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Libraries, free public

Free libraries have existed for less than half a century. Their establishment assumed that books are beneficial: but it involved also the assertion that it is the proper function of government to supply books to such of its citizens as may require them at the expense of the community as a whole.

Herbert Putnam, librarian of Congress, writes as follows:

Libraries of this special type do not yet form the major portion of the institutions supplying books on a large scale to groups of persons. Under the head of “Public, Society, and School libraries,” these institutions in the United States aggregate 8,000 in number, with 35,000,000 volumes, with $34,000,000 invested in buildings, with $17,000,000 of endowments, and with over $6,000,000 of annual income. Of these the free public libraries supported by general taxation number less than 2,000, with 10,000,000 volumes, and with less than $3,500,000 of annual income. They are, however, increasing with disproportionate and amazing rapidity. In Massachusetts, but ten of the 353 cities and towns, but three-fourths of one per cent. of the inhabitants, now lack them. One hundred and ten library buildings there have been the gift of individuals. No form of private memorial is now more popular; no form of municipal expenditure meets with readier assent. Nor are the initiative and the expenditure left wholly to local enterprises. The Commonwealth itself takes part : extending, through a State Commission, State aid in the form of books and continuing counsel. And Massachusetts is but one of eight States maintaining such commissions. New York State, in its system of travelling libraries, has gone further still in supplementing initial aid with a continuing supply of books, and even photographs and lantern slides, purchased by the State, and distributed through the Regents of the State University from Albany to the remotest hamlet.

The first stage of all such legislation is an enabling act—authorizing the establishment of a library by the local authorities; the next is an act encouraging such establishment by bounties; and New Hampshire has reached a third by a law actually mandatory, requiring the local authorities to establish free libraries in proportion to their means and the population to be served. This seems to mark the high-water mark of confidence in the utility of these institutions. It indicates that free public libraries are to be ranked with the common schools, as institutions indispensable to good citizenship, whose establishment the State must for its own protection require.

So the movement has progressed, until now these 2,000 public libraries combined are sending out each year over 30,000,000 books, to do their work for good or ill in the homes of the United States. The entire 2,000 result from one conviction and a uniform purpose. Yet among them there is every variety in scope and in organization. There is the hamlet library of a hundred volumes, open for a couple of hours each week in some farm-house, under a volunteer custodian, maintained by the town, but enlisting private contribution through bazaars and sociables, sending out its books by the local pro- [380]

Reading-room in the Lenox Library, New York City.

vision dealer to its remote and scattered constituents. There is the library of the great city, with elaborate equipment and complex organization to meet a vast and complex need. Such a library as you may find at Chicago; a city which, though it has two great endowed reference libraries, still considers its 1,500,000 people entitled to a municipal library, with a $2,000,000 building, studded with costly mosaics, and aided by forty branches and stations in bringing the book nearer each home. Or such a library as exists at Boston; organized as a city department, under trustees appointed by the mayor, maintained, like the schools, or the police, or the fire department, by general taxation, with a central building which has cost the city $2,500,000, with ten branch libraries and seventeen delivery stations scattered through the city and reached daily by its delivery wagons; with 700,000 books; and accommodations for over 2,000 readers at one time: including in its equipment such special departments as a bindery and a printing-office; requiring for its administration over 250 employes, and for its maintenance each year $250,000, in addition to the proceeds of endowments; and representing in its buildings, books, and equipment an investment of over $5,000,000, the interest on which, at 4 per cent., added to the expenditure for maintenance, is equivalent to an annual burden of $450,000 for its creation and support

When this function was first proposed for a municipality, the argument used was that in this country books had come to be the principal instruments of education; that the community was already [381] supporting a public school system; that this system brought a youth to the threshold of education and there left him; that it qualified him to use books, but did nothing to put books within his reach; and finally that it was “of paramount importance that the means of general information should be so diffused that the largest possible number of persons should be induced to read and understand questions going down to the very foundations of social order, which are constantly presenting themselves, and which we, as a people, are constantly required to decide, and do decide, either ignorantly or wisely.”

A glance at the libraries now in operation in the United States shows that the ends proposed for them fall far short of the service which they actually perform. They begin with the child before he leaves the school; while he is still in his elementary studies they furnish him with books which stir his imagination, and bring the teaching of the text-books into relation with art and with life. They thus help to render more vivid the formal studies pursued; but they also prepare the child to become an intelligent constituent hereafter. This work cannot begin too early, for four-fifths of the children pass out into active life without reaching the high schools. It need not be deferred, for now the number is almost countless of books that touch with imagination and charm of style even the most elementary subjects; and the library can add illustrations which through the eye convey an impression of the largest subjects in the most elemental way.

