Friday, March 28, 2014

Searching for Mary Hurst in the path of the flood

Nearly a decade ago, when I was just beginning my research, I consulted a variety of secondary sources and harvested them for information about the history of public libraries. I painstakingly borrowed nearly every title listed in a bibliography published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I also found Donald G. Davis' and Mark Tucker's American Library History: A Comprehensive Guide to the Literature (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1987) and tracked down each publication relating to Pennsylvania. I did the same with the Library History Round Table's Bibliographies of Library History. Those indexes led me to the Dictionary of American Library Biography and its supplements, which I scoured for Pennsylvania librarians, as well as books like Theodore Jones' Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy (New York: Wiley, 1997) and Robert S. Martin's Carnegie Denied: Communities Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants (New York: Praeger, 1993). Then I tapped Dissertation Abstracts, the State Library of Pennsylvania catalog, WorldCat, and a slew of history and library science journal databases. Whenever I found anything relevant, I photocopied the information and filed it. Within a year I amassed a cabinet of hanging files for each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Within them are folders documenting hundreds of libraries. Before I leave for any research trip, I grab the relevant file, review the secondary sources inside, and jot down keywords and research questions to guide my investigation.

Four weeks ago, I pulled my file for Cambria county in anticipation of a research trip to western Pennsylvania. Johnstown's folder was very thin. Inside was a copy from Jones' Carnegie book, which briefly described the Cambria Library. He stated that the 1889 Johnstown Flood "swept away" the first library, as well as the librarian, Mrs. Mary Hurst, "who was at her desk at the time" (pg. 10). No source for this information was noted.

Among my preparatory research notes for Johnstown, I scrawled in bold, red letters: "CONFIRM LIBRARIAN FLOOD DEATH."

In the larger scheme of things --  a statewide project describing the history of libraries from colonial times through the 1940s -- the obituary of one person is only a sidelight. But the journalist in me was intrigued by the story's potential. I sometimes imagined a dutiful, stoic woman, continuing to circulate books despite warnings of the impending deluge. Other times, I pictured a passionate lover of books, frantically carrying valuable reference volumes to the building's upper stories to save them from rising water. In other instances, I thought of the horror on her face at the second when tons of debris and muddy water smashed into the library.

A gap in library records from late May through late November 1889 is silent testimony to the chaos that the community experienced that summer and fall. Yet there appears to be little doubt that Hurst perished. An 1890 list of victims states that the body of a missing "Minnie" Hurst was "never recovered" (perhaps leaving some hope?), but the May 5, 1890 board of trustees meeting minutes confirm that "Mrs. Hurst" was lost during the tragedy. Unfortunately, the board records contain no eulogy, memorial resolution, or other information about her last days. I know that she was hired at the end of 1880 at the rate of $40 per month. Although this "arrangement" was only intended to be "temporary," subsequent minutes and city directories show that she probably remained in her position throughout the 1880s until her death (see board of trustee meeting minutes, December 11, 1880, December 27, 1882, and May 5, 1890, and Clark's Johnstown City Directory, 1887). By the winter of 1889, a new librarian, Mary L. Yeagley, was circulating materials from temporary quarters in the McMillan mansion, and plans were underway for the building donated by Andrew Carnegie.

From the sources I have consulted so far, I cannot determine whether Hurst was actually "at her desk" during the tragedy. David McCullough's definitive book, The Johnstown Flood, asserts that "Mrs. Hirst" was "crushed beneath a heap of bricks, slate, and books that stood where the public library had been" (pg. 195) but does not cite a source. Clues within extant records support such a conclusion. For example, the library's staff was small: only librarian Hurst, a janitor, and perhaps one or two assistants. The contents of the dam, plus all the debris it had accumulated, barreled into Johnstown on May 31st, a Friday, at mid-afternoon. Board minutes from other years seem to indicate that it operated daily from about 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., perhaps with a dinner break at 5 or 6 o'clock. Thus it is likely that the library would have been open if it were a normal day. This being said, there were possibilities for chance to interview. In this gas-lit era, libraries sometimes closed on summer afternoons because of the heat. Also, medical knowledge and transportation being limited as they were, library staff frequently took extended leaves for illnesses and vacations. Nonetheless, I found no evidence that Hurst was absent at the time, and given the small staff, it could be presumed that if the library were open that day, she would have been working. Both the Hurst home and the Cambria Library were located within a few blocks of each other on Washington Street, which runs along the Little Conemaugh River.

I cannot determine whether library employees had tried to flee for higher ground ahead of time. There was apparently some debate regarding whether the city had been forewarned. One prominent eyewitness, Reverend G. W. Brown, contended that residents had no warning at all. On the other hand, George Swank, a local news editor, stated that the torrential rain had caused substantial flooding earlier in the day and prompted many to evacuate. The only other details I found in primary sources pertaining to the flood were in John McLaurin's The Story of Johnstown: Its Early Settlement, Rise and Progress, Industrial Growth, and Appalling Flood on May 31st, 1889 (Harrisburg.: J.M. Place, 1889). According to McLaurin, the two other Hursts that perished that day -- Emily (age 10) and Nathaniel (age 15) -- were Mary Hurst's grandchildren. The 1890 list indicates that the bodies of Mary and Emily were never recovered, while Nathaniel Hurst was buried in Somerset, a smaller city about 30 miles south. Searches of the library's vertical files, as well as American Periodical Series, Google Books, Newspaper Archives, PERSI, Readers Guide Retrospective, and other online databases turned up nothing.

I also tried to use HeritageQuest to trace the earlier years of Mary Hurst's life. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Mary "Hirst" was widowed, living with her daughter, Maime(?) Gaither, and Gaither's husband and children. It doesn't appear that she was working outside the home at that point. I did not find any "Hirsts" or "Hursts" in the 1860 or 1870 censuses for Cambria or Somerset counties. From there, all potential leads went cold. Part of the difficulty is that historical documents variously listed her as "Mary," "Minnie," or "Mrs. Andrew," and "Hirst" or "Hurst." Another problem is that Johnstown suffered additional floods -- in 1936 and 1977 -- which have ruined some local history materials. Furthermore, Johnstown's newspapers have not been digitized, making them all but impossible for me to use given the time constraints of my project.

In the end, the only way I could access a bit of Mary Hurst's experience that horrible day was to walk the Path of the Flood Trail, an 11-mile hike/bike path. It follows the Little Conemaugh River from Ehrenfeld, a village just east of the South Fork Dam, through several other towns into the City of Johnstown. Most of my hiking days were overcast, adding to the gloom of bare trees, dead grass, muddy ground, and chilly March temperatures. I held back quite a lot of prickly brush in my efforts to photograph the terrain. My best shot, of a viaduct that was rebuilt in the 1890s, illustrates the narrowness of the Little Conemaugh valley. Here, water and debris was trapped behind the previous bridge, which then collapsed. From this area the flood had surged ahead with renewed energy toward Johnstown.

Over the course of 3 days, I wound my way past Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale, communities which also lost residents to the flood. As I tramped downhill toward Johnstown, I realized in a visceral way that I was at the bottom of a gorge with steep rock rising all around me. I imagined floodwaters gaining force as they throttled down the narrow valley. It became clear why Mary Hurst and many other Johnstown residents had little chance of escape.

The Path of the Flood Trail terminates at the Johnstown Flood Museum, the building which was erected by Andrew Carnegie on the site of the earlier structure where Mary Hurst possibly lost her life. I sat on the museum steps for a minute and offered a silent prayer for her, her family, and more than 2,200 other souls who lost their lives 125 years ago. I mused about the folly of those who failed to maintain the dam, the power of God in unleashing days of torrential rain, and the unpredictability of human fate, which lies both in our choices and in the Almighty's hand. I reflected on my greedy motive of trying to get "a good story." I wasn't sorry that my frustrated attempts ended with a moment of reverence. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Library of steel: the Cambria Library Association

Last week I was at the Cambria County Historical Society when a chatty genealogist leaned over my shoulder. "I've been watching you for a while and I can't figure out what you're doing," he said. "You've got family files, government reports, folders on Beth Steel -- what gives?" "I am researching the history of Johnstown's public library," I replied. His eyebrows shot up skeptically. "That ain't helpin' me," he said.

Yeah, Pennsylvania libraries often have unusual foundings!

Many of the libraries I have studied were begun by local women's clubs, other social organizations, or individual, public-spirited donors. For instance, among the ones I have researched this month, the libraries of Butler and New Castle were established by women's clubs; Sharon's was originally part of an athletic association called the Buhl Club, and Beaver Falls' public library was donated by Andrew Carnegie at the request of a fledgling library association. Even Johnstown's started along similar lines. In February of 1870, local citizens gathered at the Assistance Fire Company's hall to form the Cambria Library Association (CLA). Like many library organizations of that time, it was funded through subscriptions. Only persons who paid annual dues could borrow books.

However, from there, it gets interesting.

Among CLA's earliest members were leaders in the region's iron/steel industry and its related businesses. For example, the association's first elected president was Cyrus Elder, an attorney for the Cambria Iron Company. CLA's "library committee," responsible for obtaining bookcases and other furnishings, included Elder as well as Powell Stackhouse, who later became president of the same company (see CLA meeting minutes, February 1, 1870). As the years went by, numerous Cambria Iron Company executives served as library officers, including Daniel Morrell (who was general manager during the 1870s and 1880s) and Charles S. Price (president of the company during the 1910s).

Why would a for-profit business give so generously to a library? Unfortunately, there seem to be few extant documents to explain it. There is a gap in the CLA's minutes from 1873 to 1876, and unfortunately, I do not have access to the company's archives. Newspapers from the time period are not easily accessible, either. Luckily, Cambria Iron Company has been the subject of, or been included in, several studies connected with National Park Service's Johnstown Flood National Memorial and proposals to establish markers and sites relating to industrial history. These research efforts have shown that Cambria Iron Company, which was once the largest steel producer in the country, provided housing, health services, and meeting halls for its workers. A library was yet another facility made available in this "company town" as a way to attract employees, reduce turnover, and mold workers' personal habits. For more information, about the company, read Sharon A. Brown, Historic Resource Study: Cambria Iron Works (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1989); Margaret M. Mulrooney, A Legacy of Coal: The Coal Company Towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1989); and Kim E. Wallace et. al., The Character of a Steel Mill City: Four Historic Neighborhoods of Johnstown, Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: National Parks Service, 1989).

At any rate, men like Elder, Morrell, and Price shaped the CLA's activities and collections in distinct ways. From the beginning, the library emulated the "mechanics and apprentices libraries" of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, "open[ing] a correspondence" with them, rather than with other types of libraries in Pennsylvania (see CLA minutes, February 1, 1870). Some affluent members donated subscriptions to young working men. From a very early date, the CLA received scientific and technical publications from the U. S. government (see CLA minutes, August 30, 1870).

In 1877, the Cambria Library literally became a library of steel. Daniel J. Morrell, then the general manager of Cambria Iron Company, proposed that the corporation pay off the library's debts, continue to provide support, and establish a "suitable place" for the library. In return, the company would "take charge" of the library's books, furniture, and other property, and make them available to both ironworkers and the general public according to the same rules and subscription rates as previously. The CLA's board accepted his idea unanimously (see CLA minutes, October 20, 1877). Morrell and his company kept their word. In 1879, Cambria Iron built a 3-story brick library, right across the street from its offices. Executives within the company -- particularly Morrell and Edward Townsend (who was president of Cambria Iron during the 1870s and 1880s) -- also gave bonds, stocks, ground rents, and land toward the CLA's endowment (see CLA minutes, May 15, 1883). Thus the CLA was able to hire a paid librarian and print catalogues of its collection. When the Cambria Library was destroyed by the 1889 Johnstown Flood, John W. Townsend, one of the company's directors, collaborated with booksellers to replace missing items (see CLA minutes, March 28, 1890). Cambria Iron also "stood ready" to build anew, but stepped aside when Andrew Carnegie, another steel magnate, offered to do so (see CLA minutes, November 23, 1889 and December 10, 1889).

