Thursday, January 16, 2014

Poor Mr. Durham?: library behavior in 1890s Reading

Librarians who work for any length of time on the front lines in urban settings require (or develop) both enthusiasm and detachment when it comes to human behavior. These might seem like opposite strengths, but both are needed. When working at Enoch Pratt Free Library, I retained interest in all my customers' queries and problems, from whether or not the Bilderbergers conspired in starting world wars, to calculating the flow velocity inside a pipe. And yet I wasn't shaken (at least not for very long) when a patron called me a b-tch for not allowing an expensive reference book to circulate. If you have no idea what I'm talking about in terms of the craziness that unfolds each day in America's public libraries, read Don Borchert's book Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library. We've never met, but I think Borchert and I would be simpatico in many respects.

Although some of my beleaguered colleagues chalk up bad library behavior to a "new generation" which lacks empathy, intelligence, or training, it might comfort us all to know that it's actually nothing new.

This week I am using the historic documents of the Reading Public Library (RPL), which recently celebrated 250 years of public service. For several days I have been squinting at handwritten board of trustee minutes from the 1890s and early 1900s. Since the head librarian, Albert Durham, served as the board's recording secretary, the minutes sometimes include juicy anecdotes and commentary about his daily grind.

Soon after RPL became a free institution, the board approved a new set of rules for library users. A century later, it's interesting to note the library's apparent need to emphasize that "tobacco is prohibited, and no dogs or other pet animals will be permitted in the rooms." Also, "all conversation and all conduct inconsistent with quiet and order is strictly prohibited. The Library is not to be used as a place for meeting friends or visiting" (board minutes, April 10, 1899). Several months later, the short list of guidelines was elaborated upon. Among my favorites are:

"Conversation with attendants on duty is forbidden except as to necessary Library matters and such conversation must be as brief as possible and in a subdued tone."


"Gentlemen shall not wear their hats in the Library" (board minutes, October 16, 1899).

While policing smoking, noise, and attire, Durham also coped with patrons who failed to return materials. Once, someone lost an expensive book "while making a tour of the saloons on Penn Street" and failed to replace it. Durham contacted the man's employer, who agreed to deduct $2.50 from his worker's weekly wages until the missing volume was paid for (board minutes, September 17, 1900).

In addition to rectifying the behavior of his patrons, Durham also had to keep in check the activities of other persons in his vicinity who were not library customers at all. Before Mayor William Rick persuaded Andrew Carnegie to erect the current building, RPL was located a multistory edifice built in the 1840s as a lodge for the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows. By the 1890s, the library owned the whole building, but since it owned fewer than 10,000 volumes, it did not require the entire space. Extra rooms were rented to other community organizations and Durham was the "custodian." He was not like a janitor in the modern sense, but rather scheduled and supervised all activities within the building.

I found myself nodding in sympathy as Durham described the difficulties of sharing space with people who did not have the same priorities as he did. Portions of the building were used by a local women's club, a liederkrantz (German singing society), and a turn verein (German gymnastics club). Judging from the board minutes, their activities vexed Durham on a regular basis. On at least one occasion, ladies left the floor "littered" and furniture in disarray. For their part, the liederkrantz "ignore[d] the comfort and quiet of the Library talking noisily as they pass[ed] boisterously up and often shouting to each other and smoking not particularly good tobacco of which we get full benefit." On several occasions friends of the turners hauled kegs of beer upstairs and turned their space into a taproom. Spilled beverages and melted ice seeped through the floor boards and stained the library's ceiling. Durham also complained about public urinals on the upper floors which became "rank" during summer months (board minutes, September 17, 1900).

I don't report these incidents in order to embarrass any of the organizations involved. Notably, Durham's complaints cease within several years. This could mean a number of things, including that leases may have been cancelled, or that the groups could have found more suitable lodgings. Perhaps the renters corrected themselves once they were informed of their offenses. Maybe that Durham and his staff developed thicker skins and identified greater priorities, too. More importantly, such conflicts seem to be common in spaces which are used by various people for different purposes, especially when places' contexts are unclear and where rules of engagement aren't decided. In other words, my point is that many librarians strive to find workable medians between the efficiency and orderliness we often prefer, and the complexity and messiness of our customers' lives. Also, we can find ways, as Durham did, to quietly replenish our enthusiasm. The board minutes don't contain a lot of gush about his patrons, but Durham's 15 years at RPL attest to a passion that was renewable.

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