I will never forget Beatrice ("Trix") and Cecelia ("Cee Cee") Whalen who coaxed hundreds of New Bedford children to take their first leaps into the YWCA pool. I loved the water, so I was often the first kid to cannonball in. Then I'd bob around and dunk my pals while crybabies pouted and dragged hesitant toes along the grout at the edge. The Whalens were much kinder than I could ever be. I would have yanked the wrists of those snotty whiners who held up everyone else -- "c'mon, get in, will ya?!?" -- but Trix Whalen would smile with outstretched arms, waiting patiently for each child to jump in by him/herself. Her daughter Cee Cee gently cautioned the rest of us from drowning each other and showed us how to "fin and kick." I think Trix retired soon after I started taking classes, but Cee Cee was my swim teacher up through lifesaving. Whenever I realize that my strokes are sloppy, I hear her calling, "lift that right arm, Bernadette!"
Today, millions of Americans still rely on local Ys for access to gym equipment, intramural sports, swimming lessons, and even Zumba. Given the YMCA's and YWCA's current reputations for physical fitness, it might surprise people to learn that during their early days, the Ys were involved in far more sedentary activities.
As part of my research on Pennsylvania public libraries, I often check city directories and old newspapers to find out whether communities offered reading materials and literary activities before public institutions were organized. Quite often, I have found that local YMCAs had "reading rooms" (sitting spaces stocked with current periodicals), if not libraries with substantial lending collections of books. For example, the YMCA in Lebanon advertised that its reading room had "all the current papers and magazines" not far from its classrooms, gymnasium, and pool.
|The Reading Room of the Lebanon YMCA, ca. 1910. |
Taken from a brochure at the Lebanon County Historical Society
So, after encountering Y libraries in several of the communities in my project, I decided to consult the State YMCA of Pennsylvania Records (MG 204), available at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Judging from available state conference proceedings, State Executive Committee meeting minutes, and other materials, reading was an important recreational activity in Pennsylvania Ys of the 1860s, 1870s, and early 1880s. In fact, it was an important method of protecting young men from alcoholism, gambling, gang activity, and other dangerous past-times they'd encounter on the street. Also, carefully-selected books and periodicals could introduce nonbelievers to Christ, which was the primary purpose of the early Ys. At the 1869 annual convention, attendees unanimously approved a resolution to "recommend, as instrumentalities which have been heretofore blessed by the Holy Spirit, the noon-day prayer meetings, union meetings for prayer and conference, occasional social gatherings, the establishment of public libraries and reading rooms, the liberal distribution of timely and earnest tracts, tent and street preaching, and above all, earnest personal effort for the salvation of souls, accompanied by a winsome, consistent Christianity" (1869 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 36-37). Similarly, an early, substantial description of "Our Work" started with the Ys' "Rooms" (meeting spaces), following by a section on "Literature, Libraries," and then information about prayer meetings, prison work, almshouses, lecture series, music programs, and other efforts. The ordering of these sections, with libraries described near the beginning, points to their relative importance (1870 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pgs. 30-42).
In its early years, the state association provided practical tips for local secretaries who were organizing libraries. Among other things, a sample constitution for city and town Ys stipulated that each local Board of Directors was to appoint a "recording Secretary and Librarian" who would "take care of all books, documents, and other movable property of the Association, keep a correct catalogue and account of the same," and maintain "a record of all books delivered to the members of the Association" (1869 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 44-50). The "Our Work" article also advised them to start their collections with copies of local newspapers, religious publications, and papers from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. It also recommended subscriptions to Atlantic Monthly, Eclectic, Independent, Littell's Living Age, Observer, Scientific American, Scribner's Monthly, and Young Folks (1870 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 31).
The state YMCA conference also provided a venue for sharing experiences. For example, among informal discussions at the 1869 conference was a session on "means for mental improvement, actually tried" and "most effectual." Of the 9 discussants, 3 heartily endorsed libraries. E. Dillendorf of Erie related that "when I went to Erie there were five billiard saloons, which, since the establishment of our library and reading room, have been reduced to one, and many who frequented them, now come to our reading room" (1869 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 18). Another round robin discussion at the 1878 conference regarding the "features of Association work not directly spiritual" which should be pursued, reaffirmed the importance of reading. Quite a few attendees mentioned having libraries, holding book receptions, and establishing literary clubs (1878 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 21). In 1886, a question and answer session focused on "How Can a Reading Room Be Best Supplied?" given "a moderate amount of money." Attendees suggested a variety of approaches, including soliciting donations and gift subscriptions, collaborating with local publishers, and exchanging materials with other Ys (1886 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 40). Two years later, D. D. Hammelbaugh of Harrisburg presented a paper on "How to Hold a Successful Book Campaign" (1888 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 50-51).
