W.E. Gladstone.

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Produced by Charles Hall


By William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)

In the old age of his intellect (which at this point seemed to taste
a little of decrepitude), Strauss declared [1] that the doctrine of
immortality has recently lost the assistance of a passable argument,
inasmuch as it has been discovered that the stars are inhabited; for
where, he asks, could room now be found for such a multitude of souls?
Again, in view of the current estimates of prospective population for
this earth, some people have begun to entertain alarm for the probable
condition of England (if not Great Britain) when she gets (say) seventy
millions that are allotted to her against six or eight hundred millions
for the United States. We have heard in some systems of the pressure of
population upon food; but the idea of any pressure from any quarter upon
space is hardly yet familiar. Still, I suppose that many a reader must
have been struck with the naive simplicity of the hyperbole of St. John,
[2] perhaps a solitary unit of its kind in the New Testament: "the
which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world
itself could not contain the books that should be written."

A book, even Audubon (I believe the biggest known), is smaller than a
man; but, in relation to space, I entertain more proximate apprehension
of pressure upon available space from the book population than from
the numbers of mankind. We ought to recollect, with more of a realized
conception than we commonly attain to, that a book consists, like a
man, from whom it draws its lineage, of a body and a soul. They are not
always proportionate to each other. Nay, even the different members
of the book-body do not sing, but clash, when bindings of a profuse
costliness are imposed, as too often happens in the case of Bibles and
books of devotion, upon letter-press which is respectable journeyman's
work and nothing more. The men of the Renascence had a truer sense
of adaptation; the age of jewelled bindings was also the age of
illumination and of the beautiful miniatura, which at an earlier
stage meant side or margin art,[3] and then, on account of the small
portraitures included in it, gradually slid into the modern sense of
miniature. There is a caution which we ought to carry with us more and
more as we get in view of the coming period of open book trade, and of
demand practically boundless. Noble works ought not to be printed
in mean and worthless forms, and cheapness ought to be limited by an
instinctive sense and law of fitness. The binding of a book is the dress
with which it walks out into the world. The paper, type and ink are the
body, in which its soul is domiciled. And these three, soul, body, and
habilament, are a triad which ought to be adjusted to one another by the
laws of harmony and good sense.

Already the increase of books is passing into geometrical progression.
And this is not a little remarkable when we bear in mind that in Great
Britain, of which I speak, while there is a vast supply of cheap works,
what are termed "new publications" issue from the press, for the most
part, at prices fabulously high, so that the class of real purchasers
has been extirpated, leaving behind as buyers only a few individuals who
might almost be counted on the fingers, while the effective circulation
depends upon middle-men through the engine of circulating libraries.
These are not so much owners as distributers of books, and they mitigate
the difficulty of dearness by subdividing the cost, and then selling
such copies as are still in decent condition at a large reduction. It
is this state of things, due, in my opinion, principally to the present
form of the law of copyright, which perhaps may have helped to make
way for the satirical (and sometimes untrue) remark that in times of
distress or pressure men make their first economies on their charities,
and their second on their books.

The annual arrivals at the Bodleian Library are, I believe, some twenty
thousand; at the British Museum, forty thousand, sheets of all kinds
included. Supposing three-fourths of these to be volumes, of one size
or another, and to require on the average an inch of shelf space, the
result will be that in every two years nearly a mile of new shelving
will be required to meet the wants of a single library. But, whatever
may be the present rate of growth, it is small in comparison with what
it is likely to become. The key of the question lies in the hands of the
United Kingdom and the United States jointly. In this matter there rests
upon these two Powers no small responsibility. They, with their vast
range of inhabited territory, and their unity of tongue, are masters
of the world, which will have to do as they do. When the Britains and
America are fused into one book market; when it is recognized that
letters, which as to their material and their aim are a high-soaring
profession, as to their mere remuneration are a trade; when artificial
fetters are relaxed, and printers, publishers, and authors obtain the
reward which well-regulated commerce would afford them, then let floors
beware lest they crack, and walls lest they bulge and burst, from the
weight of books they will have to carry and to confine.

It is plain, for one thing, that under the new state of things
specialism, in the future, must more and more abound. But specialism
means subdivision of labor; and with subdivision labor ought to be
more completely, more exactly, performed. Let us bow our heads to
the inevitable; the day of encyclopaedic learning has gone by. It may
perhaps be said that that sun set with Leibnitz. But as little learning
is only dangerous when it forgets that it is little, so specialism is
only dangerous when it forgets that it is special. When it encroaches
on its betters, when it claims exceptional certainty or honor, it is
impertinent, and should be rebuked; but it has its own honor in its
own province, and is, in any case, to be preferred to pretentious and
flaunting sciolism.

