History of the Agricultural Library 1888-1918

by Julia C. Gray

This paper, written by Miss Julia C. Gray, who was librarian from March 29, 1888 to September 18,1918 was read by R.L. Watts at the opening of the new Agricultural Library in Patterson Hall, April 20, 1933. This paper was also included in the keepsake created for the 100th anniversary of the Life Sciences Library May 13, 1988 and read by Keith Roe, head of the Life Sciences Library. 


The Early History of the Penn State Agricultural Library

Telling the life story of the Agricultural Library will mean telling of its beginning in the very last stages of the eighties; of its rather uneventful course down through the pleasant, peaceful. And now oft-lamented years of “the gay nineties;” of its progress through the early part of the new century to the year 1908; and thence on to the last days of the World War. A period of thirty years.

My story properly begins with the beginning of the Easter vacation, March 28 of the year 1888, and, for that reason, the occasion of this evening might very appropriately be regarded as celebrating the 45th anniversary of the founding of this library.

The opening scene of the story must of necessity be laid within the somber walls of the old “Old Main,” for at that time Old Main was The Pennsylvania State College. The old gray stone structure sheltered almost everything except the farm animals. Under its gently sloping roof the following activities were housed: The physical, chemical, and agricultural laboratories; the “Prep” Department; the armory, the chapel, the library; the business office, the president’s office; halls for the two rival literary societies; the YMCA; the Young Ladies’ Department, the lady principal’s rooms; men’s dormitories, rooms for professors’ families, guest rooms; even kitchens on dormitory floors, outfitted with coal ranges, sink, and other equipment – so that students might do light or heavy housekeeping as the chose.

The only other buildings were the small red brick used for botany and horticulture; houses for the president, the vice president, and two professors’ families; the farm buildings including the superintendent’s house, and several farm structures used for other purposes.

Those were the “believe-it-or-not” days. State College was a mere straggling main-street village. Certain professors who were paid out of a certain fund were paid but twice yearly. One of them was heard to say “ it rains twice a year at State College – in February and July.” One who needed funds in the meantime gave his note at six per cent. They were the days when the “young ladies” (never “the co-eds”) could not accompany the Beau Brummels to social functions except on a signed permit from the president or in his absence the vice-president. Dancing within the college walls was prohibited by the trustees – a procedure interpreted by the young ladies and the Beau Brummels to mean that the “light fantastic” could only be tripped by posting lookouts at the entrances of the two society halls on the nights of regular meetings.

Those early conditions are only depicted here that you may get a proper contrast between Penn State’s terrible lean years and the miracle of today. Surely the most imaginative and optimistic among us could not have envisioned, even in his wildest dreams, the picture which presents itself to view on this campus this evening of April 20, 1933.

Slightly less than a year before my arrival upon the scene, the Act of 1887 had become law. This piece of national legislation was styled “The Hatch Act,” in honor of its promulgator, and, in my opinion, very appropriately for another reason, since it was the act that had brought forth the agricultural experiment stations, one for each state and territory in the Union.

The act provided that bulletins or reports of progress be published by the experiment stations at least once in three months, one copy to be sent to each newspaper in the states in which the stations were located and to such individuals actually engaged in farming as might request them, and they were to be transmitted free through the mails. The result was that the experiment stations set up mailing lists and began at once to exchange their publications not only with one another but with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose literature is voluminous and varied, and with a variety of kindred institutions, both in the United States and in foreign countries.  Thus each agricultural experiment station was bound to have a library and by the same token each such library is bound to increase and multiply and continue unless or until The Hatch Act is repealed or Federal funds give out.

The Pennsylvania Experiment Station was to be my especial field of labor, and it was in the surroundings described that I found it that wild and windy morning of March 29, 1988. The office of the Station was lodged in one of the long, narrow, cell-like dormitories, a second floor back, of Old Main, with a solitary window looking westward. The room already had two occupants and my presence rather crowded it. The furnishings were meager and not new, except for the typewriter. This shining instrument (a make that went out of fashion some years ago) stood on an ordinary dormitory table much too high for comfort. To elevate myself to the proper height, I sat on Webster’s Unabridged, placed on a chair.

Thus it was that the Agricultural Library got its start in Old Main, as did nearly every other phase of the college work. While there we started our exchange list and employed students at 15 cents an hour to address bulletin envelopes, so that bulletins and report were going out as well as coming in.