The former Cambria Library. This building erected by Andrew Carnegie replaced
a structure that was erected by Cambria Iron Company and destroyed in the
1889 flood. It now houses the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, officers and managers of Cambria Iron Company, which changed its name to Cambria Steel Company, continued to serve on the board. Hand-in-hand, the library continued to develop public programming, technical collections, and outreach to working class residents that was quite innovative for the time. No later than 1881, the library was distributing circulars to factory employees "acquainting them with the terms in which books can be obtained at the library." In the same year, at the instigation of board member John Fulton, it also voted to establish a "scientific institute" which would "promote the study of the sciences and their application in business operations" (see CLA minutes, January 1, 1881). I am not certain whether this was the beginning or another iteration of an existing "night school," but for decades the library hosted weekly, semester-length courses on mathematics and mechanical drawing. Unlike other libraries, which may have simply provided meeting space for other organizations who controlled such activities, the CLA actually determined which subjects would be offered, hired and compensated the instructors, demanded annual reports from them, bought equipment and supplies, renovated the classrooms as when needed, and collected deposits from the students (see CLA minutes, November 20, 1882 and September 15, 1884).  In addition to the government publications previously mentioned, the library received transactions from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and gratis copies of technical magazines from a variety of publishers (see CLA minutes, May 2, 1892). 

Importantly, Johnstown's library wasn't simply a corporate library. Although the technical courses described above tended to enroll young men from Cambria Steel and related companies, anyone paying the deposit could register. Over time, access to the library was extended to various constituents in the city. For example, in 1882 the board voted to allow schoolchildren to use the facilities (paying the annual subscription fee) if their teachers were willing to sign as guarantors. A few years later, Sunday school children were granted borrowing privileges, provided their congregations would pay 50 cents (a reduced rate) per child. By 1891, all public school children were welcomed free of charge. The board later extended this privilege to kids in nearby communities such as Conemaugh, Dale, Franklin, Morrellville, Roxbury, and Westmount. Finally, in August 1895, the Cambria Library was made free to everyone. In a single year, circulation soared from 10,000-20,000 per year, to 50,000 or more annually (see CLA minutes, June 18, 1895, July 1, 1895, August 19, 1895, and May 13, 1896). Community groups such as the Johnstown Athletic Association, the Ladies Art League, the Fortnightly Music Club, and the Zion Lutheran Church were allowed to use library's auditorium, classrooms, and gymnasium for modest fees (see CLA minutes, October 20, 1882, August 18, 1885, July 23, 1891, August 21, 1893). The library's deep collections and geographic reach helped lay the foundation for Johnstown to become the headquarters of the Cambria County Library System decades later. 

In the 1870s and 1880s, Cambria Iron Company had provided occasional financial support when the library's meager income from subscriptions and special events was outpaced by book purchases and other expenses. Starting in the 1890s, Cambria Steel and its subsequent owner, Midvale Steel, had to "make good" the difference between the library's revenue and its operating costs on an annual basis. In that decade of economic depression, several of the CLA's endowment investments paid poor dividends and/or went into default. Thus in 1895, the CLA board approached the company for an "appropriation" of $3000. This amount grew substantially as time passed (see CLA minutes, May 6, 1895). Although the library serviced a larger and more diverse population than ever before, board minutes and revenue/expense spreadsheets from the 1890s to 1920s show that the library became increasingly dependent on corporate support. It seems that it did not actively pursue other sources of funding.

The extent of the risk was realized in 1928, when Bethlehem Steel, which had acquired Midvale several years earlier, informed the CLA that it was ceasing its contributions to Johnstown's library. It promised a $36,000 final payment to carry the library forward 2 years while it sought municipal and other resources (see CLA minutes, September 27, 1928). The $3000 that the City of Johnstown committed to the library was a fraction of what the steel industry had once provided. This appropriation decreased while the area struggled through the Great Depression and the 1936 flood and attempts to garner funding from the local school board failed. So the head librarian's salary was slashed by nearly 60%, other staff were laid off, and book purchases dwindled to a few dozen per year. Even with generous support from the Women's Library Association, opening hours were trimmed (see librarian's annual reports, 1931 and 1932). It wasn't until 1946, when voters approved an annual 1/2 mil property tax, that the Cambria Library began to regain some of the ground it had lost since 1930 (see librarian's annual report, 1946).

Today, the Cambria County Library System is headquartered in a more modern building a few blocks away. It has found new corporate friends -- notably Sheetz, which provides much-appreciated coffee near the library's entrance, and O'Shea's Candies, whose chocolates are an inexpensive pick-me-up at the circulating desk. The Carnegie building still stands, now hosting the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Inside the museum, there are few vestiges of library activities. The bookshelves and circulation desk are long gone. Most visitors hop in the elevator to reach the upper floors, but for nostalgia's sake, I used the old iron stairs. Cambria Library Association can teach us a great deal -- not only about library history, but also about financing today's institutions. We are reminded that local businesses can be great allies in the causes of public entertainment and literacy. And yet we may be placing ourselves in peril if we rely on them exclusively.

An old stairway within the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

From a Days Inn in eastern Ohio

I pressed my pounding head against the cool countertop, and drawled "ah'll be stayin' 'ere about 2 weeks a-think." Snow had stretched my 4-hour drive to nearly 6, and staring intently into the swirling white had given me a vicious headache. I had intended to lodge in a cabin at Moraine State Park, but 15-degree temperatures motivated me to cancel and drive to a budget hotel instead. The second I smelled the fast food grease that had clung to my sleeve, I felt nauseated and jerked my head up from the counter. The desk attendant nodded gravely, then slid a key toward me. "Room 135," he said. I re-parked my car, dragged my suitcases in, popped some Advil, and cocooned in bed. 

After 12 hours' rest, I felt much better and was ready for a full day of research in Sharon. As I walked down the hallway, I noticed gray clods of dried mud on the carpet. I shrugged  it off. Yet as the week progressed, copious amounts of dirt disappeared and reappeared in my corridor.  Within a week I realized that part of the hotel had been set aside for certain customers. And that I was relegated to it. 

On "my" side, rooms seemed smaller. Many of my neighbors were young men employed by construction or gas/oil drilling companies (hence the mud). Besides them, there were couples who arrived without bags and departed hours later. I noticed the differential treatment of us all on my second night, when I walked to the opposite side of the hotel to find a vending machine. The floors were noticeably cleaner and the hallway had fewer scuff marks. There were no crumpled McDonalds wrappers  or empty pizza boxes laying outside anyone's door. Several days later, I occupied myself while brushing my teeth by reading the faded notices pasted to my wall. I discovered that my room had once been priced at $110 per night, more than double what I was paying. 

As the days passed, I also realized that the housekeepers were neglecting me. Although they emptied the trash, supplied fresh towels, and made the bed, they never vacuumed the carpet. Dust accumulated on my bedstead and cup-rings patterned my nightstand. I wetted a facecloth and wiped things myself. Friday and Saturday nights were reminiscent of my first weeks at GWU's freshman dorm. Some residents propped their doors open, while others cranked up music or sports on their TVs. There were inexplicable bursts of stomping overhead and someone else's cannabis wafted in the air. Never very sociable, I curled up with books and Sudoku. I rolled my eyes and covered my head with my pillow when I heard the telltale moaning and rustling of sheets on the other side of my bedroom wall. 

The segregation was especially obvious on weekends. The two hallways, each leading to different sides of the hotel, met at the continental breakfast area. Comparisons between the people coming from my hallway versus theirs were stark. From my side were the girls wearing last night's clothes, furtively snatching juices. The bleary-eyed single mother with a squalling baby. The doddering elder with long, greasy hair who talked too much. The only people from my block that you *didn't* see were the construction workers and frackers. On early Saturday mornings, they were staying with family and friends, sleeping in, and/or hung over. From the opposite hallway streamed middle-class families who were just passing through. This morning as I waited for my bagel to brown, I choked on the overpowering perfume of a woman with an expensive purse slung on her shoulder. Though she was wearing jeans, designer sunglasses crowned her head. She was wearing a cashmere sweater and smart leather boots, too. At another table, an enthusiastic middle-aged couple had various pamphlets spread in front of them. Their sullen teenagers chomped on Frosted Flakes and waffles. Although the kids' ears were blocked by pounding music from their iPods, they groaned audibly when their parents decided everyone would visit the McKinley Presidential Library. 

Over the past 2 weeks, it has been amusing to think of myself as a less-desirable guest. When I described the place to my husband, he suggested that I demand a better room. But I stuck with 135 in part for sociological curiosity, and in part for the funny stories that might unfold. As a college faculty member, I have the privilege of observing, laughing, and then casting aside this experience whenever I want to. I can afford to stay in a Hampton Inn or even a Hyatt (briefly!) if I choose. All this said, though, I am glad it's my last night here. Nothing makes you feel lonelier than the constant chill of an overlong winter, away from your spouse and cat, eating nothing but shelf-stable food, in a hotel whose staff make negative assumptions about you. 

Yet I feel sorrier for the single mom who just needed a night's rest, the elderly man who just wanted conversation, and the frack boy who just wanted a filling dinner and a good lay. To me, how hotels apparently treat these customers is a microcosm of how American society often cordons off the poor, the dirty, and the rambunctious from those who are not. The twain shall never meet, and I suppose the middle-class illusion that social differences are not real remains intact. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The librarian as poet: Alice M. Sterling of New Castle

In more than 8 months of research, I have not uncovered many personal diaries or letters that reveal the "off-desk" lives of Pennsylvania librarians. Whether their entire beings revolved around their labors, or whether the documentary record is simply lacking, I cannot say. Unfortunately, this is true of Alice Myra Sterling, head of the New Castle Public Library from 1915 to 1957. Her November 2, 1970 obituary in the New Castle News informs us that she was born in 1879 in Lawrence County, PA, attended Grove City College, earned a library science degree, and was a member of various community organizations. In her later years, she was heavily involved in the Northminster Presbyterian Church. In addition to organizing its library, she was the first female to be ordained as an elder there. Yet this death notice tells us little about what these various achievements meant to her.

Alice Sterling's collection of poetry, available at the New Castle Public Library
With this in mind, I was delighted to find a small volume of Sterling's poetry when I performed a shelf-read of NCPL's local history collection. I had known that she had founded a Poetry Club in New Castle, but I wasn't sure she had written anything herself. Apparently, most of the world was in the dark, too. According to the book's preface, Sterling had lived with Caroline G. Black for the last 34 years of her life (i.e., from the mid-1930s through 1970). After Sterling's death, Black gathered the poems, and enlisted the aid of Allurah Leslie, an officer of the local Poetry Club, to categorize them as they appear in publication. I did not find any articles in the New Castle News announcing its release, so I presume the preface is correct in saying the collection was published posthumously in September 1971.
Alice Sterling certainly wasn't the only librarian of her generation with substantial artistic talent. Both O. R. Howard Thompson of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport and Mary E. Crocker of the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven were published authors. But for the first time, I decided to sit down for a few hours to read a librarian's creative writings as potential windows into her life. My skill in analyzing poetry is rudimentary at best, and unfortunately, few of the poems were dated or dedicated to specific individuals. Thus underlying contexts and meanings are difficult to discern. Still, it may be helpful to discuss reactions to them.