A vast, even a bewildering prospect is before us, for evil or for good;
but for good, unless it be our own fault, far more than for evil. Books
require no eulogy from me; none could be permitted me, when they already
draw their testimonials from Cicero[4] and Macaulay.[5] But books are
the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with
the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the
thought of man. They are in a certain sense at enmity with the world.
Their work is, at least, in the two higher compartments of our threefold
life. In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel
solitary. Second to none, as friends to the individual, they are first
and foremost among the compages, the bonds and rivets of the race,
onward from that time when they were first written on the tablets of
Babylonia and Assyria, the rocks of Asia minor, and the monuments of
Egypt, down to the diamond editions of Mr. Pickering and Mr. Frowde.[6]

It is in truth difficult to assign dimensions for the libraries of the
future. And it is also a little touching to look back upon those of the
past. As the history of bodies cannot, in the long run, be separated
from the history of souls, I make no apology for saying a few words on
the libraries which once were, but which have passed away.

The time may be approaching when we shall be able to estimate the
quantity of book knowledge stored in the repositories of those empires
which we call prehistoric. For the present, no clear estimate even of
the great Alexandrian Libraries has been brought within the circle
of popular knowledge; but it seems pretty clear that the books they
contained were reckoned, at least in the aggregate, by hundreds of
thousands.[7] The form of the book, however, has gone through many
variations; and we moderns have a great advantage in the shape which the
exterior has now taken. It speaks to us symbolically by the title on its
back, as the roll of parchment could hardly do. It is established that
in Roman times the bad institution of slavery ministered to a system
under which books were multiplied by simultaneous copying in a room
where a single person read aloud in the hearing of many the volume to
be reproduced, and that so produced they were relatively cheap. Had they
not been so, they would hardly have been, as Horace represents them,
among the habitual spoils of the grocer.[8] It is sad, and is suggestive
of many inquiries, that this abundance was followed, at least in the
West, by a famine of more than a thousand years. And it is hard, even
after all allowances, to conceive that of all the many manuscripts
of Homer which Italy must have possessed we do not know that a single
parchment or papyrus was ever read by a single individual, even in a
convent, or even by a giant such as Dante, or as Thomas Acquinas, the
first of them unquestionably master of all the knowledge that was within
the compass of his age. There were, however, libraries even in the West,
formed by Charlemagne and by others after him. We are told that Alcuin,
in writing to the great monarch, spoke with longing of the relative
wealth of England in these precious estates. Mr. Edwards, whom I have
already quoted, mentions Charles the Fifth of France, in 1365, as a
collector of manuscripts. But some ten years back the Director of the
Bibliotheque Nationale informed me that the French King John collected
twelve hundred manuscripts, at that time an enormous library, out of
which several scores were among the treasures in his care. Mary of
Medicis appears to have amassed in the sixteenth century, probably with
far less effort, 5,800 volumes.[9] Oxford had before that time received
noble gifts for her University Library. And we have to recollect with
shame and indignation that that institution was plundered and destroyed
by the Commissioners of the boy King Edward the Sixth, acting in the
name of the Reformation of Religion. Thus it happened that opportunity
was left to a private individual, the munificent Sir Thomas Bodley, to
attach an individual name to one of the famous libraries of the world.
It is interesting to learn that municipal bodies have a share in the
honor due to monasteries and sovereigns in the collection of books;
for the Common Council of Aix purchased books for a public library in

Louis the Fourteenth, of evil memory, has at least this one good deed
to his credit, that he raised the Royal Library at Paris, founded two
centuries before, to 70,000 volumes. In 1791 it had 150,000 volumes. It
profited largely by the Revolution. The British Museum had only reached
115,000 when Panizzi became keeper in 1837. Nineteen years afterward he
left it with 560,000, a number which must now have more than doubled.
By his noble design for occupying the central quadrangle, a desert
of gravel until his time, he provided additional room for 1,200,000
volumes. All this apparently enormous space for development is being
eaten up with fearful rapidity; and such is the greed of the splendid
library that it opens its jaws like Hades, and threatens shortly to
expel the antiquities from the building, and appropriate the places they

But the proper office of hasty retrospect in a paper like this is
only to enlarge by degrees, like the pupil of an eye, the reader's
contemplation and estimate of the coming time, and to prepare him for
some practical suggestions of a very humble kind. So I take up again the
thread of my brief discourse. National libraries draw upon a purse which
is bottomless. But all public libraries are not national. And the case
even of private libraries is becoming, nay, has become, very serious for
all who are possessed by the inexorable spirit of collection, but whose
ardor is perplexed and qualified, or even baffled, by considerations
springing from the balance-sheet.

