The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Public Library and Popular Education

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Public Library and Popular Education
Edition of 1920. See also Public library on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

PUBLIC LIBRARY AND POPULAR EDUCATION. The Growth of the Democratic Idea in Public Libraries. — Historically, the library has always been an adjunct to education. The temple libraries of the Egyptians and Assyrians, the public libraries of the Romans, the monastery and cathedral libraries and the libraries of the mediæval universities kept the educational purposes of the library consciously in the foreground.

Cassiodorus and Saint Benedict in the 6th century emphasized the spiritual benefit to be received from copying and studying the Holy Scriptures. Alcuin (ca. 735-804) was a librarian and a user of libraries as well as a great teacher. The early universities at Trèves, Constantinople, Bagdad, Cairo, Cordova, to say nothing of later universities, were noted for their libraries no less than their teaching faculties.

Cathedral, monastery and other libraries for the clergy, founded in the early centuries of the Christian era, have persisted to our own time. In September 1537 an “injunction” provided that Bibles should be put at public expense into every parish church in England for the free use of the parishioners. In 1651 Humphrey Chetham bequeathed several collections of books to different parishes to serve as parish libraries. Other similar benefactions led Dr. Thomas Bray, the founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to secure the passage by Parliament of “An act for the better preservation of parochial libraries in that part of Great Britain called England.” The idea was not confined to England. Johannes Megapolensis, the first pastor al Albany, had a library of 25 volumes furnished by Patroon Van Rensselaer for pastoral use. The Rev. Thomas Bray in 1697 proposed the purchase of “Lending libraries in all the deaneries of England and parochial libraries for Maryland, Virginia and other of the foreign plantations.” A number of these parochial libraries were sent to Annapolis, Albany, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg and elsewhere. The provincial library at Annapolis, which was sent there in 1697, numbered nearly 1,100 volumes, and was “probably the first free circulating library in the United States.”

Bray at first intended the parochial libraries to be for the use of the clergy. He soon changed their purpose to “lending libraries” open to all, the local collections to be supplemented by the larger provincial libraries. He says: “I hope, though the design seems more immediately directed to the service of the clergy, yet gentlemen, physicians and lawyers will perceive they are not neglected in it. . . . And indeed those persons of quality whose eldest sons being commonly brought up to no employment have a great deal of time lying upon their hands, seem to me to be as nearly concerned as any to favor it. For many of these young gentlemen, when removed from the universities . . . residing all their lifetime in countries where they can meet with no books to employ themselves in reading and whereby they may be able to improve the talent they have there gained; they do therefore too commonly become not so conspicuous for their excellent knowledge and morals as will ever be expected from men of rank and station in their country.” Bray here emphasizes the value of the library as a continuation school for the laity as well as its vocational value to the clergy. Nevertheless, broad as his ideas were, they were essentially aristocratic as well became a period almost devoid of any appreciation of the need of universal education and in which literary culture was a class distinction, not a recognized public need. This is doubtless the chief reason why Bray's libraries failed, for the most part, to accomplish what he expected of them, and why most of them became not only inactive but actually extinct.

A more significant movement in the educational purpose of the library was the foundation by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 of the library of the Junto. Both club and library were deliberately planned for the self-improvement of the members. The library, which afterward developed into the Library Company of Philadelphia, was the first of the subscription libraries which under the name of Mechanics', Athenæum or Society libraries, Young Men's Institutes, etc., soon spread throughout the United States and England. Though this was a proprietary library, it was a collection for tradesmen and mechanics as well as for the gentry. Within a few weeks after the first books arrived the directors agreed that the librarian “may permit any civil gentleman to peruse the books of the Library in the Library room.” Franklin's democratic purpose is shown by the reference, in his ‘Autobiography’ (Chap. V) to this library: “This was the mother of all North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.” Libraries of this type were really more nearly free than their names imply. They were open to practically everyone, their fees were usually small and entirely free use of their reading-rooms was a fairly general practice. Together with the small local “lyceum” libraries which became very common in the fifth to the seventh decade of the 19th century, they did much to promote the reading of American literature and to shape American popular opinion.

Two notable library conferences (in 1853 in New York and 1876 in Philadelphia) greatly stimulated the development of the American public library. Many libraries supported by public tax for public use were already in existence. New York State in 1835 had established a system of “district libraries” in each school district of the State for the free use of the people of the district. Similar legislation was passed in many other States but in few cases was the use of the library at all commensurate with the hopes of the founders. The chief reason was that the library existed, in most cases, as an unadministered collection of books, growing or diminishing by chance and with little or no reference to the tastes or needs of its patrons. The idea that the education of the people through reading should be fostered by State revenues and not left by chance to proprietary or endowed institutions was of slow evolution. Many libraries had long been “public” in the sense of allowing all to use them who wished to do so but there had been little attempt to adapt the character of the library to the need of its community. Thus the Free Library of Hamburg, founded in 1539, issued in 1869 but 4,000 volumes, though its collection numbered nearly 200,000 volumes, chiefly because it was never a really popular library. This is typical of nearly all of the so-called public libraries in Europe and America up to the last quarter of the 19th century.

The new type of public library was described in 1876 by Dr. William F. Poole as follows: “The public library which we are to consider is established by state laws, is supported by local taxation and voluntary gifts, is managed as a public trust, and every citizen of the city or town which maintains it has an equal share in its privileges of reference and circulation. It is not a library simply for scholars and professional men . . . but for the whole community — the mechanic, the laboring man, the serving-girl, the youth and all who desire to read, whatever their rank, intelligence or condition in life. It is the adjunct and supplement of the common-school system. Both are established and maintained on the same principles — that general education is essential to the highest welfare of any people: and considered simply as a question of political economy, it is better and cheaper in the long run to educate a community than to support prisons and reformatories.”

Massachusetts in 1847 had authorized Boston to tax itself for a free public library; New Hampshire in 1849 passed a general law enabling towns to establish and maintain libraries by public taxation. William Ewart secured in 1850 the passage of a bill permitting “the establishment of public libraries and museums in all municipal towns, in England.” Massachusetts in 1851 passed a general law permitting towns throughout the State to establish and maintain public libraries by public tax. The whole underlying purpose of such libraries is democratic. Everyone has equal opportunity to use the books he needs for culture, recreation or for aid in his daily vocation. As the public school has more generally recognized the duty of fitting the individual student to take an individual part in society instead of merely putting him through a uniform course of general training, the educational value of the library has been more generally recognized. The school library has been developed to meet the need of those still in school. The public library meets the needs both of those still in school and those who have left school. By far the greater part of the people of any country leave school with only a slight amount of formal training. Compulsory education seldom extends beyond the 14th or at most the 16th year. Private libraries, especially in the United States, are not generally increasing in number or value. Individual education on civic problems in whose determination every voter has a part can in most cases be obtained in any adequate degree only through an active, well-selected public library. President Hibben of Princeton University says: “At this time [1916], when the whole world seems rushing on to an unknown future, you [librarians] are holding fast the great articles of the past. You are guarding the sources of knowledge. The library is to-day the only absolutely democratic institution that man possesses.” Andrew Carnegie gives as the greatest recent accomplishment of the public library: “The spread of the truth that the public library, free to all the people, gives nothing for nothing; that the reader must himself climb the ladder and in climbing gain knowledge how to live his life well.”

Democracy in any country cannot safely content itself with developing a high average of intelligence, essential as this is. Exceptional citizens must be enabled to develop their exceptional abilities, for the service of the whole community. Every public library must aim to collect some material which, though directly used by only a minority of its public, through them serves the whole community. Not only do the larger libraries aid the research student by their own collections, but virtually the whole country can be served through inter-library loans of material valuable only to the exceptional few.

Substantial agreement on the fundamental moral and social ideas whose sum forms the national ideal is essential for the welfare of any self-determining nation. This is the whole purpose of popular education at public expense. One more step is necessary. Present-day society is so rapidly developing new ideals and modifying old ones that constant self-instruction in prevalent current opinion is necessary for good citizenship and, consequently, for national stability. No school course can give this to the adult. The public library, whose duty is to contain books and periodicals on all phases of controverted subjects, is the only institution which can even measurably give this instruction at times and in forms suited to individual needs.

The recent war has shown clearly the importance of morale in military affairs and every well-considered scheme for the social readjustments which are following the war has included the development of peace-time morale. The library cultivates civic morale through its recreational reading as well as through its professedly educational books. Even the business library has this for one of its aims. The good library of this type usually includes recreational books as a welfare project.

Official Connection of Library and Public Education. — Many legal decisions in the United States, England, Canada, Scandinavia and elsewhere have officially recognized the library as an educational institution. It is on this basis that the library chiefly bases its claims to tax exemption and to direct tax support. In virtually every civilized country the control of libraries is vested in the official department which directs public education.

In the United States the connection between the public library and popular education is usually made by the State Library Commission or by making the library activities of the State a duty of the State Education Department (as in New York and Utah).

Since popular education in the United States most nearly follows a democratic ideal, it is natural that the connection of public education and public library is closer than in any other country. Canada (especially in the province of Ontario) and most European countries include both school and library under their ministries of education. In Norway and Denmark there is a general tendency to consider both school and library essential in popular education. England is beginning to show a similar disposition — an example followed in varying degrees by many of her colonies. In Italy, the connection, though theoretically recognized, is not practically realized to any great extent. France and Germany, with their rigid courses of elementary and secondary training, discourage rather than encourage individual research for those below the university and make little attempt to establish or use public libraries for direct educational purposes. Several provinces of India (notably Baroda and the Punjab) have established library systems for the purpose of popular education.

Specific Educational Activities of the Public Library.— The main lines of direct educational activity in vogue in American libraries are noted below. They are characteristic of the work of nearly all of the better public libraries of the country, though the emphasis on different activities will vary in different places. These are also in the main the same as those of other countries in which the public library is recognized as a part of the public educational system.

(a) Work with Schools. — The school library, definitely planned as an auxiliary to the school course, is rapidly assuming a place of its own. Its limited purpose will always more or less limit its independent development. The public library can and usually does supplement the school library in various ways. Instruction in the use of books and libraries is often given in the public library. Books which the school library cannot afford or which it needs only occasionally are purchased by the public library and books and space are reserved in reading-rooms for the use of individual pupils as well as entire classes. Reference lists are compiled for the use of teachers and pupils and the attention of teachers is called to recent material of use in school work. School collections of pamphlets, clippings, maps, pictures and lantern slides are supplemented by loans from the local public library collection. Material is made accessible at the public library at hours when the school library cannot conveniently be kept open. Much of the technical routine of cataloguing, classification, book purchase, etc., is frequently done through the public library. In some cases, especially in small places, school and public library unite to employ a competent librarian who serves both. In others, branches of the public library, for general public use, are maintained in public school buildings. This interrelation of the two types of libraries tends to make habitual the use of the library after the pupil has left school. In a rather large number of cases, the public library selects the school librarian and administers the school library subject to the general consent of the school authorities.

(b) Work with Children. — The children's room of the public library also supplements the work of the school. The story-hour and the collection of children's literature enable the child to read voluntarily along the lines of his individual tastes. A wider range of subjects and a greater freedom of treatment than the school can give are usually open to the children's librarian. This is especially important in connection with elementary schools and the tendency of teacher, school librarian and children's librarian to work together in this direction is increasing.

(c) Work with Clubs and Societies. — This work may be either with children or adults. In the former case it is usually conducted by the children's department of the public library either independently or in connection with some distinct organization such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc. Carefully selected collections of books suited to the age and taste of the club members are provided, and in many cases meeting-rooms are provided by the library. Boys' and girls' reading, debating or social clubs are also often organized and conducted by the library. The voluntary character of these clubs and the usual insistence on self-government not only act favorably on the older boys and girls who have left school but react very favorably on those still in school.

The adult clubs whose activities are related to the library vary in character from trade unions and other industrial societies (to whom industrial as well as recreational books are supplied) to classes of aliens learning English and to social clubs with literary or sociological purposes. Suitable books and other printed material are furnished and the library often serves as a clearing-house for the club activities. As a public institution, impartial in its aim to furnish any legitimate information on any question affecting public welfare, the library is pre-eminently suited to be an agent in the demonstration of practicable democracy. Its educational service is especially direct in supplementing the conscious attempt at self-culture which is the usual feature of these clubs.

(d) Lectures and Exhibitions. — Closely allied in purpose with the work of the public library with clubs are the lectures and exhibitions held under its auspices in the auditoriums which are a part of most modern public library buildings. These are often conducted by outside organizations to which the library gives a meeting-place or exhibit-room. In such cases the library usually attempts to develop and conserve the educational results by preparing lists of books, periodicals or prints relating to the subject of the lecture or exhibit or by making prominently accessible the selected resources of the library on the subject. In other cases the library prepares the exhibit or plans and conducts the lecture-course and supplements it by its printed material. Exhibits of local industries, arts and crafts and current and local history have shown rather definite educational results. At present the public library is often the only substitute for the public museum. When the work of the public library and the public museum become more closely related, greater results may be expected.

(e) Civic Education. — The library's contribution to civic education has already been noticed. By supplementing the school course, by providing standard and current material on civic matters, by aiding clubs devoted to the study of social questions and by lecture and exhibit the library is an educational force. It furnishes the impartial publicity which promotes discussion of public affairs and which leads to more intelligent decisions concerning them.

The European War revealed the effectiveness of the library as an agent in educational propaganda. The promoters of the liberty loan campaigns, the allied war service campaigns, the land army and similar movements found it an admirable agent for the effective, economical distribution of their printed material as well as for the display of their posters and other advertising material. It furnished material for speakers and writers for the various campaigns. Its effectiveness in this direction has led it to be used by other agencies for public service. Its use as a clearing-house for public information of all kinds seems destined to increase. Its public usefulness in this direction must obviously depend on the judgment shown by the librarian in deciding what organizations and movements are granted this library privilege and by the extent to which they are permitted or encouraged to use it.

In the broader field of international relations the public library can play a very important part through its selection of material dealing with the life, thought and natural resources of foreign countries and by using them to supplement the agencies for civic education already mentioned. It is already proving of great service to schools with inadequate library facilities on whom the present program of Americanization has been imposed with little opportunity for preparation to carry it out.

In the special field of Americanizing the alien the library has been of very direct service. It has supplemented the efforts of the school and other social organizations. It has often anticipated their methods. To many foreigners the library has been the only public institution standing for equal opportunity for voluntary effort. Its auditorium has often been the only respectable meeting place open without taint of specific social or religious propaganda to the alien social group. It has kept alive the human relations of the alien by giving him books and periodicals in his own language, dealing with the United States as well as with his native land. It has organized classes for the study of English and of American institutions and has freely furnished its books to other instructional agencies. Its service is to individuals, not to nationalities or to classes in the mass. Through the cultivation of individual thinking, — the motive principle of democratic education, — it discourages mob thinking and mob action and maintains the traditional American attitude toward civic rights and duties.

(f) Æsthetic Education. — The growing consciousness of the American public to the importance of the cultural in American life is directly aided by the public library. The importance of the library in cultivating literary taste is generally recognized. Much of the support of its work is based on its success in getting the public to use the best books, from a literary and ethical standpoint, which the individual members of that public can read with profit. Its undoubted influence in the formation of public taste in this direction sometimes obscures its equally direct service in æsthetic education.

Nearly every large public library and many small ones maintain collections of prints and act as distributing centres for lantern slides, motion pictures and other illustrative material either from their own collection or lent by larger or more special libraries or departments of education. (See Visual Instruction). Under present housing conditions the public library is often the only practicable public place for the collection of prints and the larger and more costly illustrated books and monographs on art. Some libraries and education departments lend framed pictures for school and home use. The library art collection promotes local arts and crafts as well as art appreciation in general.

Nearly all public libraries include some books on the history and criticism of music. Collections of musical scores and single compositions, instrumental and vocal, are common. A few libraries maintain collections of music rolls for mechanical piano-players. The high cost and perishable character of talking machine records has so far prevented the establishment of many such collections for public use, but some libraries, notably in California, have formed such collections. Many school libraries have collections of these records selected for their direct educational value. The success of many recent “community sings” has been partly dependent on the music collection of the local library.

In the matter of permanent art exhibits the library is properly subordinate to the public museum. In the absence of the latter and to supplement it, the library exhibits as noted above can have distinct educational value.

Bibliography.— Much material on this subject is scattered through educational and library periodicals. Specific references may be found m Cannons, H. G. T., “Bibliography of Library Economy” (London 1910); “Library Work Cumulated” (Minneapolis 1912); Hortzschansky, A., “Bibliographie des bibliotheks- und buchwesens” (Leipzig, annual); and in the monthly summaries of library literature of the Library Journal. The annual volumes of the National Education Association also include many articles on the subject. The reports of the United States Commissioner of Education include valuable summaries and special articles.

Among the more specific books and pamphlets are the following; Adams, H. B., “Public Libraries and Popular Education” (Albany 1900); Alexander, C. B., “The Library in the Economy of the State” (New York 1916); Ayres, L. P., and McKinnie, Adele, “Public Library and the Public Schools” (Cleveland 1916); Bostwick, A. E., “Relationship of the Library and the Public School” (New York 1914); Dana, J. C, “Libraries” (New York 1916); Emery, J. W., “The Library, the School and the Child” (Toronto 1917); Hardy, E. A., “The Public Library, Its Place in Our Educational System” (Toronto 1912); Powell, Sophia H. H., “The Children's Library a Dynamic Force in Education” (New York 1917).

Frank K. Walter,
Vice-Director, New York State Library School.