Friday, January 31, 2014

Re-dos pay off: from Pennsylvania Library Notes to the records of the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women

Psychologists have identified a "competence-confidence loop," such that trust in one's own ability to perform a task increases as he or she becomes better at doing it, and that such positive feelings improves the outcome. But sometimes, I think competence and confidence can be inversely related. This is especially true of young intellectuals who are used to hearing that they are bright. They become overly confident and assume their knowledge is complete and correct in all things when it is not. If you don't know what I'm talking about, re-read a term paper that you wrote years ago -- perhaps something you submitted for a high school assignment. Maybe you stated some of your insights (this assumes you had any!) with conviction and clarity. But overall, you'd probably be embarrassed if anyone else read your old paper today. In other words, the trouble (and promise?) of intellectual life is that your understanding of yourself, your topic, and your world continues to grow. So, when you are in your 30s, 40s, or 50s and you rediscover material written in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, some of it inevitably causes the face-palm characteristic of substantial regret.

I was thinking about this phenomenon several weeks ago when I was considering redoing my hand-search of Pennsylvania Library Notes (PLN), the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission and State Library of Pennsylvania. In 2005, when I first started researching the history of public libraries, I harvested all the "significant" articles from it. Or so I believed at the time. But knowing how much my knowledge has grown since then, I recently worried that I may have missed important items that I wouldn't have recognized as such years earlier. So I asked the State Library for special permission to take the heavy volumes home. Working like a cold-case detective, I reexamined evidence collected by an earlier colleague who just happened to be my younger self.

It turned out I was right to doubt myself. Looking at the stack of photocopies I had created 9 years ago, I clearly privileged articles written by Commission or State Library staff, or articles which summarized statewide library development. In other works, I caught the pieces that State Librarians Thomas Lynch Montgomery and Gertrude MacKinney wrote about the broad history of public librarianship in Pennsylvania. However, one important thread that I didn't pick up on was the crucial role of women's clubs in early 20th century public libraries. For example, I didn't copy a brief article on "Co-operation with Federation of Pennsylvania Women" which stated that the Commission was "the medium through which clubs have presented books to some of the smaller libraries" (PLN, July 1913 issue). In the 1930s, when the State Library was fervently pushing the establishment of county library systems and bookmobiles, I missed additional articles pertaining to the Federation. For instance, within a special issue, the State Library had asked representatives of the Federation, the Grange, and other non-librarian constituent groups to write regarding what county libraries "would mean" to their membership (PLN, January 1933 issue). To give another example, I had passed over a feature article in the April 1935 issue on "Women's Clubs and Public Libraries," at the end of which was a note that the same text was to be published in Pennsylvania Clubwoman. Furthermore, I did not copy a detailed outline of "The Library Program of the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women," presented by Mrs. Joseph Dury of Sewickley*, chair of the Federation's Education Department, at the 1936 Pennsylvania Library Association conference (PLN, January 1937 issue).

These refound clues led to an important new trajectory in my work. I checked whether the historical records of the Federation were accessible to researchers. As it turned out, a major collection is housed only a few miles away at the State Archives in Harrisburg. Throughout December and early January, I used board minutes, yearbooks, periodicals, and other materials which proved to be treasure-troves for library history.

The State Federation of Pennsylvania Women, later called the Pennsylvania Federation of Women's Clubs, and now the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Pennsylvania, is an association of associations. I do not know how it operates today, but in my era of interest (1890s-1940s) local clubs paid membership fees to join the state organization and send "delegates" to its annual meetings. The Federation put forth "resolutions" which were expected to be adopted by all members. State-level officers and committees provided direction, coordination, practical advice, and communication channels toward implementation. Despite the structure provided by the state organization, however, clubs were free to pursue their own interests, methods, and opportunities. At the local level, women were involved in a myriad of cultural and social concerns, including Americanization of immigrants, arts and music appreciation, birth control, environmental beautification and conservation, marriage and divorce law, suffrage, town clean-up and facility improvement, working conditions for women and children, and much more.

Why did women's clubs in Pennsylvania care about free public libraries? Numerous scholars have discussed the importance of reading as a means of education and entertainment for women. In Pennsylvania, many local women's clubs focused on literature or currents events. Among the 66 local clubs that originally federated in 1895, 8 had "Belle Lettres," "literary," or "Shakespeare" in their names (1896/1897 SFPW Yearbook). Often, libraries provided books and periodicals in support of such activities. Thus the number of women interested in libraries naturally grew as additional clubs joined the Federation.

Another factor may have been discrimination against females within the subscription libraries that existed at the time. Having used the records of more than a dozen such institutions across Pennsylvania, I have found that gender segregation may not have been de jure, but it certainly was de facto in many cases. In other words, although I have seen few library constitutions and bylaws which specifically bar women from membership or from leadership positions, lists of subscribers and board members tend to include many more males than females. Also, early records of the Pennsylvania Young Men's Christian Association, another statewide organization which promoted libraries, show that in our state, women were typically considered "auxiliaries." They were welcomed to raise funds and provide other types of support for local Ys, but until well into the 20th century they were generally were not invited to use the Ys' facilities or serve as officers.

Some of the history of SFPW's library involvement is elusive, because the collection at the State Archives contains no correspondence from the early years. Also, I have been unable to locate the first volumes (1913?-1919) of the Federation's periodical, The Messenger.  Nonetheless, extant board minutes and yearbooks indicate that it took an early, active, and long-lasting interest in public library development. When the SFPW was founded in the 1890s, free public libraries were immediately placed under the umbrella of the Civics Committee. Within a decade, there was enough interest in libraries such that a separate "Libraries Committee" was created (see 1904/1905 SFPW Yearbook). First led by Winifred Riggs, who was a librarian at the Lawrenceville Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, it evolved into a "Library Extension Committee," chaired by Anna B. Day of Connellsville. Because Pennsylvania tried to mirror the national federation's administrative structure, and since incoming state presidents and boards could alter such structures, the name of the library group and its reporting lines sometimes changed. Yet SFPW Yearbooks from 1911/1912 to 1918/1919, 1924/1925 to 1937/1938, and 1944/1945 to 1946/1947 (when my research ceases) list distinct departments, divisions, or subcommittees pertaining to libraries.

As such administrative lines suggest, interest in public libraries waxed, waned, and waxed anew with changes in Federation leadership. During the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, there was a strong push to start city and town libraries. In 1899, the state organization formally resolved that "each delegate and club member [urge] her home club to encourage University Extension, Free Libraries, and Traveling Libraries. Also that we request the next Legislature make an appropriation for the use of the Library Commission" (1900/1901 SFPW Yearbook).

The Federation supported the library movement in other ways. For example, its annual conference frequently included programs and activities pertaining to libraries. At the 1896 meeting, Alice E. Huff of the Women's Club of Pittsburgh introduced attendees to the "New Library Movement" (1896 SFPW meeting program). Similarly, the 1899 conference offered a discussion session on "Town and Traveling Libraries," led by Mrs. George Kendrick, Jr.* of Philadelphia. The Federation also welcomed professional experts to its events. In 1902, when Isabel Ely Lord, a librarian at Bryn Mawr, was elected as the first female vice-president of the Keystone State Library Association (the forerunner of PaLA), she was invited to speak at a conference session (1902 SFPW meeting program). The following year, new State Librarian Thomas Lynch Montgomery addressed attendees on "Pennsylvania in Library Work" (1903 SFPW meeting program). Librarians sometimes spoke on panels pertaining to books, literacy, film, education, and related topics. For example, in 1911 Marion Gunnison of Erie Public Library provided a talk on "One Hundred Best Pictures [stereopticon slides] for Public Schools" (1911 SFPW meeting program). Several years later, Anna MacDonald of the State Library, Mary A. True of Clarion Normal School, Jean A. Hard of Erie Public Library, and Mrs. Francis D. Maxwell* of the SFPW's Eastern District presented various topics relating to library extension (1917 SFPW meeting program). To promote development of county libraries, the State Library's and Susquehanna County's bookmobiles were "open for inspection" and parked outside of the 1930 meeting.

Various local clubs, and eventually the state Federation, advocated women's suffrage. As members gained political power, they were encouraged to use it on behalf of libraries. Legislative activity began well before women won the right to vote. For example, among various resolutions in the 1900/1901 Yearbook, there was one promising that "we exert our influences to procure the election of more women" on library and school boards. The 1901/1902 Yearbook included a report from State Librarian George Reed about traveling libraries, along with an appeal that attendees "personally or by letter appeal to your Representatives urging them to use their influence" in securing additional appropriations for the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission. Reed wrote to Federation secretary Mary K. Garvin that he had "reason to know that the work of the Federation of Women's Clubs did a great deal ... in securing the passage" of the act that had originally created the Commission, because "a large number of the Senators and members of the House informed [him] that they had received communications from members" (1900/1901 SFPW Yearbook).

During the late 1910s, Pennsylvania women's attention shifted to civil defense, food conservation, Red Cross work, selling bonds, and other activities in support of World War I. About the same time, the chair of the Literature and Library Extension Committee, Harriet H. Greer, seemed more interested in the former rather than the latter half of her mandate. Yet interest in public library development revived in the mid-late 1920s during the twilight of Minnie K. Hamme's presidency. She appointed Alice R. Eaton, librarian at Harrisburg Public Library and an active member of the Pennsylvania Library Association, as head of the Federation's Division of Library Extension. Leaving office in 1927, Hamme urged all members to "turn [their] attention to County Libraries ... so that every child, no matter how remote his habituation, may have access to good books." The state organization passed a resolution stating that it "heartily endorse[d] and will aid in the County Library System and urge that it be established on a tax supported basis" (1926/1927 SFPW Yearbook).

The following year, Ruth L. Frick of Allentown became state president. Frick was a strong library advocate who identified libraries as one of the 5 "special subjects" she would emphasize during her administration. For her part, MacDonald chose "active librarians" for her district committee chairs, including Isabel M. Turner of Allentown for the Northeast district; Mary Reutter of Pottstown for the Southeast; Jessie Wilson of Northumberland for the Central; Mary A. True (now at Erie Public Library) for the Northwest; and Edna Krause of Scottdale for the Southwest (1928/1929 SFPW Yearbook). Frick also authorized a $2000 budget to "put a trained worker in the field" to promote county libraries. Helen R. Godcharles of Milton, who was hired for this role and elevated to second vice president of the Federation, provided dozen of talks to local women's organizations, businesses, civic associations, and government leaders. Since Godcharles (as Helen Rockwell) had worked for several years at the State Library prior to her marriage, she had in-depth understanding of library issues and likely enjoyed close relationships with librarians throughout the state.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, numerous articles in the Federation's periodicals -- many of them written by Eaton, Godcharles, and MacDonald -- pressed members to "Make 1926 The Library Year" (The Messenger, April-May 1926 issue), invited them to "Plant Books" (The Messenger, March and May 1928 issues), and even urged them to "Outlaw Literacy in the United States of America" (The Messenger, April 1928 issue). Similar articles appeared on nearly a monthly basis during the 1930s. Among the most compelling was a piece by Mrs. Joseph D. Dury*, "Rich Pennsylvania, Poor in Books." It noted that more than 4 million Pennsylvanians still lacked access to library services and that 78 towns with populations of 5,000 or more had no libraries (Pennsylvania Clubwoman, October 1936 issue).

Ruth L. Frick, President of The State Federation of
Pennsylvania Women, 1927-1931. Frick was a strong 

advocate of libraries. From Pennsylvania Clubwoman
November 1931 issue.
During Frick's tenure, the SFPW also sponsored a demonstration project in Tioga County whereby the State Library provided a bookmobile and the Federation purchased 400-500 volumes of reading material (1930/1931 SFPW Yearbook). Though this experiment ultimately failed to motivate Tioga County residents to approve a library tax, women's agitation resulted in the passage of state law providing partial matching funds for county governments which made appropriations for rural library service (1931/1932 SFPW Yearbook). This was a watershed achievement -- the first time the state had provided such money. After state funds were secured, the Federation then urged local clubs to develop the movement. Copies of the new legislation were mailed to all county-level federations. At the 1934 state conference, The American Library Association's pamphlet, "Books for Town and Country" was slipped in each attendee's packet. Furthermore, the Federation sent questionnaires to each of more than 570 local women's clubs, asking what they were doing to support library development. Responses revealed that no fewer than 114 were giving books, money, and/or labor to their libraries (1934/1935 SFPW Yearbook). 

Throughout the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Clubwoman printed success stories of suburban and rural library services, including Centre, Huntington, and Union Counties, as well as Belle Vernon, Coraopolis, Elizabethtown, Glenolden, Johnsonburg, New Kensington, Yeadon and other communities. The magazine continued to provide practical ideas, too. For example, the May 1939 issue included "Program Suggestions from Your State Chairman," which recommended "portable libraries" for rural schools and community centers, "memorial book shelves" (gift book campaigns to honor the deceased), National Book Week observance, and other activities. Another survey conducted by the Federation's Department of Education found that 66 of 67 Pennsylvania counties could report at least one local club that was aiding libraries. Allegheny County was a standout -- in a single year its residents gave $1790 and more 2100 hours of voluntary service to their libraries (Pennsylvania Clubwoman, June 1940 issue). 

During the early 1940s, it seems that women again put the library movement on hold in order to support national defense and war efforts. Although many members assisted in local and county Victory Book Campaigns, it appears that the state Federation steered them toward non-library efforts. For instance, in June 1942, members pledged to "use [their] utmost influence in persuading our government to appropriate no public money for any governmental expenses except those vitally essential to defense or the legitimate welfare of any of the states or the federal government." The same year, another resolution urged "every club woman to cooperate ... to the fullest extent" regarding "conserving resources for the war" (1941/1942 SFPW Yearbook). Both mandates temporarily ruled out county libraries, which relied on public taxation and rationed gasoline. Even modest speaking program suggestions from the chair of the Federation's Department of Education tended to be war-related, such as "The Library: A War Information Center," "Books and Their Influence in Safeguarding Civilization," and "Books and Horsepower in Modern Warfare" (Pennsylvania Clubwoman, May 1943 issue). This said, interest in public libraries likely revived after the war, particularly when Katherine Shorey, an active librarian from York, was appointed chair of the Federation's Division of Libraries.

There are many additional details from Federation board minutes, yearbooks, conference programs, and periodicals which could flesh out an entire scholarly article or book chapter on this topic. I am very thankful that I questioned my own perspective and thoroughness and decided to revisit Pennsylvania Library Notes. If I hadn't done so, I would not have uncovered the articles which prompted me to seek out the Federation's records. Skipping such vital documentation would have been a serious oversight, given that State Librarian Anna MacDonald once stated that "more than fifty per cent of the libraries in Pennsylvania have been started by women's clubs" (1928/1929 SFPW Yearbook).

*I have scoured SFPW records to learn each woman's first name, but cannot identify all of them at the present time. If you can supply such information, please contact me!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment