Saturday, April 26, 2014

In search of Pennsylvania's first county bookmobile

Earlier this week, I noticed the frequent change in pitch and volume as my compact car's engine growled up and down the "Endless Mountains" of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I was already aware that Susquehanna County Historical Society and Free Library (SCHS&FL) had established one of, if not *the* first county bookmobile services in our state. But I gained new respect as my chassis thumped over innumerable potholes left by frackers' trucks and a frigid, long winter. My eyes drifted over the forested and rocky terrain. It offered few amenities for distressed travelers. Female bookmobilers of the 1920s rumbling over dirt roads were intrepid people. 

In the early-mid 20th century, Susquehanna County was well-known in library circles for its efforts to provide reading material to all its residents. SCHS&FL had begun as a historical society in 1890 with a mission to collect relics and encourage research on local events and people. Like most Pennsylvania historical organizations, it was headquarters at the county seat (Montrose) but had a wider geographical perspective. Local circumstances encouraged a broader purpose, as well. A gift  from the Boyd estate -- to be shared by the historical society, a library, and the Y.M.C.A. -- prompted the historical society to consider adding library work to its efforts (SCHS meeting minutes, January 19, 1901). The library role was officially adopted in 1902-1903, after Roger Searles, a library advocate who chaired SCHS's building committee, visited Wilkes-Barre and noticed the close proximity of its historical society and free library. He and school superintendent Benton E. James were determined that SCHS expand its mission. After quite a bit of debate, members voted to change the society's name (SCHS meeting minutes, February 1, 1902 and January 17, 1903). By the time members of the Cope family stepped forward to donate a building, the free library was an important element, if not the major focus, of the society's work. Francis R. Cope, a representative of the family who would become a long-serving member of SCHS&FL's board of trustees, lived in Dimock, several miles south of Montrose, rather than in the town proper. Thus it is no surprise that the library retained the countywide approach of the historical society. 

Starting in 1907, SCHS&FL sent "traveling libraries" (preselected crates of 40-50 books) to Susquehanna County communities that requested them. By the mid-1920s, SCHS&FL was delivering more than 100 traveling libraries to schools and other locations (SCHS&FL annual meeting proceedings, 1926). Because of these innovative efforts, the State Library of Pennsylvania recognized Susquehanna County as the "first county library extension system to be established in the state" (SCHS&FL 1913 annual meeting proceedings). 

Currently, I do not know how and when the board of trustees first learned about bookmobile services. Within the library's historical records is a copy of Mary Holland Burchenal's The Story of a Book Wagon, an undated booklet written around 1915 which describes the Delaware State Library Commission's efforts. The seed was planted in Susquehanna County no later than 1917, however, for the report of SCHS&FL's activities for that year stated that "some officers have a vision which is as yet, alas only a vision. It is of a book wagon, which shall take books to the very door of the farm houses on highways and by-ways all through the country" (SCHS&FL 1918 annual meeting proceedings). 

In the fall of 1923, Francis R. Cope wrote to Anna A. MacDonald, consulting librarian within the Library Extension Division of the SLP. It appears that she helped Cope find an experienced librarian to organize Susquehanna County's bookmobile service. The woman MacDonald recommended, Beulah K. Eyerly, was employed under Mary Titcomb at the Hagerstown (MD) Public Library. Hagerstown had pioneered book wagon service to surrounding Washington County in the early 1900s. Thus Eyerly was well-prepared for her work in Pennsylvania (see SCHS collection #1373, Cope Papers, letter from MacDonald to Cope, November 8, 1923). MacDonald also traveled to Montrose in late November 1923 to provide further advice and motivation to the trustees. By May 1924, a truck was on order and 2 drivers, "Miss Cruser and Mr. Hart," had been secured for 15 cents an hour (SCHS&FL board meeting minutes, November 27, 1923 and May 8, 1924). 

Eyerly mapped out 19 routes and made her first trip on June 11, 1924. In the first 5 months, the book wagon reached 799 people who borrowed 3826 items. The truck also made appearances at several fairs and picnics to promote the library's services (SCHS&FL annual proceedings, 1926).

SCHS&FL employees Beulah K. Eyerly, Fannie Bunnell,
and the library's first bookmobile, 1924.
Image courtesy of SCHS&FL
A fascinating article by Eyerly in the February 1925 issue of Pennsylvania Grange News documents the exhausting but rewarding enterprise of being a bookmobile librarian in the mid-1920s. The truck was mainly stocked with fiction, but also contained informational works on nature study, agriculture, gardening, housekeeping, and other practical topics. When rural children spied a cloud of dust rising down the road, they ran into their homes to grab any volumes they needed to return. Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, adventure stories, "Indian stories," and works by Thornton Burgess were particular favorites (see Eyerly, "Susquehanna County Book Car is Popular in Rural Districts," Pennsylvania Grange News, February 1925, pg. 4-5). According to SCHS&FL's 1925 annual meeting proceedings, the bookmobile also supported the efforts of the county Red Cross by offering material on "sex eugenics, marriage, prenatal care, nourishment, hygiene, and sanitation" (see pg. 4). 

Adequate financial support was always a challenge. The first year, Francis R. Cope paid the bookmobile librarian's salary out of his own pocket. From 1925 to 1931, he continued to make up the deficit in the bookmobile's operating expenses to the tune of $375-$800 per year. However, this was not merely a pet-project. Reverend Ralph A. Weatherly, a board member who oversaw the library's operations, vigorous defended it against critics who believed that a trained librarian and a chauffeur was unnecessary expenses. "Let any farmer's wife or flapper drive a hundred miles a day and make a regular thing of it ..." he wrote. Weatherly viewed those who believed that the library only benefitted Montrose were "sapheads" and noted "the word saphead is a mild term used with discrimination" (SCHS&FL 1926 annual meeting proceedings, pg. 3-4). 

Luckily, Susquehanna County residents answered the call for additional funds. SCHS&FL received periodic grants from the county grange, whose members (farmers) would directly benefit from rural outreach. The grange's support was greatest in the early years, when it sometimes gave as much as $200. Schools also raised funds for the bookmobile, especially during the 1920s when their total contributions amounted to hundreds of dollars per year. Such support was crucial before 1927, when Susquehanna County commissioners made their first appropriation, and 1931, when the State of Pennsylvania started to provide matching funds (see "Book Truck Data," a compilation of statistics gleaned from SCHS&FL's annual meeting proceedings and board minutes, in "bookmobile" folder in the library administrator's office). In the early 1940s, the Men's Community Club, led by George Little, successfully raised funds for a new vehicle. 

What staggers me, though, is the number of individual families SCHS&FL's book truck visited. In 1924, it stopped at 1262 homes, in addition to schools and other points. By the 1930s, it was traveling 3000-4000 miles annually. This amount of personal contact could only be sustained by library workers thoroughly committed to the effort. As Anna L. Smith, who staffed the bookmobile in the late 1920s wrote, "I have always felt a burning indignation that the boys and girls of the rural districts have not the educational advantages that the city children enjoy" (SCHS&FL 1928 annual meeting proceedings, pg. 3).

The SCHS&FL's bookmobile visits a school in Ararat, 1924.
Image courtesy of SCHS&FL
The proceedings of SCHS&FL's annual meetings are a rich source of first-hand accounts, as they customarily contained reports authored by the library's "county workers." Their writings are more detailed and personal than a library director could have composed. For example, Catherine Sampson found that bookmobile work changed some of her preconceived ideas. She learned that "health, tact, and an understanding of people" -- and not necessarily literary knowledge -- were "near the top of the list" of her job requirements." Her "firm conviction" that all books should have "literary, educational, or inspirational value" melted before desperate neighbors who needed "diversion" from the "enforced leisure" of the Great Depression (SCHS&FL 1933 annual meeting proceedings, pgs. 3-4).

