A Library Primer (1899)/Chapter XXXV

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A Library Primer by John Cotton Dana
Chapter XXXV, Advice to a librarian
[From Public Libraries, June, 1897]

As a matter of fact the position of librarian is more of an executive business affair than a literary one. Let me give you fair warning—it is in no sense your business to dictate to others as to what they may or may not, should or should not, read, and if you attempt to assume such responsibility you will make unnumbered enemies, and take upon yourself a thankless and uncalled-for task.

Frankly, do you know what is good for me to read? Are you not very much in doubt what is best for yourself? Isn't there a doubt in the best and most candid minds upon this same subject? Let the board of directors assume the responsibilities, work carefully and cautiously for the things that are considered best by persons of some authority, the people with sound, healthy bodies and clean minds, and thoroughly distrust the literary crank. Don't be too sure of your own judgment; the other fellow may be right, especially as to what he wants and needs.

Hang on to your tastes and prejudices for yourself, but don't impose them upon others. Cultivate your own tastes carefully by reading but little, and that little of the best; avoid the latest sensation until you are quite sure it is more than a sensation; if you have to buy it to please the patrons, have some convenient (literary) dog of good appetite and digestive organs, and try it on him or her and watch the general effect. You will be astonished how much you will find out about a book, its morals and manners, by the things they don't say. Our mutual friend's father, Mr D——, used to utterly damn a book to me when he said it was Just fair, and his It's a likely story, put things in the front ranks. Just get the confidence of as many readers as you can, grapple some of the most divergent minds with hooks of steel; and in finding out how little you know that is of any real value to anyone else, you will begin to be of some little value to yourself. Don't try to direct. The fellow that wants your direction will cause you to ooze out the information he needs, and you will hardly know that you have told him anything.

I may be, and doubtless am, saying much that is quite unnecessary, but I have tried to bear in mind some of my own mistakes, and of others around me. I have been impressed with the fact that librarians seem to think that they must or ought to know everything, and get to think they do know. It is a delusion. One can't know it all, and only a hopeless case tries.

Be more than content to be ignorant on many things. Look at your position as a high-grade business one, look after the working details, have things go smoothly, know the whereabouts and classification of the books, and let people choose their own mental food, but see to it that all that is put before them is wholesome.