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. 

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