Annual programs of New Castle's Poetry Club,
which Alice Sterling founded in 1934.
Important yet unresolved questions are whether the speaker is Sterling herself, whether her poetry gives voice to other persons, and whether they are imagined or real. If Sterling was writing as and of herself, the section of poems on "Love and Friendship" are especially intriguing for what they say (and don't) about her personal life. Two poems appear to refer to a crush or lover who moved to the West Coast (see "The Perseids," pg. 41-42 and "Morning Song," pg. 44). Several others mention long absences of unidentified loves (see "Waiting," pg. 42; "Welcome," pg. 45;  "Valentine," pg. 46; "Birthday Greeting," pg. 48; and "In Absentia," pg. 49). If Sterling was writing about her own relationships, they must have been passionate but furtive ones. To me, the most powerful poem is "In Absentia" (pg. 49), which describes the warped reality a person in love -- especially one thwarted by love -- experiences. Despite shining sun, "velvet-soft" grass, and blooming flowers, the writer is "sick and lone" without her "beloved." In another verse, the speaker urges her muse to "become my cherished wife" and promises to be "true in all the future years" ("Another Valentine," pg. 47). Since all accounts, including Sterling's obituary, refer to her as "Miss," she probably never married. The poem "Secret" (pg. 45), which describes a passion that is expressed through glances, lends to an interpretation that if an infatuation or affair actually occurred, it was not common knowledge. My challenges in understanding Sterling's poetry reminded me that I need to re-read James V. Carmichael's pathbreaking book, Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History (Praeger, 1998).

Some poems, like "Viaduct" (pg. 15) -- which we are told should be sung to the tune of "Tannenbaum" -- were forgettable. The "Religious" poems, which seem to adapt Biblical passages to verse, weren't very interesting to me, either. Yet overall, her work was thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed "The Perseids," which describes the experience of waiting on a cool, dark night to watch the annual meteor shower. There is something endearing about a lone, middle-aged woman throwing an old raincoat on her lawn and stargazing. Then, she hears all kinds of nighttime sounds, including the creaking of wooden buildings, the milkman on his rounds, and a neighbor rummaging around in his garage. Indeed a night's stillness and our undivided attention open our ears and eyes to events we would never notice during the daytime. I also admired "The Wind," which personifies this climatic force as a "robber" who steals hats and a "soul crying out in the night" (pg. 58-59). It seemed that Sterling was at her best when describing the natural world.

One thing that struck me was the isolation and material poverty that Sterling may have experienced in her very old age. She apparently tended to use public transportation rather than driving a car (see "Traveling By Bus," pg. 8). Sadly, when a close friend moved to Beaver, it may have severed their relationship. Although Beaver is only about 20 miles away from New Castle, Sterling (who is the "Alice" of the poem) says Frances will be sorely missed and asks her to "return when [she] can" ("To Frances, Moving to Beaver," pg. 9). In "To My Maple," the speaker refers to her clothing as "shabby and old" and her home as "very plain and small" (pg. 10). This likely refers to Sterling as well. When I tried to spy her last residence on Google Maps, I found that the street apparently wasn't worth being photographed. The real estate site Zillow confirms that properties on Shaw street tend to sell for less than $100,000. Birds-eye views reveal simple rooflines and cramped yards. It is depressing to witness hard-working professional women like Sterling coming to this. 

Thankfully, if her poems are any indicator, Sterling was far from pitying herself. For example, in the same verse describing her dresses and house, she noted a maple tree in her yard that "wears hues of red, brown, and gold" that "crowns" her property (pg. 10). She also enjoyed daffodils, geraniums, nasturtiums, and other garden flowers (see "Flowers," pg. 10). Importantly, several poems indicate that Sterling believed in the power of individuals to make choices about their circumstances and perceptions. In "A Land," we see a person who yearns for a place "Where men are merciful,  love justice; where children may be safe." At the end, this speaker determines, "I must discover, nay, create this land" (my emphasis, pg. 22). Similarly, another poem describes a "Riotous World," a chaotic wartime place which is "full of terror and woe." The speaker reminds us, however, that though the world may remain "terrible," our own "horizon" can be made bearable. The answer is altruism -- comforting children, giving to people in need, praying, and "liv[ing] at peace" (pg. 26). 

Several of the poems describe a conscious turn away from both domesticity and also from political activism that Sterling tended to align with men. For example, in "Before" she cleverly juxtaposes the busy to-do lists of housewives and statesmen. The women feel they must dust, polish silver, do laundry, and conserve produce "before" they may go anywhere. Men, on the other hand, feel driven to make speeches and revise laws in the name of "progress." It seems that the housewife is only looking toward the end of a day; the politician, to the end of his term in office. Yet the speaker, who is thinking about the time she has left "before [her] last, long sleep," wants to correspond, laugh, show gratitude, and visit with friends (pg. 25). Similarly, in "A Psalm of Gratitude" she is most thankful for the "glow and fragrance" of fruit, for the "silvery water" and roar of oceans, for the "varied heritages" of people throughout the world, for a free United States, and for her ability to "work ... play ... speak ... and listen" (pg. 52). Despite whatever difficulties she may experience, the speaker seems grateful to live in the United States under any terms. For example, in the poem "Thoughts," she writes of composing a script for a weekly radio broadcast, while other women are only valued for their abilities in keeping house. Also, she is thankful she has the right to cast ballots in democratic elections, as opposed to people living in other nations whose elections are shams. She also notes her freedom to listen to the radio, whereas other people have been "shot when dials have twirled" (pg. 16).

Reading Alice Sterling's poems were good for my soul. During my sabbatical, I've encountered a lot of difficult circumstances, many of which I have yet to write about. She reminds me of John Milton's famous quotation, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven" (Paradise Lost)
Alice Sterling in later life. From Poems, 1971.

Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Buhl!

I climbed onto the bike, pedaled furiously for about 45 seconds, then sighed dejectedly.


If someone were to ask me if there is one thing that is uniformly poor at budget hotels, I would definitely say the "fitness centers." They may be wiped down on a daily basis like any other room in the house, but the machines are more likely than not to be broken. Unfortunately the Days Inn in Boardman, Ohio was no exception. The treadmill jerked and squealed with each of my steps. The previous runner's workout, which ended only 1 minute and 12 seconds after it had begun, was sad confirmation that the problem wasn't just mine. Likewise, the display on the stationary bike failed to light up no matter how hard I pedaled, and it had no power switch that I could find. Since I couldn't adjust the resistance, the machine offered absolutely no challenge. I was left spinning my wheels, literally.
I reluctantly debated whether to seek out a commercial gym. Several years ago, after I had gotten overcharged by L.A. Fitness, I resolved never to give my credit card number to a facility regardless of the staff's promises about the ease of canceling memberships. But I was desperate. As an overweight, middle-aged person who has an enthusiastic relationship with food, I didn't want to miss a day of exercise if I could help it.

Then I got a bright idea: why not try the Buhl? 

Right up the street from the Community Library of the Shenango Valley, one of my research sites, is the Buhl Community Recreation Center (BCRC). Founded in 1903, it is similar to a YMCA. It offers fitness programs, exercise equipment, a pool, and other facilities at affordable rates to the public. 
The Buhl Community Recreation Center, Sharon, PA. Founded 1903.
The BCRC was one of many gifts to the people of Sharon from F. H. and Julia Buhl. In the early 1800s, F. H. Buhl's grandfather settled in Zelienople, a town about 50 miles southeast of Sharon. His father, Christian Henry Buhl, moved on to Detroit and became the Motor City's first mayor. The elder Buhl owned an iron works in Sharon, and son Frank Henry (1848-1918) eventually became its owner.  F. H. Buhl, as he became known, also developed successful companies of his own, particularly in the steel industry.  His marriage to Julia Forker (1854-1936), who hailed from a prominent family in Mercer County, deepened his connections to the area. Selling his steel companies to Andrew Carnegie and U.S. Steel made him a very wealthy man. 

During their lives and after their deaths, the Buhls were Sharon's most generous philanthropists. Some projects, like Buhl Farm, a 300-acre public park with a casino, lake, and other facilities, were million-dollar undertakings. Others, like providing cod-liver oil for schools with sickly pupils, were modest. The local Episcopal church, the hospital, and various other organizations benefitted from the Buhls' interests (for more biographical information about F. H. and Julia Buhl, see Shirley Minshull and William C. Philson, "Frank Henry Buhl: A Very Brief Biography" [pamphlet], available at the Mercer County Historical Society. See also articles about F. H. Buhl in the Sharon Herald within the week following his decease on June 7, 1918). 

Decades after the Buhls' deaths, people continue to benefit from their philanthropy. Even out-of-towners like me! 

I pulled into the BCRC parking lot in my salt-smeared Ford, wearing ratty sweat pants and not holding out much hope. I wasn't a resident, so I didn't expect to be welcomed. Yet, as it turns out, anyone with a driver's license or other ID can purchase a day pass. For only $8 -- the price of a ticket to a crummy movie -- I spent more than 2 hours hoofing on an elliptical machine and hefting barbells. Although I had to wait several minutes before a cardio machine became available, I didn't mind very much. There were disabled, elderly, and youth athletes who needed their workouts as much as I needed mine. In fact, if I lived near Sharon, I would be more inclined to join the BCRC than Gold's or another commercial gym because the Buhl's clientele are everyday people like myself. Observing how busy the BCRC was on a nondescript Tuesday morning, as well as the diverse people using it, it is definitely doing something right in terms of serving a public need. 

Thank you, F. H. and Julia Buhl! 

Friday, March 7, 2014

A year in children's services: New Castle, 1911-1912

Sandra Collins, the Director of the New Castle Public Library, placed a stack of dusty ledgers on my table. "I'm not sure whether you are interested in any of these," she said, "but I figured I'd haul everything out." I set aside the trustee meeting minutes I was using and flipped through the first ledger. Daily circulation statistics from the 1950s and 1960s. Blah. "This is may be a little too granular for me," I said diplomatically, "but when I'm done with the board minutes, I'll take a closer look."

A few hours later, I returned to the ledgers. Within the pile was a battered volume. "Circulation 1911" was scrawled in black marker on the thin spine. The covers had been torn off of an elementary geography textbook and repurposed as a binder. "Junky," I thought. I nearly didn't open it. 

A battered mystery volume at
the New Castle (PA) Public Library
 Am I glad I did!

After the expected numerical data, I discovered a diary of a library employee who worked with New Castle's youth in 1911-1912. This was a special find, because that was the year NCPL hired its first children's specialist and began its outreach efforts to local schools and playgrounds. In fact, the very first entry read "Seperated [sic] fairy tales and books for little children to section by them selves. Miss Giele began her duties as children's librarian" (September 15, 1911).  

The diary illustrated the challenges of acculturating a community to public story hours. At the time, this activity was fairly new in some corners of Pennsylvania. Attendance was very low at first, and the writer complained "we cannot make the children understand that they are invited every week, they think their school must be specially notified to come" (October 14, 1911). It seems that books were a tough sell to some New Castle kids, because many days were "very dull" for library staff (for example, see September 16, 22, and 27, 1912). When asked whether she wanted a library card, one young visitor declined, saying "I'm not delighted in reading much" (September 25, 1911).

Yet the writer was not dispirited. She rationalized that even if only a few tykes attended library events, "there are always some who have never seen the library," so "the work is worthwhile after all" (October 7, 1911). She also took pride in a boy who "didn't like anything but Alger" at first, but was "coaxed to try a Barbour" and now "likes these kind of books best" (October 18, 1911). NCPL staff began visits to local schools and patronage increased. 

There was an ebb and flow to library work a century ago, as there is today. Sometimes, "rushes" taxed the staff to their utmost. On the other hand, slack times were used to catch up on book ordering or cataloging (for example, see April 1-6, 1912). Like myself, the diarist seemed to enjoy busy times the most. For instance, April 8, 1912 was a "splendid day" because of the "many questions asked and answered." I also identified with her difficulties in communicating with non-English speakers, a growing population at my campus. A century ago, Italians were emigrating to New Castle for jobs in mines, tin shops, and pottery factories, and their children came to its library. "We had hard work understanding each other," the staff wrote (April 20, 1912). Also no different than librarians of today, staff at NCPL had to cope with insufficient materials and poorly-equipped spaces. There were several mentions of "badly worn," "soiled," "shabby" books (September 19 and October 5,1912). One night, the library's electricity cut out, so the librarians lit candles (!!!) (May 8, 1912). 

