The Library (Wright, 1923)

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The Library  (1923) 
by Ida Faye Wright

paper read at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the founding of Evanston Public Library on October 16, 1923

The Library

On her fiftieth birthday, the Evanston Public Library finds herself in the very prime of life, full of vitality and health, with no hint of age or immaturity.

In reminiscent vein she harks back to the days of her youth—to tell you of her various homes and of how fast she grew, "so fast, in fact, that her elders were continually letting down her skirts."

To have grown from one thousand to one hundred thousand volumes in fifty years—to have sent these volumes into the homes of the municipality four million five hundred and sixty-five thousand times—to have had another four million volumes consulted for reference purposes during the fifty years—has that meant anything as a mental stimulus to the people of Evanston?

Many of those who have used her resources testify in the affirmative. One says that the reading of a history of painting, recommended by the public library, gave him the incentive to attend the night school of the Chicago Art Institute for eight years.

Another, a janitress, who had always wanted to travel by rail and steamer, but who, because of an invalid mother, had not gone outside of Cook County, says, "It does not matter now, for in my rocker, by my own stove, I have traveled all over the world through the library's books"—and, in truth, she has, for she can talk with you most intimately about Interlochen, Tokio, Portugal or the West Indies.

A contractor, whose name appears on the earlier records of the readers, was delighted to give his services to assist in making the shelves for the Book Auto, for, he said, "I know what books mean to the person from another land who has not had the opportunities of the American schools. Every bit of education which I have I owe to the books which I secured from the Evanston Public Library."

Just how many people there have been in Evanston, who, like Edison and the Wright Brothers attribute their start in life to public library books, the library can never know, but she has sufficient evidence to prove that during the past fifty years much leaven has been working.

Professor Loeb, the scientist, notes that in these days we imagine that, if we can only provide well equipped laboratories, important truth will soon be discovered. "But such," he says, "is not the case. Real discoveries are actually made in the library, when the scientist is brooding over the thoughts of other men and rethinking them himself. The library remains the great essential to discovery."

Innately within her the public library has certain drawing powers possessed by no other one institution.

She is non-political, non-religious and non-compulsory. Her books are selected to meet the needs of people of varying stages of intelligence and education, from the earliest days of childhood throughout the entire gamut of life. They provide the open forum for helping people formulate their opinions.

In her reminiscent mood she likes to contrast the days of old with the present time. She recalls how closely she used to be guarded—how at first only those who could pay the subscription fee were permitted to use her treasures. Later, although no fee was charged, these treasures remained almost under lock and key, and no matter how much you longed to browse among them you were not permitted to go beyond the rail.

Then came the day of release—the gates were opened wide and you could bury yourself in the philosophy alcove, in the art section, or among the cook books.

But such was only the beginning of the releasing of the treasures—extension—extension work in libraries! How unintelligible would such words have been to her first librarians!

Now these words connote a multitude of activities—the sending of books into the classrooms, fire and police stations, hospitals. old people's homes—the establishing in schools of library stations for the neighborhood, the joint employment by school and library board of a supervisor of library work with the schools—the Book Auto—she can almost hear her Board members of days gone by say, "If people have not enough ambition to go to a library building, they can do without books! It is all nonsense—this peddling books as they do vegetables!"

"But such," she says, "is just the difference between the goals of the past and those of the present and future."

Our past ideals were formulated by European custom, which provided libraries only for the scholars.

One hundred and fifty years of experience in working under a democratic form of government has demonstrated that such government can function adequately only through the intelligence of all of her people.

In America there has therefore been developed a form of library service which has no counterpart elsewhere in the world.

It has been founded upon the principle that those things which make for an understanding of American government, laws and ideals should be made as directly available to all people, native and foreign born, as are the commodities which supply the physical needs of life.

So far only a few little side paths leading toward this goal have been traversed, but the finger of the future is pointing to the broad highway along which will travel the caravans of books with a corps of expert assistants employed by the community to be reading advisers, to outline individual courses of study for the boy or girl who, because of circumstances, had to leave school early, but who has as much ambition for further education as does the lad who is privileged to go to college. Advisers to the mother, who wishes to be directed to books on the special problems regarding the child's health and character building, Adviser to the mechanic and electrician who wishes to work up in his trade through home study. This highway extends on so far that not even the sight of the far visioned can begin to see the end.

We are told, that with the arrival of the movie and the radio, book reading is fast becoming a lost art—however, statistics from libraries speak out loudly to the contrary. The printed page is the only permanent record, it can be enjoyed anywhere, at any time of day or night without additional equipment, and is the one agency which tends to keep the boy and girl, man and woman in the home.

In speaking of some of the newer inventions which have created the universal craze for "listening in," Samuel Crothers, our American essayist, says, "What are such achievements as compared with the invention of writing and printing, and the creation of the modern book! To "listen in" on a recital or an address a thousand miles away is indeed a marvel, but what is that compared with the privilege of listening in to the poetry of Milton, the drama of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the songs of Homer, or the parables and sermons of Jesus, as any of us can do at any time with just a book in our hands!"

"The invention of printing and the creation of the modern book have made the mind of every great thinker of the last three thousand years or more a broadcasting station for the continuous and worldwide dissemination of the messages, ideas, thoughts and hopes that have given the world most of the things that make life worth living today. In the book we have the greatest thing that all the centuries of invention have produced, and, in spite of all the glamor and furore aroused by the new and strange inventions of the day, the public library may have and should have the ever conscious joy and assurance of knowing that in any truly valid estimate of values, the things with which she is daily dealing, and the service that she is rendering, are things which represent the supreme achievements of the human mind, and the whole process of civilization."

That in Evanston the public library has been able to be a center for the dissemination of human thought, along widely varying lines, is due in a large measure to the support which the Mayors and City Councils have given to the Library, and to the judgment and balance maintained by the Book Committees and Librarians throughout the fifty years.

But even such splendid support and judgment did not produce the Evanston Public Library of today, for your library is a composite of effort, not only of those directly connected with its administration, but also of the community at large—the book collection, almost double that of the average city, contains thousands of volumes which have been contributed by individuals.

The music department, so generously equipped and endowed by Prof. George Albert Coe, in memory of his wife, one of Evanston's most loved musicians, is, according to a recent government report, the largest in any city of the size in the country. Professor Coe's most recent gift, the Duo-Art reproducing piano, makes it possible for anyone to hear the world's greatest compositions as interpreted by Paderewski, Percy Grainger, Harold Bauer and many another artist.

The medical section, for the use of doctors and nurses, is indeed a worthy tribute to those in whose honor it was founded, Doctor Webster, Doctor Christopher and Doctor Brayton.

The collection of a thousand books of plays and works on the drama, provided for and kept up to date by the Drama Club of Evanston, is quite the envy of other cities who are awakening to the value of the movement for the revival of the drama, which movement has its birthplace in Evanston.

The building which houses this broad-casting station could not have been the beautiful and practical working unit which it is, had it not been for the generous contributions of individuals and organizations.

Lastly, but without which all else would be of little avail, is the contribution which the people of Evanston, collectively and individually, have made through their appreciation of the value to the community of books and book service.

This golden jubilee has been the occasion for the bringing out, through words and gifts, expressions of appreciation, the extent of which was undreamed of by those whose privilege it has been to administer her activities.

The spirit which has been so definitely shown by this and many another club and organization, in requesting the privilege of sharing in the library's celebration, brings an ever deepening sense of the obligation which rests upon her to be ever alert to broadcast the experience and wisdom of the ages, that she may fulfill the greater role which she is destined to take in communities such as the scientific prognasticators tell us are to be developed within the next fifty years.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1974, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.