Saturday, April 5, 2014

Acquiring books and people

When you arrive unannounced at 3:15 on a Thursday afternoon, you never know what kind of reception you'll get. This is especially true when you ask to see a library's historical records. Even though Pennsylvania libraries receive government funding, there is apparently no state "sunshine law" that requires them to allow the public to view annual reports, board minutes, and such. A related challenge is that many libraries do not gather and preserve their own historic documents. The past is often shoved into rusty cabinets and forgotten. Staff are unsure where "the old stuff is" and have to "go looking for it."  If the library's director isn't available, employees may get squeamish about rooting around administrative offices and other non-public areas.

So I took a deep breath as I entered the Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls (CLBF). I approached a kind-looking woman who was checking out the latest bestseller to one of the adults in line. I didn't know her, but since everyone else seemed to turn to her for answers, I did too. "I have what probably seems like a weird question," I began. "My name is Bernadette Lear and I'm working on a statewide project. I'm researching the history of public libraries in Pennsylvania. I know it's late in the day and I didn't make an appointment. But I just finished up another site and I have a couple of days I could spend here ..."

The woman's nod of recognition and her welcoming smile made me pause. "Yes, I know you -- well, I've read about your blog," she said. "I'm Jean Barsotti, the director here. Give me a minute to finish helping these patrons. Then I'll take you back to my office." 

Boo-yah! I got lucky! Within 15 minutes, I was elbow-deep in board minutes, librarian's reports, and scrapbooks. 

Beaver Falls turned out to be what I call an "amplifying" site. Since I have already visited more than 20 other libraries, CLBF's records didn't provide a new perspective for me. However, they were extremely helpful for confirming trends that I have previously observed. For example, the Beaver Falls Library Association began as a subscription institution, as many Pennsylvania libraries did. From its founding in 1885 until the turn of the century, it shuffled along on donations, the proceedings of public lectures, and other fundraisers. When the board decided to pursue a building grant from Andrew Carnegie, it considered various sources for the annual "maintenance" funding that the donor required. Ultimately, the trustees obtained a yearly appropriation from the local school board. Due to close ties with the education system, CLBF naturally reached out to teachers. For example, it offered a stereopticon slide collection -- images of animals, botanic specimens, historical events, and other curricular topics. I will certainly use examples from Beaver Falls to help illustrate my argument about how funding sources shaped the types of services public libraries offered. 

Along the way, I found an unrelated, but very thought-provoking item -- an old "accession book." I don't believe I have ever described one of these in this blog, so perhaps readers would be interested in seeing it.

Accession book, Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls
Before computer software for acquisitions and cataloging was available, companies such as the Library Bureau specialized in office supplies designed for library work. Staff used customized ledgers like this one to record the title, author, publisher, price, physical description, source, and classification of each incoming item.  Since the CLBF accession book begins in May 1903, I cannot be certain that it lists the "first" books the library owned. After all, the Beaver Falls Library Association had existed since 1885. Nonetheless, the ledger begins at an important juncture in the library's history. According to board minutes, the association hired a librarian, Miriam Morse, in the fall of 1902, and then the Carnegie building opened in the summer of 1903 (see minutes, October 16 and 23, 1902, and librarian's report, 1903/1904). So, if nothing else, the accession book probably documents the first materials that were handled in a professional manner. 

Examining the first 100 titles, some American authors are immediately recognizable -- Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain. There are also classic foreign writers, including the Brothers Grimm, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling. At the same time, there are authors who were more popular in their day than our own. When I Googled G. A. Henty, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, and Susan Warner, it was fun to learn that a career-minded woman, an evangelist, and a xenophobe mingled with each other on CLBF's shelves. I'll let my readers figure out who's who! 

Being a former English major, I suppose I should have spent hours enthralled with the hodgepodge of titles. But my eyes were drawn to the ledger's far right columns which record the demise of each volume. Most became "w. o." (worn out) and were discarded. Unsurprisingly, children's books like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea didn't even last a decade. On the other hand, C. Detlef's Russian Country House stayed on-shelf until 1960. For reasons I cannot determine, CLBF staff may have preferred to repair books at the end of the month. Quite a few which indicate "reb." (rebound) include repair dates which fall within in the last week of the month. Another mystery was titles marked "l. n. p. f.."  I scratched my head over that one for several days. Luckily, my cataloger-husband glanced over my shoulder and muttered, "lost, not paid for."

Leaning back from this interesting artifact, I marvel at yesteryear librarians' attention to details. It must have required especially conscientious people to remove books from the shelves, stamp them as discarded, tear up multiple catalog cards, and also to find and amend each listing in old accession ledgers. I suppose today's librarians do their work with similar thoroughness, but the task is made much easier with online catalogs that can be edited with a few keystrokes.

Ironically, it seems that public libraries have maintained more information about the lives of their books than the lives of the people who did the ordering and cataloging. For example, within CLBF's scrapbooks were precious few photographs of library employees, among them Elsie Rayle (hired as an assistant in 1911, then head librarian from 1918 through at least the 1940s) and Rose Demorest (children's librarian during World War I). One beautiful woman's photograph is unlabeled -- was she Hazel Clifton, librarian from 1903 to 1918? Or perhaps Elizabeth Seanor, a library assistant who served from 1919 through the late 1930s? Maybe she is not a library employee at all -- could she be a trustee, a trustee's wife, or a library advocate? What became of her?

An unknown woman pictured in a scrapbook
of the Carnegie Library of Beaver Falls
I am not singling out CLBF with these critical statements. Over the years, I have encountered many libraries that have saved accession ledgers, but do not have biographies of staff. Even the most lovingly-prepared scrapbooks seldom picture library workers, much less reveal their full names and positions. Almost no-one ever pulls out scrapbooks decades after the fact to add women's married names or death dates. This is very unfortunate, because people are the most important assets that libraries "acquire." One of my colleagues often says, "libraries are too much about the things. It is all about the things." Although I tend to disagree with her, accession books make me wonder if she's right.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this site, it is very informative for the business personals.Keep on continuing with this.Also visit my site Merchandise liquidators We offer a wide selection of brand name items from major department stores and much more. If you can't find what you are looking for listed than feel free to contact us.