As I paged through, I was delighted to read of kids' tender and quirky behaviors. For example, in springtime they came to the library "with hands full of violets" (May 2, 1912). Also noted was the "timid knock" of a little girl who asked "are there any Louise Alcott's in? [sic]" (May 4, 1912). Sometimes the scamps were a little less endearing, though. There were frequent comments about their poor hygiene: "Children are dirtier than ever. I wash four boys or rather superintend the washing" (May 27, 1912). Once, a local teacher reported a kid with a "case of itch" who had been out of school for 3 weeks but had been using the library. The books (s)he'd used had to be "fumigated with sulphur [sic]" (November 12, 1912). Also, some boys and girls had shocking tastes in reading. One asked for a book called "Seven Buckets of Blood" (May 27, 1912) while another wanted "a book where death occurs." "I like it where children die," she explained (November 20, 1912). 

Since it is unsigned, I am not 100% certain who wrote this fascinating account. I am fairly sure it was *not* Irene Hackett, the head librarian, Nora Giele, the children's librarian, or Edith Allen, a library assistant. Entries in the diary referred to each of these women in the third person. The fact that notes were made on a daily basis, and reflected day-long, semi-professional work, probably rule out part-time assistants and volunteers. Thus my best guess is Alice Sterling who was hired in November 1910 as an hourly evening assistant, and then was promoted in May 1911 to full-time work at a monthly salary. Notably, she was not mentioned by name in the diary. A gap in entries from late October 1911 to early April 1912 may have coincided with the term she spent at Pratt library school in New York. 

If Alice Sterling (1879-1970) was the author, the diary is also significant as documentation of the early career of one of Pennsylvania's most prominent librarians. Following the resignation of her superior in 1915, Sterling was appointed head librarian, a position she held until she retired in the late 1950s. Her enjoyment of writing, her anthropological interest in customer behavior, and her ability to precisely record their conversations -- as evident in the 1911/1912 diary entries discussed above  -- sharpened as the years passed. Among the libraries I have studied, I have found few if any that match the volume of press material that NCPL generated in the 1910s-1940s. Thousands of news clippings, all preserved within the library, include new book lists, statistical reports, and all kinds of announcements. Importantly, there are also a substantial number of subject bibliographies which chime in on topics then current in the news, as well as "human interest" stories illustrating the impact of the library on city residents. For all these and other efforts, Sterling rose within the ranks of the Pennsylvania Library Association, becoming its president in 1943. 

In other blog entries, I have pointed out the crucial roles serendipity and follow-through play in uncovering "gems" like this diary. Now in my 8th month of sabbatical, I sometimes feel worn, lazy, and too confident that I can pass over items that don't capture my attention at first glance. This episode is a refreshing reminder that every battered artifact has the potential to tell a wonderful story. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A railroad architect builds a library: E. Francis Baldwin and the Bosler Memorial Library of Carlisle

Three important take-away messages from my sabbatical project:

1). Libraries were present at all points in American history.
2). All points of American history were present in libraries.
3). If we study library history, we can learn new things about American history.

Here is a case in point. Last week, I was researching the Bosler Memorial Library in Carlisle (Cumberland County), when I learned that its architect was E. Francis Baldwin. The name sounded very familiar to me. Pulling out my iPhone, I confirmed that yes, he was an architect in Baltimore. When I worked at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I frequently walked by churches, homes, and other structures he had designed.

The Bosler Memorial Library, Carlisle, PA
Baldwin is best known a the architect of more than 50 stations of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, as well as dozens of churches and other structures for the Catholic Church. Michael Lewis explains that unlike some better-known designers of their day, Baldwin and most other Victorian architects did not develop "signature styles." Instead, they "felt their task was to serve their clients ably and responsibly, to translate their programmatic requirements in durable, efficient, and fashionable designs, and to guard their clients' money zealously." They "adjusted themselves to the ever-changing vagaries of fashion" and focused on "planning," "problem-solving," "money-saving," and "coordinating the frenzied activity of major building enterprises" instead of "cultivating an arresting signature" (see pg. xv in Carlos P. Avery's E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 2003).
Among more than 500 projects which Avery attributes to the architect, only 1 is a library and only 4 are in Pennsylvania. Thus the Bosler Library is rather unique within Baldwin's body of work. It isn't clear why the family chose him as their architect. Avery surmises that they met through the Fidelity Trust Company. Herman E. Bosler was a board member, and Baldwin had been the architect for the bank's new headquarters. Unfortunately, Bosler Library's board of trustees meeting minutes begin in 1901, after Herman had deceased and after the library was constructed. There are no pertinent correspondence files at either Bosler Library or the Cumberland County Historical Society, and Carlisle's newspapers aren't searchable via database or index. According to Avery, Baldwin was born to a Catholic family in Troy, New York, and was educated in Maryland. Thus there is no obvious social connection between Baldwin and the Bosler family (who were Presbyterians) or Carlisle. Perhaps readers of this blog can provide more clues!

I am no expert in architecture, but to me, the Bosler Library is fascinating from a stylistic point of view. The exterior, with its pediment, columns, and symmetry, seems to reference classical design. Yet, the stacks area -- which has been wonderfully preserved -- reminds me of "Stick" style. I believe the steep pitch of the roof, the wooden trusses, and the trefoil cut-outs point toward that type of design.

Looking at the space with an eye toward function, I can't help but wonder if  Baldwin consulted with contemporary library architects (such as Edward L. Tilton) or visited newly-built libraries before designing the Bosler.