The purchase of a book is commonly supposed to end, even for the most
scrupulous customer, with the payment of the bookseller's bill. But this
is a mere popular superstition. Such payment is not the last, but the
first term in a series of goodly length. If we wish to give to the block
a lease of life equal to that of the pages, the first condition is that
it should be bound. So at least one would have said half a century ago.
But, while books are in the most instances cheaper, binding, from causes
which I do not understand, is dearer, at least in England, than it was
in my early years, so that few can afford it.[11] We have, however,
the tolerable and very useful expedient of cloth binding (now in some
danger, I fear, of losing its modesty through flaring ornamentation) to
console us. Well, then, bound or not, the book must of necessity be put
into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must
be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, should be
catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil! Unless indeed
things are to be as they now are in at least one princely mansion of
this country, where books, in thousands upon thousands, are jumbled
together with no more arrangement than a sack of coals; where not
even the sisterhood of consecutive volumes has been respected; where
undoubtedly an intending reader may at the mercy of Fortune take
something from the shelves that is a book; but where no particular book
can except by the purest accident, be found.

Such being the outlook, what are we to do with our books? Shall we
be buried under them like Tarpeia under the Sabine shields? Shall
we renounce them (many will, or will do worse, will keep to the most
worthless part of them) in our resentment against their more and more
exacting demands? Shall we sell and scatter them? as it is painful
to see how often the books of eminent men are ruthlessly, or at least
unhappily, dispersed on their decease. Without answering in detail, I
shall assume that the book-buyer is a book-lover, that his love is a
tenacious, not a transitory love, and that for him the question is how
best to keep his books.

I pass over those conditions which are the most obvious, that the
building should be sound and dry, the apartment airy, and with abundant
light. And I dispose with a passing anathema of all such as would
endeavour to solve their problem, or at any rate compromise their
difficulties, by setting one row of books in front of another. I
also freely admit that what we have before us is not a choice between
difficulty and no difficulty, but a choice among difficulties.

The objects further to be contemplated in the bestowal of our books,
so far as I recollect, are three: economy, good arrangement, and
accessibility with the smallest possible expenditure of time.

In a private library, where the service of books is commonly to be
performed by the person desiring to use them, they ought to be assorted
and distributed according to subject. The case may be altogether
different where they have to be sent for and brought by an attendant.
It is an immense advantage to bring the eye in aid of the mind; to see
within a limited compass all the works that are accessible, in a given
library, on a given subject; and to have the power of dealing with them
collectively at a given spot, instead of hunting them up through an
entire accumulation. It must be admitted, however, that distribution by
subjects ought in some degree to be controlled by sizes. If everything
on a given subject, from folio down to 32mo, is to be brought locally
together, there will be an immense waste of space in the attempt to
lodge objects of such different sizes in one and the same bookcase. And
this waste of space will cripple us in the most serious manner, as will
be seen with regard to the conditions of economy and of accessibility.
The three conditions are in truth all connected together, but especially
the two last named.

Even in a paper such as this the question of classification cannot
altogether be overlooked; but it is one more easy to open than to
close - one upon which I am not bold enough to hope for uniformity of
opinion and of practice. I set aside on the one hand the case of great
public libraries, which I leave to the experts of those establishments.
And, at the other end of the scale, in small private libraries the
matter becomes easy or even insignificant. In libraries of the medium
scale, not too vast for some amount of personal survey, some would
multiply subdivision, and some restrain it. An acute friend asks me
under what and how many general headings subjects should be classified
in a library intended for practical use and reading, and boldly answers
by suggesting five classes only: (1) science, (2) speculation, (3) art,
(4) history, and (5) miscellaneous and periodical literature. But this
seemingly simple division at once raises questions both of practical and
of theoretic difficulty. As to the last, periodical literature is fast
attaining to such magnitude, that it may require a classification of
its own, and that the enumeration which indexes supply, useful as it is,
will not suffice. And I fear it is the destiny of periodicals as such to
carry down with them a large proportion of what, in the phraseology of
railways, would be called dead weight, as compared with live weight. The
limits of speculation would be most difficult to draw. The
diversities included under science would be so vast as at once to make
sub-classification a necessity. The ologies are by no means well suited
to rub shoulders together; and sciences must include arts, which are but
country cousins to them, or a new compartment must be established
for their accommodation. Once more, how to cope with the everlasting
difficulty of 'Works'? In what category to place Dante, Petrarch,
Swedenborg, Burke, Coleridge, Carlyle, or a hundred more? Where, again,
is Poetry to stand? I apprehend that it must take its place, the first
place without doubt, in Art; for while it is separated from Painting and
her other 'sphere-born harmonious sisters' by their greater dependence
on material forms they are all more inwardly and profoundly united
in their first and all-enfolding principle, which is to organize the
beautiful for presentation to the perceptions of man.

