Charles Francis Adams.

The public library and the common schools: three papers on educational topics online

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each Grammar School. I was in hopes that the teachers would
use them in connection with the studies in those schools, and
would induce the scholars to use them too. As I have visited the
schools since, I have usually taken occasion to ask for tho=;e cata-
logues, and I am sorry to sa}'' I have generally found th6m —
there are two or three notable exceptions to this remark — locked
away in some drawer of the master's desk, and looking on examina-
tion most suggestively fresh :md clean. My hint had not been


taken. I now state the point more plainly. I want very much
indeed to see our really admirable Town Librar}' become a more
living element than it now is in oiu* school sj'stem, — its comple-
ment, in fact. Neither trustee nor librarian — no matter hoAv
faithful or zealous they may be — can make it so ; for we cannot
know enough of the individual scholars to give them that which
the}^ personall}' need, and which only the^^ will take ; — j'ou cannot
feed them until 3'ou know what the}- like ; and that, we, in dealing
with the mass, cannot get at. You teachers, however, can get at
it, if you choose. To enable you to do this, the trustees of the
librarj'^ have adopted a new rule under which each of 3'our schools
may be made practically a branch library. The master can hun-
self select and take from the Ubrar^- a number of volumes, and
keep them on his desk for circulation among the scholars under
his charge. lie can study their tastes and ransack the Ubrar}'
to gratif}^ them. