Wednesday, April 30, 2014

To be continued ...

At the beginning of April, I was feeling utterly overwhelmed. Looking at my map of research sites, I still needed to finish my work at historical societies in Harrisburg, Somerset, and West Chester. I had to begin research in Huntingdon. I hoped to salvage Easton, a casualty of winter weather, or replace it with at least one other site in Northeastern Pennsylvania. And although not the highest priority, I wanted to tap newspapers for Clarion, Franklin, Harrisburg, New Castle, and Wilkes-Barre. In addition, I committed to making Easter dinner for my in-laws and providing a 1-hour lecture for the Osterhout Free Library at the end of the month.

For a moment my head was in my hands. "There's no effin' way ..." I groaned. 

When faced with a long to-do list, some people feel like they are trying to walk through peanut butter. It destroys their mental clarity and inner motivation. Luckily for me, I tend to snap to attention instead. I decided which tasks were closest to completion. I noted ones that could be finished with the least effort or logistical arrangements. Then I made a mad dash. Two more visits to West Chester and that site was done. In the early morning and late evening hours, I used newspaper databases on my laptop. Soon, sheaves of printouts for New Castle piled up on my desk. Then, the library director at Huntingdon canceled. I substituted Bedford County Library, an institution with a shorter history, batched the trip with a visit to Somerset, and tapped online newspapers to complete Bedford. I made the hard decision to scrap Easton -- a site which would have required at least 2 weeks away from home -- in favor of Allentown Public Library, whose annual reports I could consult ahead of time at the State Library. Thus, I only needed to lodge in Allentown for 5 days. The time savings allowed me to add and finish an additional library (the Susquehanna County Historical Society and Free Library in Montrose). I banged out my presentation for the Osterhout in my hotel room in Binghamton, NY.

I return to work tomorrow. Some efforts remain unfinished. Nonetheless, I have decided to take Monday-Wednesday off to rest, begin my transition back to campus life, and most importantly, to reflect on my experiences of the past 9 months. 

As I write this, I am pedaling on an elliptical machine, starting to get my body back in tune. One of my keenest disappointments is that I let my weight get away from me. I remember exactly when it started to happen: in Erie, when I drove by Menchies on a regular basis. It was all too easy to con myself about eating "low fat" frozen yogurt while ignoring the spoonfuls of cookie dough, gobs of hot fudge, and mountains of whipped cream I piled into my cups. Since then, I have gained almost 25 pounds which will be very hard to sweat off.

Rainy window. Image courtesy of Wikimedia
My skin has taken a beating, too. Hard water, institutional bathroom soap, frigid cold, and handling reams of dry paper has scaled my hands and cracked open my knuckles and fingertips. Slathering Eucerin on them has helped, but time is the best healer. Marathon stints of research and computer work have fuzzied my eyesight, and the lenses I now wear are thicker than the ones I had in August. I am lucky that hipsters have made heavy plastic frames fashionable again. A failing root canal, long neglected, aches in my lower right jaw, too. 

As I glance out at the heavy rain which splatters the windows of the gym, the day's dreariness mires me in my other shortcomings. I hardly took any personal days for recreation or rest. I didn't carve out much time for family and friends. I wasn't the contributor I should have been as past-chair of LFO. I wasn't the leader I could have been as chair of LHRT. I chimed in remotely during my campus's and library system's strategic planning processes, but didn't critique or offer as many ideas as I would have in a normal year. I tell myself that my silence gives others a chance to shine, but it still nags me. 

From what I've described so far, it may seem that the effort wasn't worth it. But it has been, absolutely. I may be worse for the wear -- especially physically -- but so is a first-time mother after giving birth, or a marathoner who has run her 26th mile. Even though Harrisburg and Somerset aren't finished, completing 20 sites in 20 different counties is a major accomplishment -- especially considering that I do not have a research assistant and I had less than $10,000 in grant funding. Although I dropped Easton, Hershey, and Huntingdon from the project, I added (and finished) Allentown, Beaver Falls, Bedford, Carlisle, Connellsville, Lock Haven, and Montrose.

I also used additional sources which were not initially part of my project's design. For example, I took advantage of a new database -- Newspaper Archive -- to enrich my findings for Bedford, Connellsville, Lebanon, Lock Haven, New Castle, and Warren. After discovering the role that the Pennsylvania Federation of Women's Clubs and the Pennsylvania Y.M.C.A. had in library development, I used both organizations' records at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Thus I don't think there is any question that I used my sabbatical wisely in terms of collecting data.

As regards thinking through my results, sharing them with others, and raising awareness about Pennsylvania's library history, this blog is the best decision I made. Some of my mentors discouraged me from writing it, because they believed it would drain my energies from authoring "real" publications for professional and scholarly venues. But in fact, blogging has opened doors to several opportunities. On at least 2 occasions, I was able to walk into a public library without prior contact, and was allowed to use its historical records no questions asked, simply because the directors knew and enjoyed my work. After my post about women in library history was noticed by another blogger from American Libraries, I was invited to write a brief piece for Women in Libraries, the official newsletter of ALA's Feminist Task Force. Similarly, a post about the Pennsylvania Federation of Women's Club led to an article in its newsletter and a possible spot on the program during its 2014 conference. Most rewarding of all is the reach of the blog -- nearly 7000 page views at this point -- and dozens of  e-mails from readers. Nothing else I have written is accessed by so many people! Originally I had thought I would end the blog on the final day of my sabbatical, but the positive response has encouraged me to continue it.