But this location was only temporary. Even then a foundation was under way for the new Experiment Station Building [Art Education Crafts] which was to rise on this hill north of this building in which you are celebrating tonight, and the good fortune was ours, while we were waiting for the new building to be completed, to be able to remove from our cramped quarters to a commodious room on the first floor of Old Main, where we remained until the following spring when we all, except the Botanist and the Horticulturist, moved up to the hill [1889]

The new building was attractive, well-arranged, and sufficiently spacious for that small early staff which consisted of the director, vice-director, and chemist, two assistant chemists, an assistant in agriculture, the farm superintendent, a janitor, and myself as clerk and stenographer, an office which I was to find covered a multitude of duties.

The first floor of the new building provided a sizeable combination office and reading room, made into compartments with double-faced cases on extension bases. These cases were arranged along opposite sides of the room with a window between each two, to form small alcoves for desk room. To harmonize with other build-in furniture and the woodwork, the cases were stained a cherry red, a finish that was very popular in the nineties.

It was not long until those red cases were sporting some new open filing cases, and these were steadily filling with the bulletins and reports of the other experiment stations. As the result of a subscription list submitted to firm of New York book importers, a number of scientific journals – British, French, and German – were arriving from foreign ports. Farm papers from all points of the compass were coming regularly. As time went on, free literature was received from nearly all over the world, in a variety of languages, especially from foreign experiment stations and similar institutions. It was these four classes of literature that comprised the contents of the young and growing library.

To pass briefly over the period of the nineties, it need only be said that from year to year some of the bulletins and reports and foreign journals were put into bindings. Gradually the cherry red cases filled and the time came when we had to move the farm papers and some other publications up to the unfinished attic, to await their turn for binding.

The agricultural work developed to a degree that required a larger scientific staff and an augmented office force. The building once adequate was becoming crowded. Federal funds could not be use for new structures. If new buildings were to be had, the State of Pennsylvania must provide them. As regularly as the legislative biennium occurred at Harrisburg, we memorialized that body and sent forth impassioned pleas for appropriations.

At last the tide turned – in 1905, I believe it was, after the agricultural organizations of the state got behind a movement to secure better facilities for Penn State. After that it was only a matter of months until this splendid building where you are tonight [Patterson] was up and operating as a dairy, and a year or two later the main agricultural building [Armsby] was gracing the brow of the hill.

By the time 1908 rolled around, the small brick and shingle building was crowed to the doors. A whole new galaxy of specialists in the various phases of agriculture had been summoned to the college, and the organization which for twenty years had been known as the Agricultural Experiment Station was to be reorganized and expanded into the School of Agriculture and Experiment Station, and the library was to be moved again.

Back in 1893, I had been made Secretary of the Experiment Station, but the new organization was to have a secretary of its own. The office work was divided, and I was given the post of librarian and Editor of the School of Agriculture and Experiment Station.

At this moving the library was a sizeable collection of perhaps 2500 volumes, bound and unbound. The room assigned to it was on the main floor of the new building, [Armsby] with two double windows looking toward this building, then the dairy. The build-in shelving, supposed to be adjustable, was not always equal to the occasion. Rows of holes had been bored at intervals in the uprights to fit into these holes – and the shelving did rest there when it wasn’t resting down on the floor with the books under it, and this was not an infrequent episode. A sudden crash and a dull thud and it was easy to guess what had happened.

In order to eke out shelving, three of the cherry red book cases, pretty shabby from their twenty years of service, had been commandeered from the old building we had left. These had to be set so that they blocked most of the light from one of the big double windows, and the only light to be had between them was from a single glaring bulb suspended by a cord from the ceiling.

The woodwork of the room was light oak. By the time we had added the red book cases, a golden oak table, and straightback chairs of the same hue to our furnishing, the color scheme could hardly be regarded as harmonious. Students were coming in numbers, the seating capacity already limited was getting worse. The only seating space left after the chairs were filled was along the extension bases of the red bookcases. After these ledges were filled, an attempt to extract a book from the shelves above oftentimes caused a whole row of readers to rise and politely stand during the performance, or move out into the open wherever there might be space enough to rest the sole of the foot.

