Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finding what I wasn't looking for: PaLA materials at Dauphin County Library System

"Really, you shouldn't be sorry." 

Lori Lane, Dauphin County Library System's Fundraising and Events Coordinator, was apologizing to me for not cherry-picking "the early stuff" from a series of motley boxes on a loading dock table. She explained that the library's historical records had gotten jumbled as a variety of staff members prepared posters, web sites, and other material for its centenary celebration. But like I said, I didn't mind at all. Historical researchers like me thrive on serendipity. Time and time again, I've found the right things in the wrong places.  

Lori went back to her work and I began mine. Within a few minutes I found an interesting item. At the bottom of a box of scrapbooks was an unassuming album. I knew from a glance at the cover that it was probably an "NME" ("not my era"). But after years of doing this kind of research, I knew better than to push it aside without a look. Sometimes, old records are "rebound" in newer materials when the original wrappers disintegrate. I don't even trust labels, because occasionally, gently-used binders are redeployed without peeling off or blacking out old lettering. So I opened it. 

An unassuming scrapbook at the Dauphin County Library
System encompasses a wonderful surprise!
Sure enough, the contents were from the 1980s. But rather being a battered computer manual or another piece of "junk," here was a significant treasure: a scrapbook which thoroughly documented PaLA's 1984 Pennsylvania Legislative Day. 

Since I tend to write about the early years of PaLA and I've never been a policy wonk, I haven't had occasion to scour the association's board minutes to figure out exactly when, how, and why Pennsylvania Legislative Days began. I would guess they were an outgrowth of ALA's annual National Library Legislation Day, which has been held annually since the 1970s. PaLA's archives holds documentation of various legislative activities back to 1939, plus records of Legislative Days from 1981-1994 and 1999-2006. Yet most of the archive's folders only include the packet that was distributed to participants. They don't provide much detail regarding how the event was organized, how activities unfolded, or what, if anything, resulted. Even a list of participants'names, and the legislation or policy issues they were advocating, can be challenging to find. 

Fanning its pages, I realized that the album in my hands was the most complete record of Legislative Days I'd ever seen. The person who compiled it, Richard Bowra of DCLS, submitted it for consideration in ALA's annual John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award competition. When I gushed to him about his effort, he chuckled and said "yeah, that was back when I had time" (he became director of DCLS in 1986). 

Bowra painstakingly recorded every aspect of Legislative Day with paper items, photographs, and realia. The triumphant final pages of the album even include a copy of SB 658, along with the pen that Governor Dick Thornburgh used to sign it into law. This bill prohibits the release of personally-identifiable information from library customer records, thus protecting patron confidentiality. Even more helpful than the artifacts, though, are the rich captions which put activities into context. For example, the album explains that "Library Users Are Voters" buttons were distributed throughout the day by adults and children wearing blue and white "jogging suits." 

When I was designing my sabbatical research project, I purposefully limited its scope to pre-1945. I did so in part because some library directors are reticent about someone writing about staff, donors, and customers who may still be living. I don't regret focusing on the early decades, because most of my academic training has been in 19th/early 20th century cultural and social history. However, my thoughts inevitably wander toward all the other PaLA records -- especially from the 1970s forward -- that may remain in libraries' file cabinets, storage rooms, and e-mail accounts. Although I contact officers and committee chairs each year to solicit recent materials, I don't know whether this was done regularly before I became the association's archivist in 2007. How can I encourage colleagues to "repatriate" such records -- to send them "home" to PaLA? Does PaLA even have a right to ask for them, given that they were created and are retained by members, sometimes not acting within the official duties of a committee position?

If you have items like this, for gosh sake, DON'T THROW THEM OUT! Contact me ( and I will add them to PaLA's archives. 

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