Pennsylvania Public Libraries and the Great Flood of 1936: Dark Clouds and Silver Linings


  • Bernadette A. Lear Pennsylvania State University Libraries



The Great Flood of 1936 damaged thousands of buildings, ruined millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure and personal property, and left thousands of citizens homeless in Pennsylvania. Among affected institutions were 14 public libraries that lost books and records and/or sustained structural damage during the flood. This article recounts the experiences of the four libraries with the largest claims: the Cambria Library (Johnstown), the Annie Halenbake Ross Library (Lock Haven), Milton Public Library, and the James V. Brown Library (Williamsport). Lessons learned, unexpected opportunities to reshape collections and services, and advancement of professional knowledge about conservation of water-soaked materials are discussed. In addition, the article provides details about the Pennsylvania Library Association’s successful pursuit of state rehabilitation funds for affected libraries. Although the Great Flood of 1936 was an experience that no one would wish to repeat, it represents some silver linings in terms of public library history.

Author Biography

Bernadette A. Lear, Pennsylvania State University Libraries

Bernadette A. Lear is Behavioral Sciences and Education Librarian and Coordinator of Library Instruction at the Penn State Harrisburg Library. Her professional service and research focus on the history of public libraries, especially in Pennsylvania. She is currently Chair of the Pennsylvania Library Association's Archives and History Committee, as well as the immediate Past-Chair of the American Library Association's Library History Round Table (LHRT). Her 2012 article, "Yankee Librarian in the Diamond City: Hannah Packard James, the Osterhout Free Library of Wilkes-Barre, and the Public Library Movement in Pennsylvania" won both LHRT's Donald G. Davis Award for best article in Library History, and the Pennsylvania Historical Association's Robert G. Crist Prize for best article in Pennsylvania History. In 2013-2014, she undertook a major study of the history of public libraries from the 1860s to 1940s, visiting more than 20 libraries through the state. This is the first scholarly article developed from that effort.