History of the Agricultural Library at Penn State, 1888-1988

Presented on the Occasion of its Centenary, March 29, 1988

By Keith E. Roe


The Agricultural Library and the Experiment Station from which it grew were born in adverse political and economic times. Indeed, considering the low esteem of Pennsylvania’s Land Grant college in the 1880’s, even among the very groups it was designed to serve, it is a wonder that an experiment station or ag library was established here at all. They likely wouldn’t have been without the Hatch Act of 1887 which provided federal funds for an agricultural experiment station in each state. President Atherton had tried earlier to get state funding for such a research station at Penn State but was twice rebuffed so he turned his efforts to Congress. Atherton helped draft the experiment station bill so it was hardly a coincidence that the resulting legislation stipulated that the experiment stations be administered by the Land Grants, at least in those states without existing stations.

An important provision of the Hatch Act was for experiment stations to publish research at least four times a year, to exchange these and make the findings available to the public. Thus, each experiment station was bound to create or contribute to a library.

So it was that 100 years ago today, on March 29, 1888, Miss Julia Gray came to work as clerk and stenographer in the new Pennsylvania Agriculture Experiment Station office, one small dorm-like room in Old Main. Among Miss Gray’s duties was the creation of exchange lists with other experiment stations and the care of their incoming publications as well as those received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Exchange of publications was to continue for many years to play a significant role in the library’s acquisition program. Thus began the Agricultural Library at Penn State, a library that soon grew to serve the School of Agriculture and College community in general. Today, as the Life Sciences Library, it represents one of the larger combined collections of agricultural, biological, and health sciences materials in the nation and the only major agricultural library in Pennsylvania. The life sciences books and journals at Penn State number well over a quarter million volumes. If brought together from their now-scattered locations within Pattee and the library Annex, Life Sciences materials would occupy about 60% of the shelf space on four floors of East Pattee. This would be a far cry from the overcrowded shelves you see behind you.

The history of the Agricultural Library is one of gradual and then increasingly rapid growth as it attempted to match the academic development of Penn State as well as the expanded output of scientific literature. In trying to cover 100 years of an institution’s life, one can only convey a sketchy impression of its total experience. Unusual events or lighter moments generally stand out as more interesting. We shouldn’t forget, however, the everyday, continuous efforts that went into building what you see today. The haunting theme with the Agricultural Library has always been the lack of space. The quest for quality collections and service has never been matched by adequate facilities.

But back to the 1880’s. A year after the Agricultural Library was established it moved to new quarters, part of the main office of the new Experiment Station building. President Atherton proudly reported to the trustees that the Agricultural Experiment Station had been provided with:

“…a new and elegant building fitted up with offices, laboratories, library and other necessary rooms, which amply provide for all present and prospective needs.”

The 1890’s saw library space become a premium. Bound journals filled the shelves. Farm papers were stored in the experiment station attic.

In 1902 the first endowment for Penn State libraries was established with the bequest of $5000 from the estate of George Blight. Blight, a trustee from 1867 to1869, was a member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and had a special interest in cattle breeds and judging. Proceeds from this fund were to be used to purchase books and journals I agriculture. While never large, the Blight fund did provide some 10% of the Agricultural Library budget even as recently as the 1950’s and in the ‘20’s it allowed purchased of many volumes now found in the Rare Books Room.

In 1908 the Agricultural Library of 2500 volumes moved to the new Agriculture building, now Armsby. Space was yet a premium so unbound periodicals were stored in the attic of the new building. Connection with the experiment station was not broken, however; part of the library budget and Librarian’s salary continued even in the ‘20’s to come from Hatch funds.

In 1908 a card catalog was begun under direction of the Main Library. Three years later, in 1911, the cataloging of agricultural books was complete. An “E” (for Experiment Station) was placed before the call number to identify Agricultural Library materials.

In 1917 Kathryn Stanford was appointed assistant librarian while the next year Julia Gray left for Washington and the war effort. In 1920 the budget for books and binding was $459, for magazines and papers, $114.

