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.

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