Another point to be proud of is the service I have provided to libraries which participated in my project. Upon meeting each library director, I introduced myself as a possible "history detective" willing to investigate any unresolved questions about their libraries' pasts. Quite a few took me up on the offer. After seeing each location's records and further discussion with its staff, I offered to do additional work. In Allentown, I arranged records by date and wrote a brief inventory. For Beaver Falls, I compiled a chronology. I shared the results of my newspaper searches with the libraries in Bedford, Lebanon, Lock Haven, New Castle, and Warren, who didn't have the abundant digital access that I enjoy through Penn State. For Wilkes-Barre (a site I completed prior to sabbatical) I was interviewed for its 125th anniversary documentary. I have agreed to provide historical presentations for Johnstown and Susquehanna County in the near future.

When I think of the worst days of the past 9 months, I recall sleeping on the floor beside Fili, who was emaciated and wracked with pain from irritable bowel syndrome we couldn't cure. I also remember when Gabby dislocated her hip for the second time and I knew I couldn't afford to fix it again. I never imagined I'd euthanize two cats in the same winter. Even now when I enter my house, I am crestfallen when I realize, again, that they aren't there to greet me. Another ugly moment was when I was in the wrong place at the wrong time in Black Moshannon State Park. Three men with guns -- literally loaded for bear -- tried to force me out of my (their) cabin. I'll don't think I'll ever tell anyone all the details because I can barely face them myself. But I can still feel the rusty fire shovel I gripped tightly as my only defense, the gritty wooden floor under my bare feet, and a dusty gingham curtain brushing against my cheek as I crouched behind my bed and shouted back at them through my window.

The best times? Fortunately, there have been many. Rare days when I started work late or ended early to go hiking. Jogging around the entire peninsula of Presque Isle -- equivalent to a half-marathon. A dark night when I borrowed charts from a park ranger, sat on the porch of my cabin, and picked out constellations invisible from Harrisburg. Trying Thai food and listening to Klezmer music for the first time with my friend Sharlene. Enjoying homemade tortilla soup and talking shop with librarians in Johnstown. 

Even though my project focuses on the 19th and early 20th centuries, I now have first-hand knowledge of some of the challenges public libraries and historical societies face today. State budget cuts in 2009 haven't been restored, and they have not always been replaced by county or local funds. The impact is evident in shortened hours, Friday closures, directors who unwillingly spend a lot of time on fundraising, and employees who bounce between disparate departments because of shortstaffing. To give one example, I encountered a library director frantically counting jellybeans into a guess jar. She no longer employs a children's librarian to assemble the customary decorations and games for Easter, so she takes on the work herself. At more than a few historical societies, I squeezed between dangerous backlogs of uncataloged and unshelved material. One time, I got beaned when an overloaded and poorly assembled bookshelf collapsed overhead. Today, most county societies have only one paid library worker and they are receiving far more artifacts, manuscript collections, and other materials than they can establish intellectual and physical control over, much less preserve or promote. The quality of data in PastPerfect and other software programs is deteriorating, as the volunteers now using these systems are not trained in cataloging methods, or even in using their institutions' computers. Several times, I "saved the day" when I overheard a yelp and showed someone how to undo previous keystrokes and restore erased information. Although I have no official role in Penn State's humanities library or preservation department, I would gladly lend my hands and voice if asked to help empower such organizations. 

One of my motives for undertaking a statewide project was to explore regional cultures, natural resources, and social issues in Pennsylvania. I didn't sample local foods or attractions as much as I'd hoped because it seemed I needed every waking minute for research. Yet after traveling thousands of miles, I return to Harrisburg with a partial understanding of why so many of our youth come to college with strong personal beliefs but few worldly experiences. I have lodged in and driven through dozens of small communities with spotty internet access, where the only afterschool spaces are churches, gas stations, fast food restaurants, dollar stores, and the great outdoors. Growing up in rural areas isn't necessarily a deficit -- in fact, there are definite benefits in terms of less crime and stronger family ties. But I know that if I had spent my childhood in such a town or village, I certainly would be a very different person today.

Burning candle. Image courtesy of Wikimedia
Over the past 9 months I have learned things great and small about myself. The strength of the tiny pilot light that has kept me at work for 12-16 hours at a time, day after day, astounds me. After living weeks by myself in isolated cabins and cheap hotels, I know I can get by in a Spartan manner and that I am never thoroughly lonely if I have something to do and books to read. I am also more cognizant of, and thankful for, unexpected graces whenever and however they come. For instance, I've developed an appreciation for Old Country Buffet, Hoss's, and other all-you-can-eats. For part-time vegetarians like me, they've been the best dining options in many rural communities. Through hours of driving outside the range of my favorite radio stations, I started to explore bluegrass, country, classical, and other types of music. 

In the months ahead, I intend to finish my work in Harrisburg and Somerset. Since I have a few hundred grant dollars left to spend, I am also considering including another rural library in my study: perhaps Bloomsburg, Bradford, or Danville. I would also like to finish using legal references at the State Library and the records of the Pennsylvania State Grange and WPA at the State Archives. But the major task this summer will be writing. I have an outline and  title for a book and I'm eager to get started. Although returning to campus on a daily schedule will be an adjustment, I am very grateful I had a year to learn more about my profession, about Pennsylvania, and myself. 

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