Saturday, April 26, 2014

Uncovering the state's role in rural library development: SLP and Susquehanna County

One of the most difficult articles I've written was a history of the State Library of Pennsylvania (SLP) during the crucial years when it expanded its mission from an information source for the government employees, to a preserver of state history and an active promoter of public library development. The topic was challenging because I have been unable to locate SLP's archives. Although printed annual reports exist, and there is a smattering of material within the personal papers of past governors and state librarians, I haven't found any troves of correspondence. So I wove the best story possible using published reports and articles, scattered letters, and biographical information. 

The Susquehanna County Historical Society
and Free Library, Montrose, PA
I was thrilled when I visited the Susquehanna County Historical Society and Free Library (SCHS&FL) this week and uncovered dozens of letters between Francis R. Cope, Jr., its long-serving board president, and various state employees. The Cope Papers (SCHS collection #1373) include several folders on Helen U. Price, the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission's (PFLC's) "library organizer," and a folder on Robert P. Bliss, coordinator of the state's traveling library program. Complimenting these materials, which date from 1907 to 1908, and 1913, are board minutes and other documents which shed light on interactions SCHS&FL had with Anna A. MacDonald, SLP's "consulting librarian," during the 1920s and 1930s.

It appears that the relationship started in 1907, when the board member appointed to oversee the library, H. A. Denney, wrote to Henry J. Carr of the Scranton Public Library. Carr had recently served as president of the American Library Association (1900-1901), and would soon become president of the Keystone State Library Association (the forerunner to PaLA). Since SCHS&FL hoped to open its free library in a few months, Carr suggested that Denney contact the PFLC to request Helen Price's aid (letter from Denney to Cope, September 14, 1907). Within a week, Cope wrote to her, explaining that although his library could not afford the salary of a trained librarian, it had hired Amelia Pickett, a local woman with "high school training, anxious in every way to purpose herself for her new position." Rather than sending Pickett to apprentice in Scranton and lose her needed labor at Montrose, Cope hoped that Price could visit for a few weeks to assist them. As it turned out, her busy schedule did not allow her to visit Montrose for more than a few days at a time -- which she did in early November and in late December. But she sent another commission worker, "Miss Reutter," free of charge to help with accessioning and processing books. Price promised to be "in close communication" with Reutter to resolve any "serious problems" that might arise (letter from Cope to Price, September 21, 1907, and letter from Price to Cope, November 4, 1907). 

Among the various tasks involved with starting a public library, it appears Price was especially involved in recommending and ordering books. She prepared a list of recommended reference titles for Cope, who forwarded them to Pickett to check against the library's holdings, and to the local library committee for approval. Then Cope returned the marked-up list to Price and she obtained the volumes from vendors with the best prices. Between November 1907 and September 1908, it seems that Price did the same for magazines, novels, religious works, poetry, juvenile books, and the history collection (letters from Price to Cope, October 14, 1907, November 26, 1907, January 9, 1908, March 20, 1908, September 22, 1908, and October 21, 1908; letters from Cope to Price, January 8, January 10, and September 23, 1908; letters from Cope to Pickett, November 14, 1907-December 5,1907; and library committee meeting minutes, November 2, 1907-December 9, 1907). 

In addition to book selection and ordering, the commission furthered Susquehanna County's traveling library and bookmobile efforts. Commission staff recognized that SCHS&FL's efforts were unusually ambitious, intending to reach all residents thinly spread over more than 800 square miles. In 1908, Price helped SCHS&FL determine the policies of its traveling library service. She shared the language used in the PFLC's documents, and the local library committee approved similar regulations for Susquehanna County's program (library committee meeting minutes, February 12, 1908). For instance, SCHS&FL followed the state's example in requiring participating communities to identify local taxpayers who would sign a form, agreeing to be personally responsible for box of books sent to them. They also agreed to designate a "Librarian" to circulate materials using cards and according to rules stipulated by the county library ("Rules and Regulations for the Government of Susquehanna County Traveling Libraries" and "Rules and Regulations for the Traveling Libraries," n.d., SCHS&FL historical files, director's office). After several years, the commission was satisfied enough with SCHS&FL's work that it gave Susquehanna County 6 traveling libraries that the state had previously used to serve that region (see SCHS&FL librarian's report, 1910 and SCHS&FL Addresses and Reports Presented at the Annual Meeting, 1912). One of the state's wooden traveling library cabinets still sits in administrator Susan Stone's office. 

Traveling Library Case from the Pennsylvania Free Library
Commission, ca. 1910. Typically such boxes held 40-50 volumes. 
By the early 1920s, when SCHS&FL was planning a bookmobile service, the work of the commission had been subsumed by the Library Extension Division of SLP. Cope turned to its consulting librarian, Anna A. MacDonald, for advice. Judging from a November 8, 1923 letter from MacDonald to Cope, it appears that she obtained recommendation letters from Mary Titcomb, head of the pathbreaking Hagerstown Public Library (now the Washington County Free Library). Based on Titcomb's advice, she recommended that he hire Beulah K. Eyerly, one of Titcomb's employees. Later that month, MacDonald traveled to Montrose and met with the board of trustees. She motivated them by reminding them that Susquehanna County was a "pioneer" in library extension, and she described how World War I had exposed "the mental deficiency and lack of education" in "isolated" areas. Thus, SCHS&FL was advancing public librarianship in Pennyslvania, as well as doing patriotic work. She advocated that the trustees devise a fundraising plan that would anticipate the "extra financial needs" of growing services. MacDonald also reiterated the importance of hiring of a full-time "county librarian" and obtaining "a book wagon or book truck" to distribute library materials more frequently to county residents (SCHS&FL board minutes, November 27, 1923). With a year, Cope and the trustees implemented all her suggestions. When Governor Gifford Pinchot signed legislation to provide funding to county libraries, MacDonald wrote the SCHS&FL board and advised them to "act at once in accepting its share of this money" (SCHS&FL board meeting minutes, June 26, 1931). 

At this point, I do not know whether the PFLC and SLP provided as much assistance to other public libraries. It is certainly possible that the state was more invested in Susquehanna County's success because it was the earliest to develop countywide services, but I have no way of confirming or denying that. Although I have found numerous mentions of Price and MacDonald in other libraries' board minutes, I haven't found similarly rich documentation which helps distinguish instances where the state simply offered advice, versus provided actual free labor. 

Based on the materials I found in Susquehanna County, it appears that the PFLC, through the position of the "organizing librarian," was willing to assume a hands-on role in assembling opening-day collections for small libraries which could not afford the expertise. In later decades, the state may have shed this role. Yet the "consulting librarian" within the Library Extension Division of SLP continued to help communities plan new services and hire appropriate staff. Although my research project ends in 1945, I am curious to know if I have observed the origins of Pennsylvania's current "district consultant" model, whereby state-designated "district library centers" provide advice, training, and other services to smaller libraries in their vicinities. As far as I know, DLCs began in the 1960s, but perhaps the function began at a much earlier date. 

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