The Agricultural Library in 1924 had 10,271 volumes; 38 domestic periodicals, 16 foreign, and 138 exchange publications, showing the continued importance of the exchange program. Recommended purchases from the Blight Fund during these years included Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 (Annex) and Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary of 1733. (Special Collections SD45.M6 1733Q)

The School of Agriculture Library Committee existed at least by the late 1920’s. t was likely the first faculty library committee on campus. In their report of October 18, 1927 the committee listed some concerns of the librarian which even today may have a familiar ring…”The following comments concern a relatively large number of teachers: 1) A surprisingly large number of cases are occurring in which assignments are made by teachers who have not themselves previously ascertained whether the publication is in the library. 2) A very general practice exists of giving incorrect or incomplete references. 3) It will be very helpful if copies of all assigned reference readings are placed into the Librarian’s hands, especially before the students are to make use of the material.”

The Agriculture Library committee continued for many years to play a key role as advocate for its library, especially with regard to space needs.

In 1933 the Agricultural Library opened with fanfare in its new quarters in Patterson Hall, the old creamery. Dean Watts read a paper by Julia Gray on the early history of the library and a reception was co-sponsored by the Penn State Library Club.

Kathryne Stanford resigned in December 1934 and A. Elizabeth Beal was appointed Agricultural Librarian. In her annual report of 1937 Miss Beal pointed out a growing problem: “If the library is expected to fulfill the need of a place where students can while away an hour between classes, or study aloud together, it needs two separate rooms, so that the serious students who find it difficult to concentrate in confusion will have a place of their own.”

Miss Beal left the library in 1938 and Anna E. Malone became the Agricultural Librarian.  For the next 28 years Miss Malone would remain in firm control. She saw the library through some of its rapid growth years and witnessed some of its most severe space problems. She was without a doubt a most outspoken proponent of the Agricultural Library and her own views. But whatever criticism might be leveled at her style or as some described, her “violent manner”, the collections she helped build endure as a legacy for those who have followed in her wake. Miss Malone’s first annual report, in 1938, is mild in comparison to her later writings: “Hearty appreciation has been expressed for our keeping the library open throughout the day instead of closing during the noon hour.” “Approximately 300 persons use the library daily.” The Agricultural Library held 26,000 volumes and 600 periodical subscriptions at this time.

By the next year, in 1939, Anna Malone was beginning to write more poignantly in response to increased use of the library but with no corresponding increase in the budget: “The book budget for the year was pitifully inadequate.” Seven years after opening the new library in Patterson the facilities were crowded. In 1940 the Agricultural Library Committee recommended expansion to the first floor and this was done within a year.

By 1943 the library held 32,000 volumes. In addition, there were reading rooms in the Forestry Building (now Ferguson) and the Institute of Animal Nutrition (in Agriculture, now Armsby). Enrollment was down because of the War and so was use of the library by students but there was greater use by faculty. Notable acquisitions in 1945 included the multi-volume Genera Insectorum, now rare and found only in major libraries, and Michaux’ North American Sylva, a 3 volume set valued today at $1600 and in the Rare Books Room. Anna Malone requested a salary of $3500 in 1945, claiming she merited $3000 at least two years before.

In 1949 Miss Malone was coming into her own in making a case for herself and the Ag Library. In a four page letter to Ralph McComb, University Librarian, she states “If you were to ask me (which apparently he hadn’t) if this will be my last request, the answer is definitely no.” Her frustration also began to show. Responding to McComb’s request for advice on the relative merits of current agricultural bibliographies, Miss Malone defers saying she has her hands full. She remarks, “When I have more play time, I will be quite willing to take on busy work, but at the present it just isn’t practical.” By late 1950 Miss Malone had worked herself to exhaustion. She was one to solve her own problems and, by doing so, the bigger issues such as space were never adequately resolved.

Anna Malone was surely one of the colorful personalities in the library system at Penn State. She could aggressively make her views known, either in writing or in a loud voice. Someone who worked for her has said you could hear her yell from Patterson to Armsby if the windows were open. Students were reportedly rebuffed and brought to tears by her manner. She admitted to getting angry with an argumentative professor and pounding on the desk but he claimed she also “shouted at him for half an hour.” An assistant to the President once remarked to Ralph McComb: “I wish the college had the resources to give Miss Malone just the kind of staff she desires but over the years I have gotten the impression that even then she would not be happy.”