If the library begins with the citizen earlier than was foreseen, it is prepared to accompany him further than was thought necessary. It responds not only to the needs of the general reader, but also to those of the student and even, to the extent of its means, to those of the scholars engaged in special research. The maintenance of universities at the common expense is familiar in the West; it is less so in the East. And there is still contention that institutions for highly specialized instruction should not be charged upon the community as a whole. But no one has questioned the propriety of charging upon the community the support of a library whose leading purpose may be the encouragement of the higher scholarship.

Finally, to the services just described the public library has added another: the supply of books for purposes purely recreative. This service, if anticipated, was certainly not explicitly argued for; nor was it implied in Edward Everett's prediction that the public library would prove the “intellectual common” of the community. The common that Mr. Everett had in mind was a pasturage, not a base-ball ground, or lovers' walk, or a loafing-place for tramps.

But as regards certain of the books customarily supplied, the ordinary public library of to-day is furnishing recreation rather than instruction. In fact, if we look at the history of free public libraries in this country, we find that the one point of practice on which they have been criticised is the supply of merely recreative literature. The protest has come from thoughtful persons, and it means something, lightly as it has been waved aside.

The excuse that used to be given for the supply of inferior books was that they would entice to the use of the better books. There was to be reached a mass of persons of inferior taste and imperfect education. These persons must be introduced gradually to an acquaintance with the better class of reading through the medium of the familiar. And, at all events, it was better that they should read something than not read at all.

I am not quite so confident of the regenerating virtue of mere printed matter, as such; and I am confident that the reading of a book inferior in style and taste debases the taste, and that the book which sets forth, even with power, a false view of society does harm to the reader, and is so far an injury to the community of which he is part. But even granting the premises, the conclusion is doubtful. We do not deliberately furnish poor art at public expense because there is a portion of the public which cannot appreciate the better. Nor when the best is offered, without apology, does the uncultured public in fact complain that it is too “advanced.” Thousands of “ordinary” people come to see and enjoy the Abbey and Chavannes and Sargent decorations in the [382] Boston Public Library. No one has yet complained that the paintings are too advanced for him. The best of art is not too good for the least of men, provided he can be influenced at all. Nor are the best of books too good for him, provided he can be influenced at all, and provided they are permitted, as are the pictures, to make their appeal directly. They must not be secluded behind catalogues and formal paraphernalia. The practice which admitted the scholar to the shelves, and limited the general reader to the catalogues, gave the best opportunity to him who least

The Boston public Library.

needed it. The modern practice sets before the reader least familiar with good titles a selection of good Books. It places them on open shelves, where he may handle them without formality. The result is, almost invariably, that he is attracted to a book in advance of his previous tastes. Perhaps a chance paragraph appeals to some experience or ambition, or an illustration stirs his imagination. The books themselves draw him outside of his previous limitations.

In the place, therefore, of books inferior in quality, the more modern public library seeks to attract by the freest possible access to books of the best quality. Not that this practice is universal. But the opinion and tendency are in this safe direction.

However, quality assumed, the general question as to the reading of recreative literature remains. What shall we say of the fact that 60 per cent. of the circulation of the free public libraries still consists of fiction?

In the first place, that this percentage takes no account of reference use, which is almost wholly of serious literature; second, that as to home use the ratio in circulation of fiction to serious literature does not represent a similar ratio of trivial to serious service. Fiction is the small coin of literature. It must circulate more rapidly to represent the same volume of real business done. A volume of fiction may be issued, returned, and reissued three times, while a biography or history or work of science is issued once. It will then count 75 per cent. in the circulation. But the serious book has [383] during the entire period been out in the hands of the reader; and the service which it has performed—the period of attention which it has occupied—equals that of the novel in its three issues. And, finally, there is to be considered the influence of the best fiction towards general culture (if the library is not merely to inform, but also to cultivate) in broadening the sympathies, giving a larger tolerance, a kindlier humanity, a more intelligent helpfulness, in affording the rest that is in itself an equipment for work, and the distraction that may save from impulse to evil.

However, the amount of fiction circulated in proportion to the total work of the library is on the average steadily decreasing. At the same time the quality is improving; in part through critical selection, in part as a happy result of the fact that the inferior novels are also, as a rule, inferior books, so poorly manufactured that libraries cannot afford to buy them.