But underneath all particular criticism of this or that method of
classification will be found to lie a subtler question - whether the
arrangement of a library ought not in some degree to correspond with
and represent the mind of the man who forms it. For my own part, I plead
guilty, within certain limits, of favoritism in classification. I
am sensible that sympathy and its reverse have something to do with
determining in what company a book shall stand. And further, does
there not enter into the matter a principle of humanity to the authors
themselves? Ought we not to place them, so far as may be, in the
neighborhood which they would like? Their living manhoods are printed
in their works. Every reality, every tendency, endures. Eadem sequitur
tellure sepultos.

I fear that arrangement, to be good, must be troublesome. Subjects are
traversed by promiscuous assemblages of 'works;' both by sizes; and
all by languages. On the whole I conclude as follows. The mechanical
perfection of a library requires an alphabetical catalogue of the whole.
But under the shadow of this catalogue let there be as many living
integers as possible, for every well-chosen subdivision is a living
integer and makes the library more and more an organism. Among others I
plead for individual men as centres of subdivision: not only for Homer,
Dante, Shakespeare, but for Johnson, Scott, and Burns, and whatever
represents a large and manifold humanity.

The question of economy, for those who from necessity or choice
consider it at all, is a very serious one. It has been a fashion to make
bookcases highly ornamental. Now books want for and in themselves no
ornament at all. They are themselves the ornament. Just as shops need no
ornament, and no one will think of or care for any structural ornament,
if the goods are tastefully disposed in the shop-window. The man who
looks for society in his books will readily perceive that, in proportion
as the face of his bookcase is occupied by ornament, he loses that
society; and conversely, the more that face approximates to a sheet of
bookbacks, the more of that society he will enjoy. And so it is that
three great advantages come hand in hand, and, as will be seen, reach
their maximum together: the sociability of books, minimum of cost in
providing for them, and ease of access to them.

In order to attain these advantages, two conditions are fundamental.
First, the shelves must, as a rule, be fixed; secondly, the cases, or a
large part of them, should have their side against the wall, and thus,
projecting into the room for a convenient distance, they should be of
twice the depth needed for a single line of books, and should hold two
lines, one facing each way. Twelve inches is a fair and liberal depth
for two rows of octavos. The books are thus thrown into stalls, but
stalls after the manner of a stable, or of an old-fashioned coffee-room;
not after the manner of a bookstall, which, as times go, is no stall
at all, but simply a flat space made by putting some scraps of boarding
together, and covering them with books.

This method of dividing the longitudinal space by projections at right
angles to it, if not very frequently used, has long been known. A great
example of it is to be found in the noble library of Trinity College,
Cambridge, and is the work of Sir Christopher Wren. He has kept these
cases down to very moderate height, for he doubtless took into account
that great heights require long ladders, and that the fetching and use
of these greatly add to the time consumed in getting or in replacing a
book. On the other hand, the upper spaces of the walls are sacrificed,
whereas in Dublin, All Souls, and many other libraries the bookcases
ascend very high, and magnificent apartments walled with books may in
this way be constructed. Access may be had to the upper portions by
galleries; but we cannot have stairs all round the room, and even with
one gallery of books a room should not be more than from sixteen to
eighteen feet high if we are to act on the principle of bringing the
largest possible number of volumes into the smallest possible space. I
am afraid it must be admitted that we cannot have a noble and imposing
spectacle, in a vast apartment, without sacrificing economy and
accessibility; and vice versa.

The projections should each have attached to them what I rudely term an
endpiece (for want of a better name), that is, a shallow and extremely
light adhering bookcase (light by reason of the shortness of the
shelves), which both increases the accommodation, and makes one short
side as well as the two long ones of the parallelopiped to present
simply a face of books with the lines of shelf, like threads, running
between the rows.

The wall-spaces between the projections ought also to be turned to
account for shallow bookcases, so far as they are not occupied by
windows. If the width of the interval be two feet six, about sixteen
inches of this may be given to shallow cases placed against the wall.

Economy of space is in my view best attained by fixed shelves. This
dictum I will now endeavor to make good. If the shelves are movable,
each shelf imposes a dead weight on the structure of the bookcase,
without doing anything to support it. Hence it must be built with wood
of considerable mass, and the more considerable the mass of wood the
greater are both the space occupied and the ornament needed. When the
shelf is fixed, it contributes as a fastening to hold the parts of the
bookcase together; and a very long experience enables me to say that
shelves of from half- to three-quarters of an inch worked fast into
uprights of from three-quarters to a full inch will amply suffice for
all sizes of books except large and heavy folios, which would probably
require a small, and only a small, addition of thickness.

I have recommended that as a rule the shelves be fixed, and have given
reasons for the adoption of such a rule. I do not know whether it will
receive the sanction of authorities. And I make two admissions. First,
it requires that each person owning and arranging a library should have
a pretty accurate general knowledge of the sizes of his books. Secondly,
it may be expedient to introduce here and there, by way of exception,
a single movable shelf; and this, I believe, will be found to afford a
margin sufficient to meet occasional imperfections in the computation of


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