Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/The Public and its Public Library

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THE opponents of the system of free, tax-supported public schools never have been answered. That they are wrong in their position is not proved, as so many seem to think, by a simple reference to the great growth and seeming success of the free public-school system and its attendant free public library system in this country. An institution may thrive, may apparently fulfill the purpose for which it was designed, and may at the same time be working great harm to the people who have adopted it and maintain it and trust in it—a harm which may become apparent only after a long series of years, and apparent at first, even then, only to the most careful observer. It is a familiar fact that a great change in governmental policy may not produce its full effect for many decades. We are still in the dark as to what will be the final outcome, and especially the final effect on character, of the free public educational system.

The individualist opponent of that system says that the individual is the important thing. He contends that the individual is happiest when he has the maximum of freedom; that he best develops when he most fully reaps the rewards of his own exertions and his own self-denials, and most fully receives the punishment of his own indolence and his own prodigality—of his own failure to adjust himself to men and things about him. The mass, he says, may restrain the individual who would make an attack on others; it may refuse to affiliate with the individual who does not do those things which it thinks he should do. For the mass to do more than this, he says, is so to restrict individual activity and to prevent the play of natural forces as to make impossible the development of the only kind of individuals that can form the ideal society.

This is stating it crudely. It at least suggests, however, that the advocate of liberty has on his side some of the arguments gained from the study of biology and of history. The former seems to tell us that the fittest have survived in open fight—that only by this open fight do those more fit appear; the latter seems to tell us that the better government governs the least; that the only wise thing the ruler, whether king or majority, can do for the social organism is to let it alone.

If it is of doubtful expediency, then, for the sovereign majority to take from the individual by force the means wherewith to maintain a library for the pleasure and edification of all, it is the part of wisdom to see that that library is made, as far as may be, the sure antidote to the possible bane of its origin. It must teach freedom, by its contents and by its administration. It must cultivate the individual. It must add to the joy of life. Always it must truly educate.

It is in the light of the preceding, perhaps rather doctrinaire, remarks that the following notes have been written and should be read.

The public owns its public library. This fact sheds much light on the question of public library management. It means that the public library must be fitted to public needs. It must suit its community. It must do the maximum of work at the minimum of expense. It must be an economical educational machine. It must give pleasure, for only where pleasure is is any profit taken. It must change in its manner of administration with the new time, the new relations of books to men and of men to books. It need not altogether forget the bookworm or the belated historian, and it can take note here and there of the lover of the dodos and the freaks among printed things. But its prime purpose is to place the right books in the proper hands, to get more joyful and wise thoughts into the minds of its owners. The means of its support are taken by force from the pockets of the competent and provident; this fact should never be lost sight of. It lives in a measure by the sword. It can justify itself in this manner of securing its support only by putting into practice the familiar theory that the state, would it insure its own continuance, must see that all its citizens have access to the stores, in books, of knowledge and wisdom. It must be open to its public; it must invite its public; it must attract its public; it must please its public—all to the end that it may educate its public.

The old-time library was simply a storehouse of treasures. There were few to read books; there were few books to be read, and those few were procured at great cost of labor and time. They could be replaced when lost or stolen only with great difficulty, if at all, and they were guarded with exceeding care. With the cheapening of book-producing processes the reasons for this extreme safe-guarding of books disappeared. Its spirit, however, is still active. Several causes have combined to keep it alive. Even to this day there are a few books, relatively very few, which are of great value and can be replaced only with extreme difficulty or at great expense. There are also books—first editions, fine bindings, last surviving copies, and early specimens of printing—which are rightly much prized by the artist, the antiquarian, the curio hunter, or the historian of handicraft. These are all most properly regarded as treasures, and are kept under lock and key. But the fact that there are a few books which should be carefully preserved from loss or injury is not sufficient cause for keeping up in these days a barrier between the public and its library. Set aside these greatly valued books and the few works highly prized for certain special reasons which the average library contains, and there is left the great body of modern books, not expensive, easily replaced, and of far more importance to ninety-nine in a hundred of any public library's constituents than all the book curios the world contains. In any save the very richest and largest libraries in this country the books which can not be duplicated at a reasonable cost have no proper place. It is with the modern, inexpensive works that the public library chiefly concerns itself. Its art publications and its rarities of every kind can easily be disposed of in safety vaults or private rooms. Its more valuable works of reference can be guarded from any probable mutilation by a little special service. Its main collection, sixty to eighty per cent of the average library, is what the public wishes to use. These form any library's real tools in its avowed purpose of aiding in the education of the community in which it is placed.

