Did You Know? The Pennsylvania State Library

The Pennsylvania State Library – A Building of History, Mystery and Answers

By Rick Dapp, Photography by Cassie Miller

Ask nearly anyone under the age of 30 a question requiring some degree of research, and a smartphone appears with the first Google page providing the seeming answer to the inquiry. No verification of fact, no need to delve more deeply into the subject, little curiosity beyond what has been presented. What you see is, well, good enough.

Prior to the world of instant access and immediate gratification, answering a question often required one to go someplace that had the information essential to providing an accurate response. The place that housed this information was, generally, a library. A large building full of books and newspapers, magazines and microfilm. Wonderful stuff. And, now, a place with computer terminals and Internet access and videos and audio books. More wonderful stuff.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince that person searching for information on their smartphone that it’s worth the time to get a better answer by searching more vigorously and not simply settling for the first Wikipedia citation.

Author P. J. O’Rourke summarized the situation pithily: “The library, with its Daedalian labyrinth, mysterious hush, and faintly ominous aroma of knowledge, has been replaced by the computer’s cheap glow, pesky chirp, and data spillage.”

The State Library of Pennsylvania is one of those places where much of what Mr. O’Rourke alludes to in his statement can be found. And it hasn’t been replaced by a digital contrivance, although it uses them to improve its service to the public.

Its origins go back more than 270 years, when Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania General Assembly began keeping a collection of legal statutes to improve coordination with the British government during their proceedings. As government grew, other collections were created and, by the early part of the 19th Century, they were consolidated into the State Library and moved to Harrisburg.

During the 1800s, the library was used primarily by members of the legislature and government officials until the final decade of the century when the collection began to broaden with materials focused on history. Franklin, by ordering books (many of which are still in the Rare Collections portion of the library) and maps for the Assembly, essentially created the library. An example of one of the earliest works in the Rare Collection is a copy of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber chronicarum) published in 1493.

Originally located in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the library has been itinerant prior to finding its present home in Harrisburg. It was hastily moved from Philadelphia, in 1777, when the British advanced to occupy the city during the Revolutionary War, to Easton and then again to Lancaster before returning to the City of Brotherly Love in 1778. When Harrisburg became the state capital in 1810, the library was moved to temporary quarters in the old Dauphin County Courthouse. It made a brief return to Philadelphia during the Civil War when Confederate forces threatened Harrisburg, with the library’s 20,000 volumes thrown into freight cars and sent to safety until the threat retreated following their unpleasant stay in Gettysburg. It peripatetically moved about the old Capitol Building following the Civil War – for a while above the Senate Chambers.

The present home for the library has been the same for the past 85 years, the Forum Building (originally called the Education Building) built in 1931.

Designed by architects William Gehron and Sidney Ross, the Forum Building was part of the continued expansion of the Capitol Complex as proposed by the original architect, Arnold Brunner. The building, a six-floor edifice constructed of Indiana limestone in the neoclassical style, features considerable Art-Deco ornamentation, but it’s the ambiance of the building that is most striking to a visitor.

It’s quiet, like a library should be, but the density of materials – marble, terrazzo, bronze and the like – create an air of solidity with no vibration or echo occurring from people moving about. Upon entering the library, attention is drawn from the floor, inset with designs of stars, squares and flowers, upwards past the expanses of magnificent wood paneling and the successive floors housing the stacks, to the massive Art-Deco chandelier hanging below an ornate ceiling with a circular inscription stating, “Without action thought never ripens into truth.”

Working visually back down toward the main floor, it becomes apparent in the muted light that each successive floor of the stacks has an Art-Deco railing of a different design, and when the eye returns to ground level, it is apparent that the heavy, dark wooden tables – that appear to be the original denizens of this hushed and subdued world – have grudgingly given way to technology with computer terminals covering their surfaces. It is a study in contrast.

Ascending the narrow steps, switchbacking from floor to floor, as one explores the stacks, a cast-iron steam radiator hanging on the wall is suddenly illuminated by motion-activated lighting; a juxtaposition of energy management that, oddly, seems appropriate.

Roaming the stacks, visiting the various alcoves, making the requisite pilgrimage to the Rare Collection, newspapers and genealogy, one can’t help but have a sense of history about the place. It could be today or 1935; it could be 1953 or 1971. There is a certain timelessness to the building that is its charm and what separates it from more modern libraries.

Managing such an enterprise is a daunting challenge but is ably conducted by a pair of dedicated individuals, each uniquely qualified to the task.

Alice Lubrecht, Director, Bureau of State Library, first began her relationship with the library in 1984. Glenn Miller, Deputy Secretary and State Librarian, has been in his position for just over a year but spent two decades running the Pennsylvania Library Association. Essentially, Lubrecht is charged with maintaining and operating the library and its related functions, while Miller oversees the administrative aspects of both the State Library as well as libraries across the Commonwealth.

When asked what she feels is the most important collection in the library, Lubrecht smiles and says, “There is no single most important collection, but if I were to select a few that come to mind immediately, I’d have to say the Franklin collection and the Indians of North America collection. Both are unique and equally priceless.”

She continues, “They are housed in the Rare Collections portion of the Library that is accessible only by appointment and is contained within an area of the building maintained at a temperature of 45 degrees. Requests for access must be made in advance so that the librarian can allow the requested items to warm up prior to use.”

If, for example, one wanted to view the Pennsylvania Gazette, as written – and printed – by Benjamin Franklin himself and wanted to read Franklin’s first accounting of the famous kite and key experiment in a lightning storm, it could be done in the reading room of the Rare Collection, where artwork by Carl Paul Jennewein, the sculptor responsible for the detail on the exterior of the Forum Building, adorns the walls.

Due to budgetary constraints, the State Library is currently only open to the public on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the second Saturday of each month from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and that troubles Glenn Miller.

“Libraries are places where people can come to learn about things that interest them, to expand their knowledge and improve themselves. Due to budget cuts and the ongoing struggle for funding, we are only able to provide the public access to the reading rooms on that limited basis. Presently, we’re operating at 65 percent of optimum budget. …Alice has seen a staff of 51 employees in the library reduced to 15 in recent years, in addition to reduced hours for public access.”

On a lighter note, when asked whether there were any peculiarities or spiritual anomalies (well, ghosts) in the library, both Lubrecht and Miller commented on the mysterious operation of the elevators in the building that periodically move from floor to floor when no one is calling for them. According to Lubrecht, there are reports of a “woman in white” who is periodically encountered in the stacks.

“I’ve never seen her,” says Lubrecht, “but several of the employees tell me that they have. As you know, the Capitol Complex was built on the old 8th Ward of Harrisburg, an area known for ladies of the evening and people of a criminal bent who existed with many of the disadvantaged folks living there. Perhaps some of the spirits from that time are still visiting,” adding again and laughing, “but I’ve never seen them.”

According to Miller, “There’s a ghost tour of the library at Halloween. I missed it this past year, but it’s definitely on my agenda for next year.”

Due to increased public interest, the State Library’s most-often requested services are genealogically related. It offers an extensive listing of surnames and many privately published documents relative to Pennsylvania residents. If, perhaps, one were to search among the more than 1.7 million items in the Pennsylvania State Library for The Dapp Family in America, a genealogy of the descendants of Gottlieb Dapp of Stockhausen, Balingen, Kingdom of Wurttemburg, compiled by J. Michael Poston in 1995, you would, most assuredly, find it there.

Those true believers with a thirst for knowledge will, invariably, head for both the library and the assistance of a trained librarian to slake it. Google may be good enough for some, but not for them.

This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine