Clean Your Desk, or POWER (Library) to the People

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I recently discovered a seemingly mundane object in the bottom drawer of reference desk — something that launched me on a quest involving card catalogs, consultations with colleagues, online databases and a trip to the first stack, the lowest and darkest level of the Main library. What did I find? An extension cord — though one with a very unusual plug.

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“That looks mighty old,” I thought to myself, though with much more colorful language. “Did Edison invent this thing or what?”

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Turns out it wasn’t invented by Edison, but by a fellow named Harvey Hubbell. It was sold by the Bryant Electric Company under the name “Spartan.” (That company was one of Edison’s competitors – so I was close! And this plug is really really old!)

I searched our American Marketplace Collection to find a more precise date for the plug — it’s a database of manufacturer’s catalogs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, accessible through the PA Power Library site under “PA photos and documents.” The plug turned up in a catalog from 1916! Here’s the catalog.

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And here’s the plug. It’s the first one on the left.

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Of course, sometimes it’s more fun to see and hold the item for yourself. So I spoke to one of my delightful colleagues in Reference Services, and he showed me the catalog of trade catalogs. Any day you get to play with an old card catalog is a good day, I say.

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This led me to the physical collection on the first stack. It used to be a dark and mysterious place, lit by dim light bulbs on pull chains, but sometimes you have to trade atmosphere for safety. Anyway, here are some of the catalogs, neatly preserved for posterity.

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The catalog I wanted was lurking on a truck, waiting to be shelved – it had apparently just come back from either preservation or cataloging. Here it is, complete with smudgy fingerprints, damaged spine, and ancient librarian handwriting.

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And here’s the plug again, this time with color!

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I brought the catalog upstairs and spent the rest of the afternoon showing it and the plug to everyone I could find (fortunately, in a place like this such behavior is not only accepted, but encouraged).

And that’s the story of how I discovered a potentially 100-year old plug at the bottom of a desk drawer. I wonder what’s in the other reference desks?

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Amy E. is a Senior Librarian in the Music, Film & Audio department. She has a fondness for obscure Japanese mystery novels and true tales of the Gilded Age, though neither one really relates to film or audio.