But there is standard fiction and current fiction, and it is the current fiction that constitutes by itself a special problem still perplexing. It is a problem that concerns not the uneducated child, nor the illiterate adult; it is caused by the people of intelligent education who are eager to read the latest novel by Mr. X. or Mrs. Y. while it is still the latest novel by Mr. X. or Mrs. Y. It is being talked about at dinner and afternoon tea. Wellinformed people are reading it; to read it is a social necessity.

The reason that presses the public library to supply promptly every most recent book in the domain of scientific literature is apparent enough. Such literature contributes facts which are the data for action. But novels in general belong to the literature of power. Their purpose is not to furnish information, but to give pleasure. Literature of this sort adds no new fact, nor is it superseded, nor does it lose any of its value by lapse of time. To assume that it does would be to assume that beauty of form could become obsolete. This is not so in painting, in sculpture, in architecture. Why should it be so in prose fiction, in poetry, in the drama? Was there, in fact, an aesthetic value in the Canterbury tales in 1380, in Hamlet in 1602, in Ivanhoe in 1819, that is not to be found in them now?

But a large portion of latter-day fiction is fiction with a purpose; another way of saying that it is a work of art composed for the dissemination of doctrine. This element promotes it at once to the dignity of a treatise, a new view of politics, a new criticism of social conditions, a new creed. Here is something that concerns the student of sociology. And surely his needs are worthy of prompt response.

In fact, his needs and the general curiosity do get prompt response, and the new novels are freely bought. How freely I have recently sought to ascertain. I asked of some seventy libraries their yearly expenditure for current fiction in proportion to their total expenditure for books. The returns show an average of from 10 to 15 per cent. In one case the amount reached 50 per cent., in others it fell as low as 2 per cent. The ratio for fiction in general is much higher on the average; but fiction in general includes Scott and Thackeray and other standards, an ample supply of which would not usually be questioned. At Providence and at Worcester, two of the most active and popular of public libraries, the purchases of fiction, current and standard, formed in a single year but 7 and 11 per cent., respectively, of the entire expenditure for books.

At Boston there were selected but 178 titles of current fiction (out of nearly 600 read and considered). But some dozen copies were bought of each title, so that the entire purchase reached 2,300 volumes, and cost about $2,300. This was about 6 1/2 per cent. on a total expenditure for books of $34,000. At St. Louis the practice is to buy but two copies out of the general funds to be circulated free. Nearly 100 more are added which are rented out, and thus pay for themselves.

The statistics do not seem to show that the initial expenditure for current fiction is very alarming. But the purchase price of these books is but a fraction of the expense of handling them. They cannot be supplied in adequate quantities; for while the frenzy of curiosity persists, an adequate supply is beyond the resources of any library. But [384] since the attempt to supply is futile, the pretence is injurious. The presence of the titles in the catalogues misleads the reader into a multitude of applications which are a heavy expense to the library, without benefit to him. And the acquisition of the single book means to the library the expense of handling 100 applications for it which are futile to one that can be honored. In this sense a current novel involves perhaps 100 times the expense of any other book in being supplied to but the same number of readers.

The British Museum acquires the new novels as published; but it withholds them from readers until five years after their date of publication. It is my personal belief that a one-year limitation of this sort adopted by our free libraries generally would relieve them of anxiety and expense, and their readers of inconvenience and delusion.

But as regards current light literature in general, it is worth while to consider whether the responsibility of public libraries has not been modified by the growth and diffusion of the newspaper and periodical press. In 1850, when the free public library was started, the number of newspapers and periodicals published in the United States was about 2,500; now it is nearly 20,000. The total annual issues have increased from 400,000,000 to over 4,500,000,000 copies.

The ordinary daily of 1850 contained perhaps a single column of literary matter. To-day it contains, for the same price, seven columns. In 1850 it gave no space to fiction; now it offers Kipling, Howells, Stockton, Bret Harte, Anthony Hope, Crockett, Bourget, and many others of the best of the contemporary writers of fiction.

Then there are the cheap magazines, which tender a half-dozen stories for the price of a cigar or a bodkin. There are, also, the cheap “libraries,” which have flooded the United States with engaging literature available to almost any purse.

In short, conditions have altered. A vast mass of light literature is now cheaply accessible to the individual which formerly could be acquired only painfully, or at great expense. Why, then, should the public libraries struggle longer to supply it in book form at the public expense?

But as to a certain percentage of current light literature, there is an embarrassment that I have not touched. It is the embarrassment of making selection without giving offence. All cannot be bought. A choice must be made. With reference to standard literature, authoritative judgment is not difficult to obtain. But here there has been no lapse of time to balance opinion. An anticipatory estimate must be attempted, and attempted by the library itself.