The readers of books, moreover, are no longer few but many, and have greatly changed their manner of looking at books and the guardianship of them in the past hundred years. The taxpaying citizen to-day has his own daily or weekly paper, if nothing more, and knows well that a printed page is no longer a sacred or an expensive thing. He walks up to the shelves of the bookstore or to the counter of the news stand and selects his own reading, under his own rules, in accordance with his own opinion of his needs, and after an actual inspection of what the shelves can afford him. He has learned, or is fast learning, that public library treasures are in the main treasures no longer; that the only rational selection of reading is one made after the examination of many books; and he is beginning to demand that he be permitted to come in immediate contact with the volumes he is invited to read. The public library, whether it be a library which the people are taxed to maintain or a library which belongs to them by gift, must, so the demand goes, be managed with as much consideration for its patrons and with as much appearance of faith in their honesty as the ready-made-clothing house or the bookstore. This demand is seconded by the new view of the functions of a public library; it is, in fact, a part of this new view. The library is no longer looked upon as a storehouse of learning, to be used by the few already learned; it is thought of as a factor in the growth of the community in wisdom, in social efficiency, and a factor therein second only to the public schools, if second even to them. It is accordingly widening its business of book distributing by the addition of the powers possible to it as a laboratory of general learning. Of books it is as true as of the materials of chemistry, botany, or biology—and even the non-literary, wayfaring man begins to see this—that only by working among them and with them can one get out of them their real worth. The public to-day, in a word, sees the importance—the absolute necessity, in fact of the laboratory method in that study of books which underlies, or at least accompanies, the study of all other things.

In its attractiveness to the would-be student, not to mention the desultory reader, the library whose resources are open for examination and selection is far superior to the one which keeps its patrons on the outside of the delivery counter. The book buyer finds delight in a personal inspection of the volumes he would select from. It is by the unrestrained browsing through a score of inviting volumes that the student, whether beginner or expert, finds at last the one which meets his case. To all who are drawn, whether in ignorant questioning or in enlightened zeal, to visit a collection of books, the touch of the books themselves, the joy of their immediate presence, is an inspiring thing. Those who have had experience of both methods testify that the open library gives more pleasure, encourages reading of a higher grade, and attracts more readers than the library which is closed to the public.

The cheapness of books; the growth of the public's feeling of ownership in its library, and of the propriety of laying hands on its own; a recognition of the great educational value of the laboratory method in library administration; and the widening of its field of work which a library gains by the added attractions of free access to its shelves—these considerations, save in certain peculiar cases, seem to decide the question of the proper policy of the public library toward its public. That more communities do not now demand the adoption of the system of open shelves in their public libraries is due largely to the conservatism of library boards, and to an unreasoning submission to authority on the part of the reading public. Even the enlightened are slow to ask for a right before they have exercised it and experienced its advantages.

These statements of proper library methods will seem to the reader who is not familiar with public library methods as they are, simple, commonplace, and self-evident. He may well wonder why one takes the trouble to repeat them in print. By way of justification it should be said that the manner of conducting a public library now in almost universal use in this country is this: Between the books and the would-be users of them is placed an insurmountable barrier. At this barrier stand librarian and attendants. The reader or student flounders about in a list of the library's books until he arrives at a guess—it is often not more than a guess—at the titles of the books he wishes. A list of these books he hands over the barrier to the attendant, and of them the attendant brings him the first one that happens to be in. Perhaps he wishes to make a study of some subject. Generally, in such a case, he must make out a list from a brief catalogue of the books which he thinks may help him, and of the titles of articles which he surmises will be useful in files of periodicals or proceedings. This list, handed to the attendant, brings him some of the things called for. Half of them are probably not what he expected, and he must try again. Always between him and the sources of information the personality of librarian or attendant obtrudes itself. His wants must trickle over a library counter, and then must filter through the mind of a custodian who is perhaps not very intelligent and is probably not very sympathetic, before they can be satisfied by contact with the books themselves. In a good many libraries a few reference books are placed where any one can reach them. But this is in most cases the limit of the concession, made to the demand for immediate contact with the library's resources. The new library in Boston has stored the most of its popular books, the books which the majority of its patrons most call for, in a dark warehouse, lighted only by artificial light, and reached, as far as the borrower is concerned, only by mechanical contrivances which compel a wait of nearly ten minutes for every book called for. The borrower can not see the books; he can not even see the person who does see them. He must depend on lists, telephones, pneumatic tubes, and traveling baskets—and this in the most expensive and most extensive and most lauded library in the United States to-day.

What, now, the open-shelf method of administration being decided upon, should be the character of the building in which the public library is housed? The storehouse idea must be discarded at once. What is wanted is a workshop, a place for readers and students, not a safety-deposit building. The men and women who visit the library and use it—their convenience and comfort must be first consulted; how the books are to be stored is another and a secondary question. Nor can the monumental idea be for a moment maintained. The library, if it is to be a modern, effective, working institution, can not forego the demands of its daily tenants for light, room, and air, and submit to the limitations set by calls for architectural effects, for imposing halls, charming vistas, and opportunities for decoration. The workshop, the factory, the office building, the modern business structure of almost any kind, these, rather than the palace, the temple, the cathedral, the memorial hall, or the mortuary pile, however grand, supply the examples in general accordance with which the modern book laboratory should be constructed. It is a place, is this book laboratory, in which each day hundreds and thousands of visitors must, for ten minutes or as many hours, use their eyes in reading type of all degrees of excellence and badness. First, then, every sacrifice must be made to secure all possible daylight in every corner. It is a place, again, in which many of the daily visitors will wish to go, at the same time, to the same shelves, the same cases, the same alcoves, or the same rooms, and the same desks and tables. Space—well-lighted, well-ventilated floor space—then, should be given to the public with the utmost prodigality. There is no room left, unless economy in construction and administration be entirely disregarded for architectural display, except as it is the natural outcome of plans based primarily on utility.

The power of a library lies first in its books. Up to a certain variable limit, varying with their character and with the time and the place, quantity of books is of first importance. As the library supported by compulsory taxation is justified only as it serves to make the ignorant citizen wise and the wise citizen wiser still, its first care should be for its supply of tools—its implements for cultivating wisdom—its books. The library building, as of the second and not of the first importance, should therefore be economical in its construction. It need not be, it should not be, penurious in its appearance. To a limited extent it may speak to the passer-by of the generosity of the community, of the respect in which its builders hold the business of education. But if solid and plain and manifestly adapted to the purpose for which it is designed, it can not well escape the attributes of dignity, and, to the reasoning observer, of beauty. The magnificent pile, to which architect and trustee can point the casual passer-by with pride, which may awe the taxpayer into forgetfulness of the contractor's bills, this has no excuse. It comes, and it promises to come often; but it is permitted by the populace in momentary forgetfulness of the public library's excuse and function, not in reasoned belief in the utility of bibliothecal palaces.

The free public library building, large or small—and of the college, university, or reference library the same may be said—so constructed as to serve thoroughly well the purposes for which it is intended, exists in theory only. It may be possible to find in this country a few small libraries in which an honest attempt has been made, with moderate success, to grapple with the library building problem. In the vast majority of cases such light as experience in library administration is able to throw on the question of the proper internal arrangement of a library building—the proper distribution of expenditure in securing room, light, ventilation, and workableness—has been simply ignored. Arguments drawn from utility, from comfort of readers and borrowers, and from economy of administration, have been set aside. Full rein often, the loose rein always, has been given to trustees' and architects' desires for architectural effect. This is the more strange because certain principles of library construction are well understood and are no longer matters for debate.

Convenient, economical, effective administration of a library calls for greater ease of access and facility of communication in the building used than does any other form of business, be it industrial, commercial, official, administrative, or religious. And this need for ease and speed in intercommunication increases rather than diminishes with the increase in the size of the library, and in the number of its patrons. Illustrations of how this general principle of library construction has been ignored may be easily found. To note the Newberry Library in Chicago and the Boston Public Library is here sufficient. Compare the accommodation possible for the busy and impatient patron—and the busy and impatient patron is one of the patrons the modern library should especially strive to serve—in these ill-adapted structures with that possible, with a few quite minor changes, in the modern tall office building, and the point is made clear at once. The whole monumental style of library architecture is almost of necessity the greatest of handicaps on library administration. It may be said, of course, that it is sometimes advisable to erect first a noble monument, then to make out of it as good a library as its monumental character permits. Granted. But it should be thoroughly understood, when such a building is up for consideration, that it is a monument, not a library. When our architects have fully seized the modern situation in its demands and its materials; when the spirit which put up the lying exteriors of the Chicago World's Fair buildings, and thereby delayed our architectural emancipation by many a long day, has begun to die out, it may be possible to erect a thoroughly useful and entirely workable building which shall be in every part a library and also an artistic monument.

The point in the free public library to which the public comes in the largest numbers is the delivery counter. The public side of this delivery counter should be a room easy of access from the street, with cloak and toilet rooms near its entrance; well lighted, that catalogues and lists may be easily consulted, and that the work of the assistants may be done in the main without artificial light; large enough to accommodate comfortably the greatest crowd the library expects ever to attract; and so closed in that the talk and movement which necessarily accompany intercourse between visitors and the library staff will not disturb workers or readers in other parts of the library. A corner of this room, easy of access from the counter, should be devoted to the information desk, at which the stranger or the student will get prompt and courteous and full replies to all questions in regard to the library's methods and resources, and suggestions in regard to books or departments to be consulted on any specific topic. Near this information desk should be the desk at which borrowers' or members' cards, permits, etc., are issued. In the delivery room, or in a room opening from it, should be the catalogue resources of the library. The delivery counter should be so constructed as to serve as an aid in the transaction of business—as a means of communication, not as a barrier—between the assistants and the public. Near to it and easy of access should be the books of the lending department; nearest to it, those most used. If for good reason it is found necessary to forbid the public access to any part of the lending department, it may prove advisable to place such part at some distance from the delivery counter, and to move the books to and fro by means of lifts, belts, or like devices. But any plan by which the attendant, to whom a request for certain books is made, is prevented from easy access to them, stands in the way of the library's educational work, especially where the would-be borrower is himself denied the opportunity to see for himself, in any department, the books he would select from. If a book asked for is not in, another of equal or greater value on the same subject may be in. The borrower, denied access to the shelves, should at least have, if he wishes it, the benefit of the attendant's knowledge of this fact. A delivery service made up largely of mechanical contrivances may easily put into the hands of the public several thousand books in a day. It may serve a good purpose in so doing. It may find its proper field in performing part of the book-lending work in any large library. But it certainly can not compete, from an educational point of view, with a service in which the attendant puts himself for the moment in the inquirer's place, and himself goes to the shelves with an intelligent interest in the inquirer's wants.

Near the counter should be the catalogue room; and the private official catalogue of the library should be open to the public, if possible. Such an arrangement saves much costly duplication. It is also desirable to have the information about the library's books which is stored up in the catalogue room made available for the public at short notice.

Near the delivery room and not far from the main book room should be a special room for children, in which may be kept all juvenile literature, so arranged that the children may make their own choice from the shelves. This will prove a strong attraction to the young people, will increase their use of books of the better class, will free other parts of the library from the disturbance children necessarily entail, and will save time and labor at the delivery counter.

The room for reference work, if the whole library is not thrown open for this purpose, must be not far from the main book room, must be near the catalogue, and should be near the delivery counter. It should be so planned that those who come to the library simply for a book, or to ask a question, or on sight-seeing, will not be compelled to pass through it.

The retiring rooms and lunch rooms for assistants, the conversation or class rooms for special work, the rooms for rough work—as mending or binding and the manual part of the preparation of books for the shelf—the periodical room, and the newspaper room can all be placed at a distance from the library's real center, the delivery counter; though the last two must be near enough to the reference room to make it easy for readers in the latter to consult the current numbers of magazines and journals.

The office of the librarian in charge should be near to the delivery room, and preferably not far from either catalogue or reference room.