The 1950’s saw rapid growth in collections of the Agricultural Library. Bound volumes grew by nearly 50% as Miss Malone sought to fill in gaps and complete runs of journals. Naturally, the finite space became ever more crowded. In 1951 the Agricultural Library Committee recommended: “The alteration of the room now used as a rest room to provide space for additional shelving.” Within a year the restroom was stacked.

In 1952 a proposal was made to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture library in Philadelphia to Penn State and provide library service to the northeast area. Dean Jackson of Agriculture and Librarian Ralph McComb recommended against the move, probably because of space concerns.

The crowded conditions in the fifties are well illustrated by a College of Agriculture Library Committee report entitled “Inadequacies of Present Library Facility” Among the comments are these:

“Graduate students and faculty members entering stacks must step around or over books in the aisles…as well as squeezing between stacks placed in the aisles. Light intensity in stack areas is as low as 2.4 foot candles…” copies of current journals are circulated to the faculty (paradoxically, in part to keep both the journal and faculty out of the congested library)…”

These conditions elicited the following editorial comment in the Penn State Farmer (March 1959): “Have you been to the Ag Library lately? Did you find an empty chair where you could sit and work? And then, could you see what you were doing?” The extreme congestion, books on the floor, double shelving, volumes on window sills and radiators, and the poor lighting prompted the library committee in 1959 to petition Dean Jackson, College of Agriculture, about future plans. In addition to maintaining that Patterson “is basically an unsuitable building for a modern library”, they state: “It is astounding that the library has had no increase in allotted space since 1940 and then, only two small rooms. We doubt if any other unit in the entire University has received no additional space during this 19-year period. We also note that two additional wings have been authorized for the Pattee library even though this library admittedly has little need for much of this space in the near future.’

Though a bit premature about “two wings authorized” for Pattee, and opinionated about its needs, we see here that early pressure for expansion of the main library did come from the space needs of the Agricultural Library.

The early 1960’s saw no relief for the crowded library as it tried to cope with burgeoning scientific output in the 5700 square feet of available space versus the 20,000 needed. In 1961 Ralph McComb and Dean Jackson of Agriculture presented a plan “for consolidation of library services for the College of Agriculture in the new addition to the Main Library.” But as McComb noted later “Pressure for space for the Agricultural and Biological Sciences Library was one of the chief factors in seeking funds for an East Wing to Pattee. When funds became available, however, the addition was switched from an East wing to a West wing and its functions changed to meet other pressures.” The Ag Library continued to suffer, yet added to its responsibilities in 1961 was the designation of State Regional Resource Center for the subjects of Agriculture and Zoology. By early 1962 the facilities in Patterson were described by faculty as “a slum and disgrace to Penn State.” The floors were believed to be near the breaking point. One professor wrote: “I am thin enough to get between the piles of books and don’t have claustrophobia but I’s date to be in Patterson when the seams give.” On the other hand, the staff was commended for doing an excellent job under great handicaps.

Part of the collection had been stored elsewhere. Miss Malone writes: “The materials in storage have caused us unending trouble. We thought we had made exquisite decisions concerning what we stored but apparently we ‘goofed.’ The materials are largely outdated agricultural journals. Now we find members of the faculty trying to trace something down over a scope of years. This necessitates bringing a number of heavy volumes from storage to the library. To do this I must take my car and a student assistant and go for them, and subsequently return them.”

In 1962 the library was divided, the most-used materials taken to the basement of Leete Hall in what was supposed to be a temporary move while Patterson underwent renovation. The School of Forestry collection was also integrated during this year, adding to chaos in what Miss Malone described as an “ill advised and unplanned move.”