Now, if the library decide against the book it is very likely held to blame for “dictating” to its readers. “It is one thing,” says a journal, commenting on a certain adverse decision— “it is one thing to consider this novel pernicious, but it is another and more serious thing for the foremost library in the country, maintained at public expense, to deny to a large and respectable portion of the public an opportunity to judge for itself whether the work of a man of (this author's) calibre is pernicious or not.”

The author in this case was, of course, not Mr. X., but rather Mr. A., an already known quantity.

So a library is not to be permitted to apply a judgment of its own! It is not protected by the fact that this judgment coincides with the judgment of professional critics—so far, at least, as these may be ascertained. The author may have turned perverse and written a book distinctly bad. Yet this book is to be bought and supplied to enable each member of the public to form a judgment of his own upon it. And it is to be so bought out of public funds intrusted to the library for educational purposes. Censorship has to us an ugly sound; but does the library act as censor when it declares a book beyond its province? Does it dictate what the people shall read when it says, “We decline to buy this book for you with public funds?”

This is a question which is far larger than the selection or rejection of a novel or two. It involves the whole question of authority, and it concerns not merely the extremes, but the varying degrees of worth in literature. Most departments of educational work are founded upon [385] principles, cautiously ascertained, and systematically adhered to. Their consistent maintenance upon principle is the easier because each other such department deals with a special constituency, limited either in age or perhaps in sex, or at least in purpose, and one which accepts as authoritative the system provided for it. The free public library, however, has to satisfy a constituency practically unlimited, ineluding every age and both sexes, whose intellectual need ranges from that of the most illiterate to that of the most highly accomplished, whose education in books ranges from that of the person who has never entered a library to that of the scholar whose life has been a perpetual training in the use of a library; the assertive classes, the bashful classes. And if towards this vast and heterogeneous constituency it seeks to assume the position of an educator, it finds that its authority is not one which the constituents themselves are unanimously willing to concede. Each constituent deems himself not a beneficiary accepting some service, but a proprietor demanding it. Now, within each community there are persons who would have every kind of printed matter published. If, therefore, a public library is simply to respond to the demands of its readers, we must have, instead of an educational system devised by experts and administered with reference to general principles, a system fluctuating with each eccentric requirement of individuals, indefinite in number, various in taste and culture, inexpert, except as each may be competent to judge his own need, incapable of expression in the aggregate, and as individuals without responsibility for the general results.

If, on the other hand, an authority is to be vested in the library, what limits shall it set upon itself, upon what principles of discrimination shall it proceed, in what directions may it expediently control? I but state the problem. I shall not endeavor to answer it. But it is one of the most important involved in the relation of the public library to the community.

From such questions an ordinary educational institution stands aloof. It is content to represent the judgment of the majority in matter of morality and to inculcate the lesson of tried truths as against untried fancies in matter of opinion affecting the social order. It thus throws its influence in favor of the established order of things. But its right, nay, its duty, to do this is unquestioned. Nor is it regarded as disparaging the opinion which it does not teach.

But a public library is not so exempt. In addition to the doctrine which is accepted, it is held to have a duty to the opinion which is struggling for recognition. As to minority opinion, it is not so much a university as a forum. Nay, it is to give every advantage to minority opinion, for —in our resentment of intolerance—minority opinion is not merely tolerated, it is pampered.

Now, it is not for libraries or librarians to act as censors and denounce this or that publication. Yet it is to be remembered that a library which circulates a book helps to promulgate the doctrine which the book contains. And if public libraries circulate books which teach restless, irreverent, or revolutionary doctrines, they offer us the incongruity of a municipality aiding in the propagation of ideas which are subversive of social order.

On the other hand, if there is to be exelusion on such grounds, where is the line of exclusion to be drawn? Shall we say at doctrines which, if carried into action, would be criminal under the law? Would the public rest content with this?

Moreover, the principle of exclusion accepted, who is to apply it? Whose judgment shall determine whether the particular book does or does not offend? Shall the library determine? But will it not then be “dictating” to its readers? Will it not be unduly discriminating against a certain class of opinion when it has undertaken to represent impartially all shades of opinion? Will it not offend the remonstrant against the existing order of things who has a grievance, and, therefore, a right to be heard; and the defender of the existing order of things who must know the new opinion in order to combat it; and the student of sociology whose curiosity reaches all extremes and regards them simply as phenomena upon which he is entitled to be informed?

