‘Neighborhood’ Archives Bring Community Together

  • Elizabeth Nesbitt Collection Curator Clare Withers (left) and collection bibliographer Elizabeth Mahoney have worked closely with the Mister Rogers Collection—Mahoney in the 1970s through 1990s and Withers, currently. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • This is a press kit sent to television stations explaining the theme of a particular episode. This one, Mister Rogers Goes to School, aired in August 1987 on PBS stations nationwide. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • This “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode cover page from a program that aired in 1968 lists the taping date, guests, set, props, costumes and songs that will be sung. They include “I’m A Man Who Manufactures” and “When A Baby Comes.” (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Curator Clare Withers holds the book “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers” coedited by Mark Collins and the late Maggie Kimmel, both from Pitt. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • This copy of the 1996 book “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers” was inscribed by Fred Rogers to Margaret Hodges, the faculty member in Pitt’s School of Library and Information Sciences who convinced Rogers to donate materials to Pitt. The book was coedited by Pitt lecturer and author Mark Collins and the late Maggie Kimmel. An updated edition published this week includes a new forward by David “Mr. McFeely” Newell. The inscription reads: For Peggy Hodges, with gratitude and affection always, Fred Rogers, 1996. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

A typical day in the early 1980s for Pitt bibliographer Elizabeth Mahoney might go like this: A truck driver passing through nearby Somerset, Pennsylvania, calls to ask could he please stop and view an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that his wife had been in. 

When he arrives at the third floor of Pitt’s Bellefield Hall, Mahoney, a librarian in the what’s now called the School of Computing and Information who managed the Mister Rogers Collection, carefully threads the three-quarter-inch tape through the videotape playback machine while the trucker’s 18-wheeled rig remains parked outside, the motor still running.

Today, Mahoney said she received at least 10 such calls and letters a week from members of the general public during the 1980s and 90s, usually a relative of someone who had appeared on the show asking that they be permitted to see a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode.

“People got very emotional watching it. They would say their mom or their grandmother had talked about the program and they wanted to see it for themselves,” she said.

The extensive collection of more than 800 videotapes and scripts of the popular children’s television program, as well as books, photos and other promotional materials, made up the heart of the archive, which Mahoney and fellow librarians began meticulously cataloging in 1983. 

Most of today’s collection covers the production and promotion of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” from 1970 through 1990, including production notes and similar items. Many of the episodes, which focus on such topics as nervousness about starting school or problems adjusting to a new baby at home, still resonate with viewers and visitors today. (Eventually, the Fred Rogers Company made the historic tapes available through Amazon. Many additional materials are also housed at the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.)

Interested in the children’s literature connection? Read about how Mister Rogers is part of a larger legacy of children’s media in Pittsburgh.

The collection at Pitt came about largely due to a group of Pitt people devoted to children’s literature. They were librarians and scholars, and they all personally knew Fred Rogers, who had returned to Pittsburgh from Canada in the late 1960s to launch a half-hour educational program for children on the nation’s first community-sponsored television station at WQED. 

Eventually, as the program began producing boxes of tapes, folders, scripts, papers, photographs and press kits, Professor of Library Science Margaret Hodges convinced Rogers to donate the materials to Pitt. They would be part of the Elizabeth Nesbitt Collection, named for the former associate dean of what was then known as Information Sciences who was responsible for building a collection of children’s books at the University. Information Sciences Chair Maggie Kimmel secured a two-year federal grant to process the items and the painstaking work began.

“It was an academic project so it was very thorough,” said Mahoney. The librarians routinely came up with “name authority files”—a name given to a person or thing in a catalog that is then used consistently throughout—for every person mentioned in a catalog. Mahoney even recalls a conversation about whether there would be a name authority for the imaginary friend of Daniel Striped Tiger, Malcolm Apricot Dinko. (He does not have a name authority but is in the descriptive text so can be found in a full-text search.) 

When the initial grant ran out, Pitt continued to fund the cataloging project until it was complete around 2003.  

Fred RogersAfter the Information Sciences Library closed in 2012, the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Collection and others housed in the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room were incorporated into the Archives & Special Collections Department in the University Library System. The materials are available to see at the University Library System Resource Facility at 7500 Thomas Blvd. in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. 

Nesbitt collection curator Clare Withers said truck drivers are rare nowadays: it’s usually classes of undergraduate students who come through from a variety of disciplines, including children’s literature and cultural studies.

“They’re mainly interested in the scripts for the programs,” said Withers. “The scripts are not lengthy but there are notes in them and they capture the performance, research, songs, locations, puppetry and blocking all pretty elegantly.” 

“Pittsburgh was really fortunate to have that many phenomenal people, all talking to each other and really moving things forward, all for the betterment of children,” she said.

And there is no doubt in her mind that the soft-spoken TV icon is still relevant.

“I do think Mister Rogers is still beloved,” said Withers. “He is alive and well in Pittsburgh and beyond.”

Related collections at Pitt

Pitt’s Center of American Music is home to the Joe Negri Collection, 1930-2014, the papers of the renowned Pittsburgh jazz guitarist who played Handyman Negri on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It contains Negri’s compositions, recordings, photos and awards, among many other materials.

In addition, the University Library System Archives & Special Collections houses the Don Brockett Papers, 1930-1998, which focuses on the career of the local actor who played Chef Brockett on “Neighborhood.” Part of the Curtis Theatre Collection, they contain his personal papers, as well as scripts, compositions, skits and much more. 

Special Collections also has the Margaret Kimmel Records on Fred Rogers, 1973-2003, which document Kimmel’s work on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Collection and the accompanying 1996 book. She also served as a consultant on the program. Kimmel earned her PhD in 1980 in Pitt’s School of Information Sciences and later returned to teach there.

Finally, Special Collections houses the Margaret Hodges Papers, 1911-2006, which focus on the woman who was instrumental in getting Fred Rogers to donate his materials to Pitt. Hodges—a storyteller, author and Pitt professor emeritus of library and information science—studied under storyteller Elizabeth Nesbitt, an experience that influenced the rest of her life. Hodges began developing the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room at Pitt in 1976 and continued to support this collection of children’s books and periodicals until her death in 2005.

Anyone interested in viewing these materials can find out more at Ask an Archivist.