lock Haven, a community whose documentary heritage has been repeatedly destroyed by floods, the database filled many gaps. But it is such a "time suck" that I have to carefully limit the scope of my searches, or else become derailed from site research that I can only accomplish during sabbatical.

Despite my tendency toward self-criticism, there are some major achievements. I am completely finished with 6 locations, having used all available annual reports, board of trustee meeting minutes, scrapbooks, newspapers, photographs, and other records. I have finished site research at an additional 5 libraries, but still hope to trawl local newspapers. In October I took advantage of my travel to PaLA, adding the Carnegie Free Library of Connellsville to my list of completed sites. I also did some preliminary research at the Mary S. Biesecker Library in Somerset. When I finished my work in Williamsport ahead of schedule, I dropped into the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven. Working day and night, I churned through all its annual reports, scrapbooks, and other records within 2 days. These 3 locations were not included in my initial plans, but have added much to my understanding of the conversion of subscription libraries to free public institutions (Lock Haven), interactions between Andrew Carnegie and town leaders (Connellsville), the development of county library services (Lock Haven), and the use of WPA workers in libraries during the Great Depression (Somerset).

Map of sites visited in Fall 2013. Blue pins denote completed
locations, including newspaper research. Most sites with orange
pins are complete except for newspaper searching.
When I wrote my sabbatical proposal more than a year ago, I envisioned publishing several articles based upon my findings. Since then, my supervisor and research mentor, Dr. Greg Crawford, has persuaded me that a book could be possible. A more expansive history of librarianship, I believe, requires me to investigate non-library organizations that encouraged library development, especially due to the fact that in several communities, I have uncovered connections to state chapters of the Y.M.C.A., the Federation of Women's Clubs, the Grange, the Tabard Inn Libraries, and the Community Chest/United Way. Being confined to the Harrisburg area prompted me to explore resources at the Pennsylvania State Archives. To my delight, I learned that it retains the PA Federation of Women's Clubs Records, the State YMCA of Pennsylvania Records, and the Pennsylvania State Grange Records. It also offers materials pertaining to Pennsylvania's participation in the Works Progress Administration. I have already used the Women's Clubs documents, and hope to use the other collections in January and February.

In addition to all the items I have used, I am pleased with the preliminary writing I have accomplished. As previously mentioned, I presented some of my findings at PaLA's conference in October. Also, the number of people who are reading this blog -- more than 2500 pageviews so far! -- is a welcome reward for my efforts.

On a personal note, I have certainly been frustrated by back problems. Even though I am in less pain now, I can only sit or drive for an hour at a time. I use a portable music stand so that I continue my work while standing. Even still, a mere 5-6 hours of research is a good day for me, when I would do 10-12 hours formerly! This said, I think other challenges of being on sabbatical have fostered my growth as a human being. While lodging in cabins in different state parks, I have certainly learned to live with less, including no cell phone coverage, no heat, no stove, no bathroom close by! The lack of radio reception along many Pennsylvania byways has encouraged me to explore new music, especially classical and country. And while I have appreciated sitting out the usual rush of library instruction this fall, recurring loneliness has reminded me how much I value human interaction. I especially miss running into my students on campus, attending weekly faculty research presentations, lunching occasionally with colleagues, and being exposed to news and viewpoints from outside of "libraryland."

Moving forward, I hope that neither health problems nor winter weather thwart my research plans. I must remain near home, but have made arrangements to visit DCLS on the 2nd. Then, on January 13th, I am headed to Reading Public Library to *finally* complete research I began there years ago. The following week, I have an appointment at Bosler Memorial Library in Carlisle. Bosler is another site that was not part of my original plan, but a new director offered a new opportunity. At the end of the month, I may parlay a trip to Philadelphia for the American Library Association midwinter meeting into a visit at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Initially, I had excluded Pennsylvania's 2 largest cities from my list of sites. At the time, I felt that they had received, and would continue to generate, plenty of interest from other scholars, while smaller communities were largely being ignored. I still believe this; however, since I now have a book in mind, I should seek any documentation I can find about John Thomson (an early FLP director who was also a founder of PaLA) as well as FLP's outreach to ethnic and poor populations.

This time of year, most people are wishing each other happiness and health. But I am also hoping for productivity in 2014!

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