Library activities were important enough that the state association collected statistics from an early date. Tipped into the proceedings of the 1870 convention is a list of every Pennsylvania Y. Among other data, each was asked to report whether or not it offered a reading room, and the number of volumes in its library. At that point, 30 of the 75 local Ys reported having reading rooms, and their collections ranged in size from Burgettstown's 47 books to Philadelphia's 7,000 (pg. 49). It appears that the reading rooms and libraries continued to grow during the 1880s. A statistical report published within the 1889 Proceedings of the Annual Convention indicate that 48 Ys had libraries, reading rooms, or both. Not surprisingly, the largest cities had the biggest collections, including Lancaster (7,500 volumes), Philadelphia (7,400), Erie (5,400), Harrisburg (3,500), Germantown (3,100), Scranton (3,000) Pittsburgh (2,600), Wilkes-Barre (2,500), and New Castle (2,300).
Unfortunately for the bookish among us, Y leaders began to change tactics in the 1880s, following a conference paper by G. M. McCauley of Harrisburg which introduced attendees to the benefits of physical education activities (1880 Proceedings of the Annual Convention, pg. 18-22). Local Ys began to hire athletic instructors and erect new buildings with gymnasiums and pools. Successive conventions included addresses, round robin discussions, and other events focused on physical recreation. Like any other organization, the YMCA continued to evolve in terms of its goals, interests, and methods. In the early 1900s, there was significant activity among coal mining and lumbering communities, as well as support for missionary work in China. In ensuing years, the state Y reached out to high school students, began offering career counseling and vocational courses, developed summer camps, pursued integration of black and white Ys, and prepared young men for military service.
Since the state association collected different types of statistics over the years (i.e., sometimes asking for the dollar value of collections and sometimes asking the number of volumes borrowed), and because a substantial number of Ys failed to report figures on an annual basis, it is impossible to determine exactly when most communities lost their libraries as the 20th century enfolded. However, it appears that the total number of volumes held by all Y libraries remained stagnant at about 60,000 to 65,000 volumes during the first two decades of the 1900s. After 1900, libraries were seldom mentioned within the State Executive Committee's meeting minutes or reports, the annual convention proceedings, or the state association's periodicals. Tellingly, a 1917 article described the typical reading room as "a poor waif, unkempt, neglected. Nobody cares for it, nobody has responsibility. Dog-eared, torn, coverless magazines are scattered here and there." The author urged readers to "spend a few moments" to "discard the harmful magazines and literature," "bring all up to date," and "put each magazine in its own cover." The fact that Y reading rooms could apparently be straightened up in only a few minutes points to an interpretation that by the 1910s, most Pennsylvania Ys were not attempting to collect and organize broad, modern collections like the public libraries of their day ("The Reading Room," Pennsylvania Association News, v. 20, no. 82, February 1917, pg. 12). Although I found no board decisions, convention resolutions, or policy documents which contain an explicit, state-level decision to abandon library work, I believe it can be said that YMCA libraries in most Pennsylvania communities were "dead" by the 1920s. When the State Executive Committee discussed the emerging "community center" concept as a design possibility for new buildings, leaders did not mention libraries among the billiard rooms, bowling alleys, dormitories, gyms, pools, and other facilities that new Ys would provide (May 7, 1937 SEC minutes).
Interestingly, at the same time that libraries' presence were diminishing in Y buildings, the State Library of Pennsylvania provided a mechanism for local associations to obtain books. In 1906-1907, former State Librarian George E. Reed was serving on the State Executive Committee and may have paved the way for collaboration between SLP and the Y. That year, State YMCA Secretary E. B. Buckalew furnished the current State Librarian, Thomas Lynch Montgomery, a list of 300 titles "specially selected" to assist volunteers in "all phases" of the Y's work. Montgomery agreed to purchase them and the materials were divided into 11 traveling libraries which could be borrowed for up to 3 months upon request by any local Y. (December 20, 1906 SEC Business Committee minutes, and Pennsylvania Association News, v.11, no. 43 (May 1907), pg. 5, 35). The traveling libraries, along with the establishment of public libraries in many communities, may have obviated the need for local Ys to host permanent book collections on-site.
At this point, I am not clear as to whether Ys phased out their libraries because of the growth of public libraries, or whether public libraries developed to fill the gap created by the disappearance of Y book collections. I am inclined to say the latter, because among the Pennsylvania communities I have studied, I am not aware of any Y libraries that were the direct forbears of public libraries. In other words, it seems that in most places, Y libraries were stagnant before public libraries were created. Few, if any, were ever opened to persons (especially women and children) who were not Y members. At any rate, the growth and demise of YMCA libraries is a reminder that people who love books have allies in unusual places. Also, such friends are sometimes lost when organizations grow and change.