The books in the public library should be selected with reference to the people who will use them. The people who make use of the free public library are, sixty per cent or more of them, readers of little but the newspapers, the popular magazine, and novels. The reading room should supply, and generously, the newspaper and the periodical. The circulating department should put much thought and much energy into fiction. The fiction shelves, perhaps above all others, should be open to the public. If they are thus open, the question of how low in the scale of literature the library must descend in its selection of novels to attract as many readers as its income will permit it to supply will almost solve itself. Liberty to go to a collection of novels, embracing the best works of the best writers of all countries and all ages, will be attraction enough. It will not be necessary to put on the shelves books of the South worth, the Roe, and the Mary J. Holmes school to draw to the library the ignorant and inexperienced. Such readers are wedded to their literary idols, not because they find them best, but because they know no others. They will not often take the evidence of expert or of catalogue that there are other good novels than those of which they have heard from fellow-readers in their own walk in life. But the book itself of the unknown writer, placed in easy reach, with attractive title, cover, and illustrations, will prove irresistible. Liberty to see, touch, peep into, and taste the new and heretofore untried will set the known and the unknown on the same plane in the mind of the inexperienced; and the unknown, if the better book and if selected with an eye to the library's constituency, will gain the day. The horizon of the inexperienced reader will, in such a library, soon widen. The devotee of mush and slush will, under her own guidance, following her own sweet will, almost unconsciously rise to a higher plane. She will be proud to think that she has found possibilities of pleasure in good authors whom she herself has had the wit to discover. The fiction list then will be long, but it will be select. Four to five thousand titles, many times duplicated, will cover the field.

With the shelves open, with full liberty of choice given, the obliging attendant will be all the more appreciated. He will obtrude no opinions and no advice, but will be ready and able to give both, if asked, or if opportunity offers. He will be supplemented with catalogues. And just as the library will make its fiction department—the department in which it will first reach, by which perhaps it can alone reach, from sixty to eighty per cent of its visitors—the most attractive and most carefully administered of all, so will it for this department best equip itself with aids and guides. It will have here catalogues of the most varied kinds—special lists, descriptive lists, like those of Griswold; historical lists, like that of the Boston Public Library; annotated lists, like that of the San Francisco Public Library; critical journals; and books and essays on the novel, its development and uses. In addition to all these things, it will tell the inquirer in which novels he can find set forth great historical characters and the prominent personages of fiction; in which he will find descriptions of notable scenes and historical events; in which are found rare psychological analyses, striking descriptions that have become part of the everyday life of the cultivated; and discussions of social, political, and religious questions; and which novels will best tell him of life in this city, in that country, on the sea. In a word, the public's free public library will recognize at last the public's demand for the novel; will not attempt to excuse it, to hide it, to make light of it, or to counteract it; but will make use of it as an educational force in itself, and as a point of departure to more serious things. The novel reader is not a hopeless case. If he be a confirmed novel reader and nothing more, he has at least the reading habit, and in his youth can in most cases be led from that habit to question and to think.

The reference room of the free public library is in some sort already here. Not a few libraries recognize the reasonableness of a demand on the public's part for access to dictionaries, encyclopædias, atlases, gazetteers, and the like. Under the modern view the whole library becomes, of course, a great reference room. But the reference department proper, even in the modern public library, should contain ample accommodations in the way of desks, tables, writing materials, etc., for the casual inquirer or the student.

In other departments the wants of the reader, the beginner in learning, should be first supplied, books for the specialist being added as rapidly and to as great an extent as actual demand makes advisable and funds in hand make possible. No money should be expended on mere literary curios or on historical knickknacks. The historical society and the antiquarian can look after these things, and should not have the public purse for their competitor.

In accordance with the general spirit of the open-shelf method of administration, great liberality should be shown in the issuing of library cards. To the library itself for purposes of reference every one who applies will, of course, be admitted, so he be clean and reputable in appearance. To become an accredited borrower of books from the library one should be asked to do no more than sign some simple form of agreement. This, in addition to the information which can be obtained from a few questions put by librarian or assistants, with perhaps a reference to the city directory, has proved to be enough in actual practice to prevent the issuing of cards to people who wish them simply to make way with the library's books. In spite of this fact, the custom still holds in most libraries of demanding not only the signature of the person who wishes to become a borrower to an elaborate contract this signature to be written at the library itself—but also the signature of some accredited citizen who agrees to become responsible for the borrower himself. This is entirely unnecessary. The additional clerical work involved in the keeping of the two sets of names of borrowers and guarantors of borrowers, together with the labor necessitated by looking them up in directories and elsewhere, will cost more, save in very exceptional cases, than will the books which may be lost through the adoption of extreme liberality in the issuing of borrowers' cards. The people's money in this part of its library's administration, as in every other, should be spent rather in extending and making more easily accessible to the average citizen the library's resources than in setting barriers of red tape between the books and the people who own them and wish to use them.