Sunday, January 19, 2014

Polskie książki w bibliotece: Polish books at the library

Looking through a plastic tub of historic documents from the Reading Public Library (RPL), I uncovered a poster about 11 by 17 inches in size. It appeared to be a list of books but it was written in a language I didn't recognize. It such cases, my iPhone is a vital research tool. I typed the bold worlds at the top of the poster into my Google Translate app and learned that, roughly, what I had in hand was a notice about "400 new Polish books, novels, and works of literature for general adult readers" available at the library.

A list of Polish language books in Reading
Public Library, probably 1930s
Although the list is undated, I suspect that it is from the late 1930s. At that time, a local "Polish Committee" approached head librarian Alfred Decker Keator with a donation of $50, asking that more volumes written in their native language be purchased. Keator and RPL's board agreed to match the gift with $50 from the library's budget (board of trustees meeting minutes, December 20, 1937).

Title lists of library collections can reveal much about the cultural and social world that someone is trying to create. Whether a librarian is assembling a shelf of books for local children, a group of neighbors is gathering and sorting donations for a bookmobile, or a community organization is providing a list of desiderata for the library to purchase, the authors and topics that are included (and those that are excluded) speak to perceived realities, cherished values, and hoped-for ideals. I wish that I had the ability to analyze this poster in such lights. I am only able to note that there are many Polish titles. Other works are translations. For example, the list includes Balzac, Conrad, Dickens, O. Henry, Hugo, Kipling, London, Poe, Scott, Tolstoy, Twain, and Yeats.

The poster might also prompt scholars to consider the role of books/reading in Polish-American communities. A basic introduction to "Poles in Pennsylvania" doesn't discuss literary activities in depth, nor does it mention the size of the Polish population in Reading. But in general, many who lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania arrived at the turn of the 19th-20th century to work in coal mines. Apparently, the Polish community in Reading was large enough to support at least one church, St. Mary's Roman Catholic, and at least one newspaper, Gazeta Readingska. Scholar Pien Versteegh has found that although they retained cooking habits, folk dances, and religious traditions, many Polish-Americans in Pennsylvania lost (or never developed) the ability to read and write in the native tongue, largely because of their enrollment in public schools. It might be interesting to think about a booklist of Polish language titles -- which includes American, European, and Polish authors -- in light of the Americanization story.

Hopefully a colleague with background in Polish language and literature will find this fascinating list, track down information about the Polish community in Reading, and tell us more about them!

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