The Forestry graduate students were especially put out at losing their special collection and having it merged with the Ag Library. With axes to grind, they sent a letter containing 16 grievances to the Forestry School Evaluation Team. Number 15 reads: “To add to the general noise and confusion of the library a canary is kept on the premises, the singing of which is very distracting.” The list of complaints was given to the Ag Library Committee for response. They recognized the justice of several complaints but regarded a few of them as “picayune.” “For instance it is our understanding that the canary, mentioned in item 15, was at the library only a few days during one of Miss Malone’s absences and was long ago returned to her living quarters.” “Also, the complaint in item 16 that some Forestry Grad students have been yelled at and chased outside the library by members of the library staff indicates that these students have ignored the rule requiring that they be checked out at the desk…”

In 1963 the circulation of current periodicals and abstract journals to faculty discontinued, prompting an outcry from some and this comment from Miss Malone: “We have a war on in the College of Agriculture concerning the circulation of periodicals.” Remember, this was in the early days of Current Contents when routing journals was more common than today. The crowded facilities made it practically impossible to keep materials in logical order. Then there were backlogs. In 1964 there were 3 to 4 years of periodicals waiting to be sent for binding. More areas were used for storage. Main collections were in Leete basement and Patterson, while several thousand volumes were stored in the basement of Armsby, Nittany dorms, and the Accelerator building, referred to as “King Tut’s tomb.”

Perhaps most descriptive of the Ag Library’s condition is seen in the letter of a graduate student who was trying to drum up foundation support for a new building. He says: “…this ‘foundation of knowledge’ is now partly hidden beneath the noisy footsteps of a large dormitory…it has a concrete floor which is dry, dusty and which reverberates. Leete Hall is its name. Other books are stored, unavailable for 24 hours upon call, in a fire-trap Patterson Hall which was condemned because of wooden stairs (which have taken about two years to replace with fireproof steps.” New buildings for libraries did not come easy at Penn State even during the heyday of federal support for such.

Plans were underway by 1965 to move the scattered ag materials to Pattee and others back to a renovated Patterson. With the completion of the West Wing of Pattee, however, and pressure from Agriculture for other used of Patterson, it was decided in 1966 to move the entire Ag Library to Pattee. This was the first step in the Central Research Library Program which resulted in Pattee’s East Wing.

The year 1966 was an eventful one beginning with the retirement of Anna Malone. In her budget proposal for the 66/67 fiscal year, Miss Malone got in a parting shot at yet another scared cow of academia, the committee. She was probably referring to certain groups who’d had run-ins with , not the Ag Library Committee, when she said: “…it is my experience that romping committees may come up with ideas about what needs to be done without the least regard as to how impossible it is for this be accomplished.”

Anna Malone retired on April 1 and Miriam Pierce was appointed acting Agricultural Librarian. By July Mrs. Pierce could report on her attempt to bring the Ag Library back into the fold of the University Library organization after years of “autonomous” operation. She noted both the excitement and frustration of planning to move all library materials to Pattee from their scattered locations.

In September, 1966 Vladimir Micuda was appointed head of the Ag Library, arriving just in time to begin the formidable task of moving the collections from Leete to Pattee. This was completed in November but not without its pains. 1500 volumes of “lost” and forgotten forestry materials were discovered (Were the forestry students right after all?). Some rare books had been left and assumed safe in Miss Malone’s office in Patterson while the building was being renovated. These were discovered in a heap where they had been piled up by construction workers. Among them were several herbals now more secure in the Rare Books Room. In 1966/67, too, the Animal Science Reading Room collection became part of the Ag Library and a collection of some 1000 books was “inherited” from Mont Alto and had to be disposed of. To top it all, the Ag Library collections really didn’t fit into the space provided in Pattee; only the reference collection and current journals fit in the area now occupied by the Penn State Room (Leisure Reading.) The rest went to the central stacks plus some basement storage. The Ag Library was still crowded, leading Vladimir to this philosophic conclusion in hist first annual report: “All libraries have their problems. However, sometimes it seems that the Agricultural and Biological Sciences Library has more than its fair share! It would be difficult to list all our problems. Nevertheless…” and he proceeds to list insufficient space, noise, and a lack of desks for several staff members.

