Transitions through the Years: A History of the Pittsburgh Chapter

By Carrie Wardzinski

Bulletin

First published Bulletin of the Pittsburgh Special Libraries Association, from 1933. From the SLA Pittsburgh Chapter archives.

The Pittsburgh chapter is the fourth-oldest chapter of the Special Libraries Association in existence. Founded on December 5, 1922, it is only surpassed in age by the Philadelphia, New York City, and New England chapters. With such a lengthy history, the Pittsburgh chapter has come through a number of transitions over the years.

Even from the beginning, the librarians within the Pittsburgh chapter faced an extreme transition within their professional lives – the abrupt change from the Roaring Twenties to the single worst economic downturn the United States has ever experienced. Pittsburgh was widely considered to be the industrial center of the nation at that time. Companies such as Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, Koppers, Alcoa, and PPG headquartered themselves in the western Pennsylvania region. These companies, and their associated libraries, were operating with somewhat limited budgets due to the Depression. Despite these financial constraints, business and research and development continued as usual, which meant that information resources were still needed. One small way that the librarians within the Pittsburgh chapter overcame some of these constraints was by creating their first duplicate exchange list in 1932. This list facilitated the exchange of usable materials within this regional network. Another way was by updating and expanding their Union List of Periodicals, which was originally published by the chapter in 1924. The updated and expanded list came out in 1936, and allowed the librarians within the area to share resources widely and freely. These two efforts would not have happened without the Pittsburgh chapter, particularly since the Union List was funded by SLA’s headquarters.

As the nation transitioned to wartime seemingly overnight, the Pittsburgh chapter transitioned too. The Depression no longer raged on, but wartime efforts did. The newly minted newsletter was put on hold. Actual printed copies could not be distributed due to scarcity of goods and rising costs, so instead, mimeographed newsletters were distributed to members. Monetary aid was pledged to the “war effort” on behalf of the Pittsburgh chapter. Individual members also contributed by offering their time and skills to the newly formed Pittsburgh Defense Council. The chapter also combined efforts with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to purchase books for the Signal Corps. Nearly everything the Pittsburgh chapter did during this period focused directly on helping the Allies win. This was a monumental shift from the previous two decades, where members had focused solely on chapter development, resource sharing, and professional advancement.

The Cold War years were, in many ways, a period of growth and stability for the Pittsburgh chapter. With well over 100 members, enrollment in the chapter was at an all-time high. Consequently, attendance at meetings was strong. Additionally, the business climate in western Pennsylvania was relatively stable, with research, development, and production from companies like Westinghouse, PPG, and U.S. Steel at the forefront. This translated into a stable job market for librarians; so much so that the chapter started sending recruiting flyers to local high schools. The field of library science was also stable during this time, so there were not many changes to the basic tenets of reference, cataloging and indexing, and information retrieval.

However the advent of the Digital Age changed all of this and with it brought unexpected change and transition to the entire field of librarianship. From the introduction of the World Wide Web two decades ago to the ubiquitous use of email and social media platforms today and everything in between, librarianship has been turned on its ear. The basic skills of librarianship did not go out the window but have changed dramatically, including how people search for information, how people retrieve information, and how information is saved and archived. Information professionals sometimes struggled to keep up with these rapid changes in technology, yet it seems that the Pittsburgh chapter and its membership embraced the Digital Age. Some of this quick adoption is probably due to to the city’s change from a manufacturing hub to a technology hub after the decline of the steel industry, and to the presence of the tech-focused Carnegie Mellon University, many of whose librarians are active in the chapter. During this time, the Pittsburgh chapter went to an electronic-only format for their newsletter, Confluence. Several members have also won significant grants for innovations in technology. Most recently, Donna Beck won a grant through IEEE for pioneering an iPad checkout program for Carnegie Mellon University’s engineering library.

Donna Beck

Pictured Donna Beck, with her 2013 Innovations in Technology award from the Pittsburgh Chapter.

Today the Pittsburgh chapter finds itself in the midst of transition again. Like many other chapters, we have lost a significant number of members over the last decade for myriad reasons: unemployment and underemployment, retirement, politics, and the increasing cost of membership. And because of this, our disbursement from headquarters is lower, which has affected the quality of our programming and our scholarship awards. Also, like other chapters our size, we are having problems finding members who are willing to take on officer positions. It would be easy to become discouraged at this point; any organization would, given these circumstances. We could easily point to the declining membership rosters, the smaller budgets, and fewer attendees at events, and say that our chapter has reached the end of its life and is no longer useful, or even needed. Instead we need to take the long view and examine our history of weathering transitions. We have encountered some difficult and unexpected situations over the last ten decades: economic downturns, wartime, and the paradigm shift to the digital realm. Yet, we should take heart from and be bolstered by the knowledge that our group has responded to these transitions – both internal and external – and evolved as a chapter. Our chapter was founded by 17 librarians who came together for the express purpose of discussing methodology, sharing materials, eliminating duplication in buying, and fellowship. These four reasons still stand. We continue to provide invaluable professional development and training for information professionals in our region. In this past year, we have had seminars on open access and archival methods. We continue to provide mentoring to newer information professionals entering the field. Two of our long-time members have won the Rose Vormelker Award for mentoring. We even have our own annual chapter award for mentoring! We continue to take advantage of our close network to locate hard-to-find materials. I cannot tell you how many times I have contacted the head of the chemistry library at the University of Pittsburgh, asking if she had a particular resource on hand. I contact her directly because she is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter. And certainly, we still continue to enjoy spending time with each other. Nearly every program has a dine-around beforehand, and we have regular happy hours too. As long as our chapter is fulfilling the vision set out by the founders, we need to look beyond the numbers and come through this transition too.

All historical information was taken from the archives of the Pittsburgh Chapter of SLA.

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