Essays in librarianship and bibliography/The telegraph in the library

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Library administration, like all other departments of human activity in this age, must experience the results of the unexampled development of science in its application to the affairs of life. The most immediately obvious of these are the mechanical: so simple a device as the sliding-press, as will be shown in its place, has saved the nation thousands of pounds. The most promising field for such achievements has hitherto been the United States of America, where the application of scientific contrivances to ordinary purposes is more general than in Europe, and where the more important libraries are new structures, where improvements can form part of the original plan, with no fear of impediment from arrangements already existing. Next to mechanics, photography and electricity may be named as the scientific agencies chiefly adapted for the promotion of library service. Photography has been sufficiently treated in another essay in this volume. The services of electricity will be most cordially acknowledged by those who best remember the paralysis of literary work, alike official and private, engendered by a fog at the British Museum, and in particular recall the appearance of the Reading Room, a Byzantine "tower of darkness," with a lantern dimly burning in the centre, the windows presenting the appearance of slate, and dubious figures gliding or stumbling through the gloom—attendants brought in from the library to take care that the handful of discontented readers did not profit by the opportunity to steal the books. All this nuisance has been abolished by the electric light, which not only renders the Reading Room available for the public on dark days, but allows the ordinary work of the Museum to be carried on in all departments; the same may be said of all other libraries. The beautiful, potent, and above all safe electric ray is an advantage to all, and in dark days a passage from death unto life for those libraries where, as in the Museum, gas has been proscribed on account of its danger and its injurious effects upon books.

The services of electricity to libraries, however, are by no means exhausted by the electric light. It is capable of rendering aid even more important, and the more so in proportion to the extent of the library. The need for rapid communication throughout large buildings has been in some measure met by the telephone, whose usefulness is impaired by its incapacity for transmitting and recording written messages. Recourse must be had to the telegraph—not, of course, that ordinary description of the instrument where the record is made in dots and dashes, intelligible solely to the expert—but the printing telegraph, where the message appears in clear type, or a facsimile of the transmitter's handwriting. The use of such telegraphs for various purposes, especially those of the Stock Exchange, is now very familiar, and there is perhaps no place where it could be introduced with more signal advantage than the Reading Room of the British Museum.

There is no great reason at present for complaint of delay in bringing books from the Museum library to the Reading Room; but the system is not, as so many other points of Museum administration are, one to challenge the administration and emulation of other libraries. It is impossible to observe its working without pronouncing it cumbrous and below the present level of civilised ingenuity. The reader writes his ticket at the catalogue desk, generally with a pen trying to his temper, and the captive of his bow and spear. He then walks some distance to deposit it in a basket on the counter, where it remains until a boy is at hand to carry it to the corridor outside the Reading Room, where it is put into a clip and drawn up to the gallery. All these operations are indispensable so long as recourse is solely had to human muscle, but they evidently involve great loss of time. The object to be aimed at should be the delivery of the ticket at the table of the attendants who procure the book in the library simultaneously with its being written in the Reading Room; and this seeming impossibility can be achieved by the employment of a writing telegraph by which, as fast as the message is written at one end of the wire, it is recorded in facsimile at the other. The present writer has experimented with the American Telautograph, and, so far as the experiments went, nothing could be more satisfactory. No knowledge of telegraphy whatever is required from the operator: he simply inscribes his message with a style on a piece of tissue-paper, and it reappears simultaneously at the other end of the wire. Nothing seems necessary but to furnish the catalogue desks with electrical transmitters (which occupy no great space) instead of inkstands, and to provide for the carrying of the wires out of the room. When the writer endeavoured to introduce electrical communication in 1894, he feared that this requisite would present difficulties, but was assured by experts that it really offered none. The ticket written by the reader might be retained by him as a memorandum: if it could be repeated in duplicate at the other end, one copy might be treated as now; the other, with any necessary correction, might be pasted at once into the register, saving all the time now occupied in registration.

It is of course perfectly possible that hitches and breakings down might at first occur from time to time, from the delicacy of the machine employed, or from other causes. The machines have not been properly tested, nor can they be, except by a continuous course of experiment. But whence this morbid fear of experiment? After Darwin's definition, the apprehension should surely be on the other side. A single machine, kept at work for a week, would be sufficient to test the principle. The first experiments with the electric light at the Museum were anything but promising, but Sir Edward Bond persevered, and the result is what we see.

And how brilliant a result the establishment of telegraphic communication would be! The saving of time is no doubt the most practical consideration, but apart from this, how vast the improvement in the economy of the Reading Room! No more troops of boy attendants, with the inevitable noise and bustle; nothing but the invisible messenger speeding on his silent errand, and the quiet delivery of books at the desks: an unparalleled scene of perfect physical repose in the midst of intense mental activity. Of course the improvement would not stop with the Reading Room, and ere long all departments would be connected by the writing telegraph.

This paper, of course, is not written with any view of recommending the Telautograph. Instruments better adapted for the purpose may exist, although the writer has not met with them. He originally proposed the employment of a printing telegraph as a means of abridging delays in the Reading Room as long ago as 1876. The great improvements in administration introduced at that time, however, rendered the need less urgent; nor, perhaps, was electrical science itself then sufficiently developed. Acquaintance with the Telautograph led him to take the subject up again in 1893 and 1894, and he still hopes to find the electric force a match for vis inertiæ.