Vivian Place, bookmobile librarian during the 1930s and early 1940s, also had surprising encounters along her route. One day, a "roughly-dressed" farmer "pounced" on books about chemistry and medieval history. When told that the service was free but that the library gladly accepted donations, he gave Place 50 cents (SCHS&FL 1936 annual meeting proceedings). As she gained more experience, Place mastered the art of anticipating the difficulties of travel on dirt roads, as well as the diversity of her customers' needs. Since she often didn't return to Montrose until after dark, she spent about an hour in the morning tallying the previous day's statistics and removing books that needed mending. She then ensured that the truck was "gassed" and that "oil, water, battery, and air" were checked. Place stocked the bookmobile for 3 days' work, typically keeping materials for farm visits and school sites on different shelves. Frequently, she had to drive for an hour before reaching her first stop. Being the only visitor that some families received for weeks at a time, "conversation" was a "commodity most desired" and it wasn't uncommon for people to show her bushels of produce, sewing projects, and other accomplishments. Neva Parlette, a schoolteacher who accompanied Place during the summer of 1943, noted the appreciation and generosity of rural people. One woman regularly emptied the contents of her coin bank into the librarian's hands. Other families set aside magazines to donate (SCHS&FL 1940 annual proceedings, pgs. 6-7; 1941 annual proceedings, pgs. 6-7; and 1944 annual proceedings, pgs. 7-8). 

Given Susquehanna County residents' obvious desire for books, it was tragic for me to read that service was suspended from 1945 to 1951. On June 25, 1945, the vehicle was involved in a serious accident (SCHS&FL 1946 annual meeting proceedings). Wartime shortages and postwar inflation made it difficult to replace. Fortunately, the bookmobile resumed in 1951 and a van continues to deliver reading materials to county residents today. 

I have been asked whether Susquehanna County had the first bookmobile in Pennsylvania. Knowing the long history, large number (67 counties!), confusing legislation, and organizational complexity of libraries in our state, I shy away from crowning anyone as the "first" to do anything. Lending libraries have existed in Pennsylvania since Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, yet the state government had no mandate for encouraging public library development until the late 1890s, when the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission was established. This, plus the fact that I have been unable to locate PFLC's/SLP's archives, means that it is difficult to find authoritative reports that survey a particular activity across the entire state, much less describe its history.

These disclaimers made, at this point I believe that SCHS&FL was the first to provide countywide bookmobile service. To me, the key elements of the question are 1) when did the library use a wagon or truck to present residents with a collection of books, 2) when did the bookmobile reach residents beyond a city's geographic borders with the goal of serving people throughout the county, and 3) when did such service become "regular" -- including an established schedule of routes visited repeatedly over the course of months and years (in other words, more than an "experiment" or publicity stunt)? By these definitions, Susquehanna County is the earliest I know of.

Yet, as I've explained to many publicity-minded administrators over the years, it is possible for 2 or more libraries to claim that they were "first" in something and for each to be correct in different ways, especially depending on how their claims are worded or interpreted. For example, it is worth considering whether Philadelphia, which comprises both a city and county, may have been the first to attempt countywide service (without a bookmobile) when it built Carnegie-funded branches throughout the city in the early 1900s. Here is another perspective: among the 30 institutions I have researched to date, Erie, in 1919, was the first to purchase a vehicle for library outreach services. However, the truck circulated books to Erie schools, not to county residents. To Harrisburg Public Library/Dauphin County may go the laurel of being the earliest government-funded county bookmobile service. Although it began its rounds in December 1925, a full year and a half after Susquehanna County, SCHS&FL did not receive county appropriations for its bookmobile until 1927. According to a 1941 study by the Pennsylvania Library Association, 11 counties were operating countywide bookmobile services at that point: Chester, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Dauphin, Huntingdon, Indiana, Lancaster, Lycoming, Monroe, and Susquehanna. Although most of these were inaugurated in the late 1930s or early 1940s, I don't doubt that researchers will identify "firsts" of this or that type among them (Frances K. Reed, "Pennsylvania Bookmobiles," Pennsylvania Library Association, County Library Section, October 10, 1941. Copies available at the PaLA archives and SCHS&FL). 

Today as I weaved around jagged potholes on Interstate 81 South, I came to the conclusion that whoever was (or wasn't) first seems immaterial given the challenges everyone faced, and the perseverance they showed. 

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