To ease this situation and make current periodicals available for daily reading, a room was fitted up on the second floor with a paper case, tables, and chairs. It was spacious, well-lighted, well-ventilated, and comfortable. Its comfort can be attested to by a story told of a student who one evening sat down in one of the hard chairs. Ares on table, head in hands, and slept there the long night through. Without change of position until six o’clock the following morning.

Even with these two rooms at our disposal, the volumes of unbound literature that had been stored in the attic of the old building could not be accommodated, but had to be again stored in a partitioned-off corner of the attic in the new building.

But these arrangements were not to last. Shortly the second floor reading room was demanded for other purposes, and its contents were moved to a room in the basement. The agronomy work encroached on the attic, and the unbound volumes were moved to the attic of the Dairy Building. [Patterson]

At this time the library was becoming more and more an important feature of the work of the school, and a card catalogue became imperative. An expert cataloguer from the main library was assigned to that work, which required several months to complete. After that, new accessions were catalogued In the main library and a duplicated card system was maintained in the Agricultural Library.

All phases of the work were developing so fast that they were crowding upon one another. The soils work outgrew it quarters in the basement and had to have the reading room next to it. The library on the main floor was well-nigh beyond endurance. Something had to done and it was. To the inexpressible relief of one person at least, we made another move, cherry red book cases and all, and this time the library and the reading room got together in the big assembly room across the north end of the building on the main floor.

I believe I should be permitted at this point to make a solemn plea for those old book cases. They were the library’s first cases and they held the very beginnings of this splendid collection which you see tonight. Like Mary’s little land they followed the library wherever it went. I hope they are still in existence and that they will be preserved in a corner all their own as the basis of a historical collection. With them should go an old oak frame containing five photographs mounted on a red background. Among these is an interior view of the library, in part at least as it appeared in the nineties in the old Experiment Station building. These views were selected by Dr. Armsby, first director of the Experiment Station, for the college exhibit which was sent to the World’s Fair in 1893, an event that is to be celebrated the coming summer as a Century of Progress.

Strange as it may seem, our library possessions had come through their twenty years in the Experiment Station building free of the usual menaces to books. It remained for the new fireproof buildings to show us the little attentions that fire, flood, and insects are wont to bestow. But Lady Luck was kind in these matters as in all others. The unbound volumes were far enough removed to be unharmed by a fire which broke out in the top of the Dairy Building at two o’clock one morning, and the occasional baptisms received by the new reading room from the laboratory above did no real damage.

The water was always thoughtful enough to seep through the cracks it had made in the plaster at its first attempt, to find outlets around the big ceiling lights and drip down until the supply was exhausted. We simply moved from under and enjoyed the curious and amusing paradox of water dripping from an electric light. As for the silver fish which had a fancy for the paste in the book bindings, we merely suffocated them with a deadly poison.

To review briefly the events of the next years, it need only be said that the new reading room proved a great blessing. Many new reference books and more subscriptions were added. The shelves filled so rapidly that I used to wonder what we should do next. With this paper, two photographs in a frame are presented to the library. The room often appeared as shown in No. 1 – as a well-patronized library. The majority of these men were two-year students and more that likely members of the class which presented the library with the Thomas clock hanging on a bookcase at the front of the room.

War clouds were in the offing when we moved into the room, students were gradually being withdrawn to training camps, and the time came when the library at times appeared as in photograph 2 – with a lone co-ed holding the fort. Among those who never returned from the battle fields were your men who had come daily to the Agricultural Library. Always, on Armistice Day, when we honor them in a moment of silence, I see them in memory as I used to see them at Penn State – going about their work and play in all the strength and buoyancy of their promising years.

Eventually the library was left without an assistant. It was then that Miss Kathryn Stanford was appointed to that position, and two months before the signing of the Armistice I myself was called to Washington to do war work and Miss Stanford was left to carry the load.

We are now at the year 1918. Our thirty years are up. Our story must come to an end, and some one else must take up the tale of events of the 14 ½ years since I have been away.

At this outlook, one might safely predict that the Agricultural Library should be done with growing pains and that it will move more for years to come. If so, perhaps no situation for it could be more in keeping with the circumstances that this hall so appropriately named for Penn State’s Grand Old Man – William Calvin Patterson; one who was deeply instrumental in laying firmly and well the foundations for the Penn State of today and who made her cause his own cause from first to last.

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