In 1969, a library risked ephemerality by dignifying ephemera as a "collection"; today, researchers study matchbooks to manuscripts at the Popular Culture library
FROM THE MOMENT BOWLing Green (Ohio) State University's Popular Culture Library (PCL) opened its doors in 1969, its future was uncertain. Run by a two-person staff on a minuscule budget, its holdings consisted mainly of gifts and materials that could be bought in bulk as inexpensively as possible
But on the eve of the library's 20th anniversary, its fate is hardly in question. Indeed, PCL is now considered to be the largest and most comprehensive research facility of its kind in the country.
"Our most outstanding coUection is the Popular Culture Library," says Rush G. Miller, dean of libraries and learning resources at Bowling "It has reached what I like to think of as a critical mass of importance"
Although PCL has undergone many changes since its inception, its goal has remained the same-to acquire and preserve primary research materials on 19th-and20th-century American popular culture. Today the library houses more than 70,000 books and 100,000 serials, and boasts extensive collections of non-traditional resources, such as posters, postcards, greeting cards, advertisements, travel brochures, and other ephemera.
The growth of the library has paralleled the growing interest in popular culture as an academic discipline at universities across the country. According to Ray B. Browne, chairman and founder of the country's offly degree-granting popular culture program, at the same tirne that popular culture studies began to flourish in the classroom, the need for libraries to begin collecting research and teaching materials in the field became apparent.
Browne eventually got the go-ahead for a popular culture library from the university administration. Together with Bill Schurk, who had been hired by the university to develop a recordings coUection to support research and teaching in music, he began slowly building the library's holdings.
Browne and Schurk haunted secondhand shops, garage sales, and estate auctions in search of materials. "In the early years," says Browne, "almost everything was useful because we didn't have anything."
Garage sale acquisitions
The pair also sought donations from alumni, members of the Popular Culture Association (after its establishment in 1970), and the general public. A single donation of books and recordings from Cleveland radio personality Bill Randlevalued at $75,000-initially made up the core of the collection.
Browne and Schurk did not limit their search for materials to the Bowing Green area during PCL's infancy. "We'd go to Detroit and Cleveland and Cincinnati and Toledo and get a whole station wagon full of books for $25 " recalls Browne.
Browne and his wife once visited a potential contributor in Iowa and found a cache of glass transcriptions of a popular Midwest radio program stored in a barn. On another occasion, Browne and Schurk drove to Fort Wayne, Ind., after hearing about a warehouse full of old pamphlets and other publications. "We never bothered not going because Schurk and I learned that occasionally, if you turn something down, you miss a treasure," says Browne.
Not everyone, however, shared their enthusiasm. "For the first 15 years of its existence, the Popular Culture Library was literally a stepchild of the library system and that's being generous," says librarian Miller. "If you had polled the library staff 10 years ago, the vast majority would have said, 'This is all junk and it ought to be discarded.' The fact that it exists is a tribute to the stubbornness of people like Ray Browne and Bill Schurk. Now even the old skeptics see the Popular Culture Library as an important part of our library system."
Like the field of popular culture, the library's collections are difficult to summarize because they are so diverse and wide-ranging. …