Saturday, April 19, 2014

Keeping the service in and the red tape out: the Allentown Free Library and Camp Crane during World War I

Earlier this week, I thundered east on Route 78 toward Allentown.

I was on a mission:

Find out about Isabel Turner and the library at Camp Crane

Several years earlier, I was retrieving an article in the Bulletin of the American Library Association when I stumbled upon a "Library War Service Directory" (see November 1918 issue, pg. 494). I instantly realized it was valuable documentation of libraries during World War I. So I made a hasty photocopy and jammed it into my bulging office file cabinet. Then, last year, when I was preparing for sabbatical, I shimmied the list out of its folder to check if there were any listings in Pennsylvania. 

As it turned out, there were relatively few camp libraries here, as compared to California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. Franklin H. Price of the Free Library of Philadelphia was the contact for the Library War Service's dispatch office in Philadelphia. He also provided books to the Frankford Arsenal, various naval installations, and the United Service Club. Robert H. Bliss, an employee of the State Library of Pennsylvania who sent traveling libraries to rural communities, was servicing the middle of the state -- the Army Reserve depot in Cumberland, a recruiting station in Harrisburg, the Quartermaster depot in Marsh Run, and the aviation and general supply depot in Middletown. He also assisted military hospitals in Gettysburg and Markleton. It seems books were also provided at the military hospital in Carlisle and at an undescribed site in Tyrone, but no further information about these locations appeared in the directory. One more military library, at Camp Crane in Allentown, was being served by Isabel Turner. I recognized her as the head of the local public library. 

Price's role did not surprise me. He was an ambitious man who would become the director of the Free Library of Philadelphia (1932-1951) and president of the Pennsylvania Library Association (1944). Also, FLP was Pennsylvania's largest public library with dozens of branches. So, serving additional sites would not have been a "stretch." Likewise, Bliss's service to the military could be seen as a natural outgrowth of his work as a library organizer for under-served populations. Yet unlike FLP and the State Library, Allentown Free Library (AFL) was only a few years old, struggling to fulfill the needs of a city of 70,000 residents with barely more than an $8000 appropriation from the local school district. What motivated Turner to help? Was there a particular reason why Camp Crane needed reading material? Given limited resources, how did she pull it off?

Turner, who had become head librarian in 1915, pioneered many of AFL's outreach efforts. She purchased foreign language books, inaugurated library service to Allentown schools, sent a "loan collection" to employees of the Consolidated Telephone Company, and advertised the library's collection through window displays at Cut Rate Drug and Dietrich's Ice Cream Parlor.  To her, the military camp was "a new opportunity for the library to extend its usefulness." To her knowledge, establishing an outreach effort there would have been one of the first of its kind in the country (for Turner's early outreach activities, see AFL 1916-1917 Monthly Reports; AFL 1915/1916, 1916/1917, and 1917/1918 Annual Reports; and undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents). 

AFL, like many institutions of the time, contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. It collected 1500 books and more than $1100 toward the American Library Association's Library War Service. At Mayor Alfred L. Reichenbach's request, the library also served as a site for registering soldiers and female volunteers. In addition, AFL sold thrift and war savings stamps. It also displayed government information about employment opportunities, food conservation, and gardening (see AFL 1917/1918 Annual Report; and AFL May-June 1917, November 1917, January 1918, March-April 1918, and June 1918 Monthly Reports).

Sorting through minute books, reports, and correspondence, I uncovered a fascinating story that went above and beyond such common activities. Within a few weeks of the United States' formal entry into the war, an Ambulance Service Camp was established at the Allentown Fairgrounds. Because these particular recruits were training to provide health care, quite a few were well-educated. They had come from colleges and large cities all over the country and yearned for the reading material previously available to them. According to Turner, the first soldier to apply for an AFL borrower's card was a "Harvard boy," still in civilian clothes, who wanted a book of modern poetry. After consulting with the library's trustees, Turner suspended the usual fees and registration procedures for out-of-towners. Soon, AFL was "besieged by requests for books." On at least one rainy day, the library was "overflowing with dripping soldiers" occupying every available seat, leaning against walls, even sitting on the floor. Buying dozens of folding chairs scarcely alleviated the situation. The library cancelled Saturday story times for children because of the lack of space. Regardless of weather, 50-150 men used AFL's reading room daily and it was not uncommon to see them "sitting on the steps leading to the second and third floors." As one soldier put it, AFL was "the only place in the city where a fellow could go without it costing him something" (see AFL June, September, and October 1917 Monthly Reports, and undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents).

Since serving soldiers within the library was becoming untenable, Turner seized the opportunity to help them directly at the camp. In the summer of 1917 she collaborated with Mayor Reichenbach and the Y.M.C.A. to collect about 125 books and periodicals for the Y's tent. Inside, the book "deposit station" was periodically restocked with fresh literature handpicked from APL's shelves. Her motto was to "keep the service in it and the red tape out of it,"

By November 1917, AFL and Camp Crane had the good fortune of a former New York Public Library employee, Ralph Cossage, as one of the soldiers in the barracks. Also around this time, the Y.M.C.A. moved from its tent to a wooden building. A more secure space encouraged the camp library's growth. AFL obtained 500 volumes from nearby libraries in Bethlehem and Easton, as well as additional books and magazines from the State Library of Pennsylvania. The local library functioned as the "collecting agent" for incoming donations. It accessioned, cataloged, and prepared each item for use, though processing was minimal in order to get books into soldiers' hands more quickly. Soon the collection expanded to 4500 volumes through contributions from ALA's Books for Soldiers campaign. When these resources weren't sufficient, AFL filled soldiers' title requests from its own shelves and through interlibrary loan. The men simply placed slips in a "Books Wanted" box at the camp desk. It appears that there was some attempt to make the library inviting to the men. Photos available at the Lehigh County Heritage Center show that the Camp Crane library had various pictures on its walls, at least one potted plant, a mailbox for sending letters home, and rocking chairs encircling a large stove. Unfortunately, I am prohibited from including LCHC images in this blog (see AFL July 1917, November 1917, and May 1918 Monthly Reports; undated typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents; and LCHC photo collection, items PST USAAC CC 1-15).

Turner noted that the soldiers' reading interests were eclectic, ranging from European fiction and language books, to technical works that would enable them to resume employment in the private sector when the war was over. Although Turner constantly felt pressed to meet their needs, the men were highly appreciative. Particularly during epidemics when Camp Crane was placed under quarantine, conditions would have been "well-nigh intolerable" without AFL and the on-base library it supported. Within a year of helping its first recruit, Turner and her staff had provided borrower cards to about 1030 soldiers and placed 4500 volumes in the camp library. During the war, AFL's circulation jumped 33% (see AFL May 1918 Monthly Report; AFL 1917/1918 Annual Report; and typescript, AFL Miscellaneous Documents).

Although AFL was providing a useful service, it inevitably ceased after the war's close. Allentown's pioneering camp library was "broken up" in February 1919. Thirteen cases of books -- about 3000 volumes -- were shipped to the American Library Association for dispatch to overseas installations. Yet even at the end, Turner reinvested the camp library's resources for local soldiers' benefit. She used the final pennies of their overdue fine account to purchase 2 large flags and a "welcome home" banner "to participate a little in the parades to our home coming boys" (AFL May 1919 Monthly Report). 

Allentown Public Library's camp library is a great illustration of the many, but heretofore unsung, contributions Pennsylvania has made to both American history and library history. As Turner said, the Camp Crane library was "only a little 'bit' compared to the magnificent war work so many women are doing, but it is *our* 'bit,' *our* job at hand, and *our* opportunity for service." 

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