Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The human side of May Virginia Kunz Valencik

She was described as "half cyclone and half woman" who "thrive[d] on opposition and [swept] it up like a vacuum cleaner."

She didn't mind pushing a lawnmower because it was "good for the waistline." Handwashing dishes was a pleasure because her kitchen window looked out over South Mountain.

Her neighbors knew her as "the lady with the dachshund" who wrapped her head in a babushka at the crack of dawn to walk her dog before she went to work.

When she traveled to Harrisburg, she wore particular millinery "in the belief that if the legislators didn't remember her face, they would never forget her hat."*

And when Allentown soldiers returned from World War II, she sent each one a "welcome home" letter.

Her name was May Virginia Kunz Valencik and she was the "chief librarian" of the Allentown Public Library (APL) from 1942 to 1963.

I had known of Valencik long before I visited Allentown this month. From the 1920s through the 1940s, dozens of younger women like her replaced "pioneers" who had opened many of Pennsylvania's public libraries during the 1890s-1910s. Typically, the newer generation was more formally-educated and brought additional knowledge of business management and public relations to their positions. For her part, Valencik had a love of quiz-shows, trivia, and other question-and-answer games. She graduated from New Jersey College of Women (now the Douglass College of Rutgers University) in 1931. Over the years, she attended postgraduate courses at Columbia, Cornell, the New York School of Social Research, and the University of Chicago. After working for several years at the Passaic Public Library, Valencik was the senior circulation and reference assistant at Utica Public Library. Then, during the 1930s, she directed the WPA's statewide library projects in Kentucky, including the famous "packhorse librarian" program. After her move to Allentown, Valencik was highly active in the Pennsylvania Library Association. She served as PaLA president in 1951 (see "Library Board Meets, Choose May V. Kunz New Chief Librarian," June 17, 1942; "The Other Fellow's Job," Allentown Chronicle, August 29, 1942; and Valencik's obituary, Allentown Morning Call, June 14, 1988).

The (old) Allentown Public Library and May Valencik.
Images courtesy of APL.
As I entered APL, I anticipated I would find evidence of Valencik's innovations. I wasn't disappointed. Within two years of her hire, APL opened a "young people's section" (young adult department). Valencik also closed a branch that wasn't well-patronized. She studied hundreds of unfulfilled customer requests and argued for a larger book budget. In November 1942, she collaborated with Community Book Associates to produce an authors dinner in the ballroom of the Americus Hotel. The following year, she co-organized an auction that raised more than $800,000 in bonds for the war effort. She also began to advocate bookmobile service to outlying neighborhoods of the city (APL 1942/1943 and 1943/1944 annual reports).

This said, I became fascinated with what I would call the "human side" of Valencik's story. Ordinarily, it is difficult to learn about librarians' off-desk personalities and their lives outside of work. In Valencik's case, though, available documents reveal much about her character. For example, the board of trustees meeting minutes illustrate Valencik's advocacy for her staff. During her first month at APL, she "interviewed" each employee in order to understand everyone's "educational background, experience, preferences, and personalities." Based on these conversations, she informed the board that they were going to begin a revolving schedule of weekend desk coverage and re-registration of all library borrowers as her colleagues requested. Valencik also worked various service desks during rush hours to assist her employees (APL September 1942 librarian's report). Several years later, when the new children's librarian was criticized for prioritizing kids over parents, teachers, and other adults, Valencik stood behind the decision, voicing her belief in "equal service for all" and her determination that young people should not be treated as a "side issue" in the very department designed to help them (APL November 1945 librarian's report). Valencik's concern for coworkers extended beyond the library's walls, too. In her September 1944 report to trustees, she asked to enroll the staff in the American Library Association's retirement plan -- an important lifeline for elderly employees. As far as I can tell, APL's board acceded to all these plans. 

To me, the most poignant entry in the board minutes is January 3, 1944. In her report for that month, Valencik asked the trustees whether they might begin their meetings with silent prayer "to ask God to guide our deliberations, to ask his blessing on the library, to guide its work and development, to be with the staff, and, if you will, to show this librarian the path and policies best suited to the service the library should render in Allentown." I found no evidence that the trustees honored her request. Perhaps most librarians today would support board's (in)action on this point. But the context and urgency of Valencik's words seemed understandable when I found an April 14, 1944 article in the Allentown Morning Call. May Kunz had married later in life, just before her boyfriend, Technical Sergeant Gus Valencik, was shipped overseas. In other words, she was a World War II bride. In November 1943, less than a year after her wedding, she received a telegram that her husband was missing in action. Finally, in April 1944, she learned that he had been killed in Italy the previous September. Thus, when she asked the library trustees for their prayers, she didn't know whether her husband was alive or dead. Or, perhaps in her heart of hearts, she did know his fate ("Husband of Head Librarian Here Killed in Action," Allentown Morning Call, April 14, 1944). Reflecting on this tragic aspect of her life, I am all the more amazed at her professional leadership. 

It is easy to develop hero-worship for a woman like Valencik. Since my research ends in 1945, I witnessed only the beginning of her long tenure in Allentown -- and only a few years within a career that spanned 4 decades. After leaving APL in 1963, Valencik directed the White Plains (NY) Public Library until her retirement in 1976 (see Valencik's obituary, Allentown Morning Call, June 14, 1988). Before writing further about her, I believe it would be important to learn more about Valencik's youth and early career, her social life in Allentown, her contributions to PaLA, her subsequent work in New York, and her final years, since unfolding decades can change one's perspective and priorities. I would especially like to locate oral histories from supervisees and customers, to find out whether they remembered her in the same manner as she presented herself to the trustees and as she is described in the colorful article I quoted above from the early 1950s. I may never have the time to write an article solely about her, but May Virginia Kunz Valencik remains near the top of my list of the most important librarians in Pennsylvania during the mid-20th century.

*Quotations are taken from a profile of Valencik published as a human interest story in the Allentown Morning Call, October 25, 1951. Copies available in the APL vertical file, folder "Allentown Public Library."

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