The original layout strikes me as similar to designs advocated by the Carnegie Corporation. After walking through the library's front entrance and vestibule, one would have passed the librarian's office and a reading area on either side before approaching the "delivery desk" at the back. Yet, the Bosler Library departs from other examples in terms of storage space for books. At the time, closed-stack libraries tended to pack the greatest number of volumes into the smallest possible space, thus allowing more square footage for public uses. Given the choice of whether or not to have one or several floors of stacks, libraries were quick to install electricity or glass flooring rather limiting themselves to a single tier.  However, in Baldwin's plan the second story is mostly open air -- unusable space. The beautiful stained glass window at the back, a memorial to a daughter of Herman E. Bosler, lends to the impression that the he never envisioned the need to add more floor space or shelves.

Thus the Bosler provides several thought-provoking springboards. One can consider the complexity of social networks -- how a Catholic employed by a Baltimore railroad came to design a library building for a Protestant family in a small Pennsylvania city. One can also ponder the various architectural styles in evidence and debate whether the Bosler Library represents an "eclectic" approach or rather some kind of transition between styles. One may also critique the building from a functional perspective, taking into consideration the ongoing conversations that were occurring among librarians and within other professions about efficient workplace design.

Yes, the Bosler is indeed a "gem" for American and library historians!


Pennsylvania through the windshield

Soon after we graduated, two of my college friends had an epiphany. They quit decent jobs at a regional bank, piled guitars and other belongings into a beat-up Ford Ranger, and decided to make some kind of living as musicians. One time, I ran into them at an Irish pub in Washington, D.C. After we'd chatted late into the night, I wistfully asked why they didn't book many gigs in Pennsylvania, compared to Delmarva and New York State. 

"PA is one of those places we just drive through," they said. 

I think of them whenever I am on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as I was on Sunday. Even after living in the Keystone State for 10 years, I don't feel completely at home here. And no place alienates me more than that particular stretch of highway which cuts through the Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny Mountains between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

As the miles roll by, I try to focus on the hilly and jagged contours of the land, as well as the undulating valleys below. This time of year, with the trees bare and snow dusting the ground, geographic features are easier to discern. I cannot accurately describe the different layers of rock that slope upwards from either side of the road. But I am filled with wonder at the natural powers that created and eroded them, as well as the indefatigable human effort it took to blast roads through. Near mile 194, between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora tunnels, is a small, well-kept group of buildings with green roofs and white clapboard siding. The people who established this farm more than a century ago, in the shadows of mountains, no doubt felt isolated at times. Yet they remained, as do their successors. Very independent and self-sufficient people they must be, to make a life here. About a hundred miles later, as I speed under the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail overpass, I muse what it could be like to trudge across Pennsylvania -- to be able to say that I, too, braved all kinds of weather, terrain, and circumstances, and made do with whatever I carried on my back.

Westbound on the Pennsylvania Turnpike
Between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, there seem to be few "brown signs" pointing to museums and other community attractions. If billboards are any indicator, one might conclude that local pastimes consist of watching the Penguins or Steelers (mile 161) while chugging Labatt Blue (mile 62). But the place isn't entirely off-putting to the those of us with different interests. Near mile marker 209, the warm smile of Fred Rogers beckons "won't you be my neighbor," as the sign's sponsor, the Foundation for a Better Life, asks drive-bys to "pass on" the value of friendship. About 60 miles from the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, there is an ad for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "4,000 Clubs, 4,000,000 Futures," it says.

Yet I am all too frequently confronted by advertisements of a world that I do not understand, and of which I want little part. Far more common than the inclusiveness suggested by Mr. Rogers or the Boys and Girls Clubs are signs of the region's conservative religious and economic perspectives. For instance, 20 minutes after getting on the turnpike, a sign prompts me to question "Who Rules Life? Jesus Christ or Self?" Near mile marker 189 I am told that the Holy Bible is "Inspired. Absolute. Final." About 100 miles west, another billboard warns that "Jesus said, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Although I consider myself a Christian, the either/or answers, the "finality" of the Bible's authority, and the closing of Heaven's gates to all but a few -- these are all insulting to my intellect and chilling to my heart. 

At mile marker 127, the Chesapeake Bay Commission informs me that I am leaving the Chesapeake Watershed and thanks me for "protecting our waterways." Hurtling by, I nod in agreement with the implication that my activities in the mountains have direct impacts downstream. Yet the Commission's solitary billboard is drowned out by dozens of others that promote the region's extractive industries. I am not sure what to make of a sign which reads "Your Tax Dollars Subsidize Wind Energy," but given the area's Teapublican politics, I imagine most residents do not applaud federal or state investment in green energy. For a group called Vision4PA, anyone's environmental concerns can be resolved with simple math: its signage at mile marker 131 reads "PA Coal + PA Gas = PA Jobs," which "Power the Economy." About fifteen miles west, another billboard contrasts a glowing city skyline "with coal," versus darkness "without coal." It smugly challenges drivers to "get the facts." Some journalists have called this area of Pennsylvania an environmental "battleground" since coal, gas, and wind energy are in production simultaneously.  But viewing the one-sided ads, I question whether there is truly a contest in the public mind, and if so, how long it will last. 

Encountering so many billboards that conflict with my personal values, it is easy to slip into negative readings of other types of signage. I find myself ruminating perhaps too intensely over signs posted by the Allied Milk Producers Cooperative ("Milk -- It Keeps Your Body in Tune," mile 172), Cove Creek Outfitters ("Guns Optics Apparel," miles 178, 172, and 165), and other organizations. Although I consume dairy in nearly all its forms and I enjoy hiking immensely, my mind fills flashbacks of PETA videos on factory farming and images of camouflaged gun-nuts blasting away at deer, squirrels, turkeys, and other woodland animals.

I take a long swig from the bottled water in my cup holder, crick my neck, and roll down the window to breathe some fresh air. I remind myself yet again not to allow windshield views to harden into prejudices. Pennsylvania has been very good to me, especially in terms of offering me a generous salary and a relatively low cost of living. Through my sabbatical project, I have met numerous colleagues that I have come to admire -- even some that I would call friends. As I tap my brakes at exit 18, the New Castle off-ramp, I tell myself that this is a new place and these new people deserve my open mind.