I believe that it will. And yet I do not see how the library can escape exercising [386] judgment. For there is no other responsible authority which can be brought to exercise it. We must then expect numerous decisions which will offend a portion of the community. They will usually be on the conservative side—of exclusion. And it is for those who believe that a public library should be a conservative influence in the community to see that it has the authority and is protected in its exercise.

Not that in respect of the violent books there is great injury in present conditions. In the public libraries of to-day there exists, no doubt, material sufficiently anarchic to upset society, if it could have its will upon society. The fact is, that though there is plenty in literature that is incendiary, there is little in our community that is inflammable.

The good that the libraries do is obvious and acknowledged. They represent the accumulated experience of mankind brought to our service. They are the custodians of whatever is most worthy of preservation in our own life and literature. They are the natural depositories of what we have of memorial and of records; the original entries of legislation and of achievement. They must render history available; they must adequately exhibit science; they may help to refine by the best examples in each art, and in this they may also contribute to the industrial life of the community by educating the artisan into an artist, his craft into an art. And through record and description of processes and inventions they may contribute to the foundations of great industries. They touch the community as a whole as perhaps does no other single organized agency for good. They offer to the shyest ignorance equality with the most confident scholarship, and demand no formal preliminary which might abash ignorance.

They have a profound duty—not generally appreciated—to help render homogeneous the very heterogeneous elements of our population. Thirty per cent. of it has come to us from an alien life and alien institutions. One-third of the people in our six leading cities are of foreign birth; 71 per cent. were either born abroad or born of foreign parentage. In the assimilation of this foreign element no single agency is perhaps so potent as our public libraries.

The public libraries deem themselves the allies of formal educational processes; but also the direct educators of that part of the community not subject to the formal processes. It is this latter responsibility which has led them to attempt a broader service than the mere supply of books. A book is not the only nor necessarily the most effective vehicle for conveying knowledge. There are illustrations which more directly convey an impression, and often as fully state a fact. And photographs and process reproductions are now part of the equipment of a public library almost as conventional as books. Within the past year 10,000 such have been added to the collection of the Boston Public Library; not as works of art (they are for the most part cheap silver prints and the Art Museum is but 100 feet distant ); nor merely as aids to the study of the fine arts and the useful arts, but also as convenient auxiliaries to the study of history, of literature, and of institutions. And they are used by individuals and by classes not as a substitute for the text, but as helping to render vivid the lesson of the text.

With these go lectures in exposition. Every building of importance recently designed for the uses of a public library includes an art-gallery and a lecture-hall. What an immense augmentation of function this implies! It implies that the library is no longer merely an aggregate of books, each passive within rigid limits; but that it is an active agent having under its control material which is kept plastic and which it moulds into incredibly varied shapes to suit incredibly varied needs.

The experience of the Boston Public Library shows that in the case of books each increase of facilities creates an increased demand. The trustees of 1852 boasted that they were providing for as many as fifty readers at a time; the trustees of 1887 thought themselves venturesome in providing for 500 readers at a time; and within a month after the new building was opened it was forced to accommodate over 700 at a time. Every week over 30,000 persons enter the Central Library building, and every year [387] 1,200,000 volumes are drawn for home use by the 65,000 card-holders. Yet these figures represent still but a portion of the persons to be reached and the work to be done. Nor can facilities for distribution keep pace with the need. For a city of a half-million people spread over an area of 40 square miles adequate library facilities cannot ever be provided. A municipality which even approximates the adequate in providing buildings, equipment, administration, and general literature at the public expense must still look to private gift for the specialized material necessary to a great reference collection. That the Boston Public Library is next to the British Museum in Shakespeariana is, to be sure, the result of a special expenditure by the city. But the larger part of its special collections which have given it distinction as a great scholar's library has come from private gift; the Ticknor collection of Spanish literature, the Bowditch collection of mathematics, the Chamberlain collection of autographs, the Brown collection of music, and many others. And a city which erects for its public library a building which is monumental is puttting forward the most attractive invitation to private gift. The gifts which have come to Boston as the direct result of the new building have already reached a twelfth of its cost.

With proper organization and a liberal co-operation between municipal and private effort the opportunities for service are almost limitless. The risk is the greater of attempts at service either legally inappropriate or practically inexpedient, and the risk is not lessened by a popular appreciation which is more enthusiastic than it is apt to be discriminating. There is, therefore, the greater need of discrimination on the part of the library itself and of an authority which will protect its exercise. This authority can be conferred only by intelligent public opinion on the part of those who are capable of appreciating constitutional limitations.

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