Sunday, January 19, 2014

Nameless no more: staff development at Reading Public Library during the 1920s

For each research site I visit, I try to compile a list of long-serving staff members. I enjoy tracking down everyone's obituaries to learn their personal backgrounds and the interests they enjoyed outside of the profession. Often assembling such a list is a difficult task, however. In my experience, the head librarian usually wrote and signed printed annual reports, but other staff were unacknowledged. Within board of trustees meeting minutes, women were often referred by "Miss" or "Mrs." plus a surname. Beyond designation as a "librarian," "assistant," "substitute," or "janitor," their departments or roles were not frequently stated. This was especially true in institutions where the head librarian had the authority to hire his or her own staff without confirmation by the board.

Such was true of the Reading Public Library from the time it became a municipally-funded institution in 1898 through the early 1920s. During those decades, staff were seldom mentioned in the library's published reports. Although head librarians Albert R. Durham (served 1892-1907) and Edward A. Howell (1907-1925) were expected to seek trustees' approval when hiring new employees, locating names within thousands of pages of handwritten board minutes is a headache-inducing task.

Suddenly, in 1925, things changed.

In that year's report, each staff member's first and last name appeared on the verso of the customary list of board members. In 1938, when the library celebrated its 40th anniversary of free public service, the corresponding annual report named all regular employees in order of seniority that had served over the past decade. This revealed that Mary M. Crater (started at RPL in 1904), Elizabeth Ruth (1908), and Lily M. Wilson (1910), Florence Hergesheimer (1915), Kate H. Muhlenberg (1916), Rebecca Menges (1919), Olga G. Deppen (1921), and Dorothy Johnston (1921) had served Reading for 25 years or longer. By 1940, the published staff list included their departments and positions as well. For example, Hergesheimer was in charge of ordering. Also, she was assistant librarian -- 2nd in command to head librarian Richard L. Brown. Deppen was head of the cataloging department and Crater was her assistant. Ruth was head of circulation while Menges was in charge of the periodicals department. Johnston was RPL's children's librarian.  Muhlenberg was the librarian for Reading's Northwest Branch. It appears that Wilson had resigned by that time.

Although the first appearance of a certain type of information within an report might seem like little more than a bibliographical curiosity, I believe it is evidence of an important change that was occurring at RPL at the time. When Truman A. Temple became RPL's head librarian in 1926, he immediately focused on the professional development of its staff. Catalogers were trained on "the modern and universally accepted methods" of describing books. Johnston was sent to Springfield, Massachusetts, to observe children's services. Temple also arranged for staff to visit libraries in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Pottsville "to observe and compare methods" which "stimulated a desire for the most effective methods." He also urged the board to pay registration and transportation costs for 2 employees to attend a summer library training program (see board of trustees meeting minutes, April 19 and May 17, 1926).

Temple and his successor Thomas Ayers did not remain in Reading very long, but it appears that staff development continued during the tenures of Alfred D. Keator (served 1928-1940) and Richard L. Brown (1940-1961). From the 1920s on, the board minutes frequently contain notices from the librarian that staff were attending college, library training programs, and professional meetings, often with RPL's financial support. By the 1940s, staff were becoming regionally and nationally recognized in their own right. For example, Ethel M. Briggs of the Northwest Branch wrote an article on "The Children's Hour" for the library's weekly newspaper column, "Your Library in Action." Finding it helpful for encouraging parents and neighbors to get involved in storytelling, RPL reprinted thousands of copies in pamphlet form and gave Briggs credit on the cover. It also promoted her book, The Friendly Library (Snyder Publishing Company, 1942), which was a children's textbook for using libraries.

Observing this moment in Reading Public Library's history has strengthened my resolve to include the stories of library workers as I blog, as well as when I write articles or a book. Although such a commitment is an important start, it's crucial for today's institutions to ensure that paraprofessionals, students, interns, and volunteers are written into institutional records, so that historians like me will find their names and know their contributions decades later. I am proud that my own library's staff directory lists all of our employees, and I hope this doesn't change.

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