Not all special projects work out despite good intentions and effort. In 1967 a proposal was drafted that would establish a National Christmas Tree Library at Penn State, as part of the Ag Library. There were great expectations that this would be a repository for Christmas Tree materials of all types. One draft even included a plan for a Christmas Tree Librarian. This special library never materialized because of disagreement with the National Christmas Tree Growers Association about ownership and handling of materials. Publicity of the plans did result however, in numerous information requests on how to grow, rim and sell Christmas Trees. And twenty years later we still receive mail addressed to the National Christmas Tree Library, showing the tenacity of mailing lists.

Om the occasion of its 80th anniversary, Vladimir could report that, for the first time in recent history, the Ag Library was all under one roof, though still scattered within Pattee. The collection in 1968 totaled 87,930 volumes and 1461 periodical subscriptions. In this year, too, the name Agricultural and Biological Sciences Library was officially adopted though it had been used much earlier. There were only two librarians and several part-time support staff running the library; there were no full-time staff positions.

1969 witnessed the dedication of the Research Library (East Pattee) with an expected completion in spring 1971. This library was “…designed to centralize previously scattered research collections in a coordinated center.” The plan was to bring in all the science branches to four floors of the new building; Ag and Bio would occupy one a half floors. This centralization never came to pass because of objections in three colleges over losing immediate access to their libraries. Agriculture officially supported the move but some of its faculty had second thoughts. They had lost their library as a separate branch and now felt that integration of the collection into Pattee had gone far enough. A special committee even questioned the value of continuing the Ag and Bio Library if it couldn’t remain autonomous. Had such arguments been pushed some 5-10 years earlier they might have resulted in a new Ag Library building. As it was the library had to cope as best it could in its new confines, and find solace in the fact that once again the agricultural collections had been instrumental in getting a wing for Pattee.

Four years after moving into Pattee and finding no desks for his staff, Vladimir registered a complaint about chairs. His 1970 annual report reads: “The library continues to be plagued by insufficient  space and also equipment – notable furniture. Actually, all of these problems are producing not only headaches but backaches as well. The chairs provided for the library staff members may possibly have real ‘antique value’, but comfortwise leave much to be desired. The fact that our library employees remain standing most of their work time is indicative of their industriousness, to be sure, but also of their preference for tired feet over certain alternative forms of torture. “There Ag librarians were certainly hard to please!

The library moved to this room in East Pattee in December, 1972. Immediately the shelves were 70% full, suggesting ghost of crowding past. An ongoing project of reclassifying the Dewey collection added still more materials. On top of this, the Human Development Library and Nursing collection from the Allegheny General Hospital Library, including 300 periodicals, were integrated into Pattee.

Inflation and devaluation struck the materials budget in 1973/74 resulting in a 5% cut in periodicals expenditures. There would be no added serials funds for the next seven years.

The name of the library was changed in 1974 to Life Sciences, reflecting its expanding coverage, especially in the health sciences. Computerized database searching was initiated with a grant from the National Agricultural Library to study its CAIN on-line system.

In 1977 Vladimir Micuda was appointed Chief of the new Science and Technology Department and I became Head of Life Sciences. There was a significant cut in the book budget and one of three full-time clerical positions was lost.

By 1978 the collection has surpassed 150,000 volumes and part of it had to shifted to the third floor. This was expected to allow for five years growth.

The Kneebone Mushroom Reference Collection was established in 1979 with the donation of the personal research library of Professor Emeritus of Botany and Plant Pathology Leon R. Kneebone. This collection of specialized journals and books continues to grow from support by Professor Kneebone and it is used by researchers in mycology from around the world.

The 1980’s have been characterized by automation, especially introduction of LIAS, microcomputers and an array of databases. It has also been a time of a reduced and then restored levels of professional staff, materials budget ups and downs, and storage of collections in a library annex to escape, temporarily, the inevitable crowding. While the collections have nearly doubled in size in each of the past decades, support staff have actually decreased in numbers. There are now 270,000 volumes and 3000 journal subscriptions in the library. But much of this is too recent to be history.

In closing a talk such as this, especially one covering a century, one is tempted, if not expected, to speculate on the next decades of the organization. I will spare you such and simply leave you with my opinion that, provided with adequate space and support, this library could be not only a service unit as it is viewed by many today, but the Penn State landmark its history, its collections and users, and the struggles of its staff over the years would suggest it deserves.

Thank you.

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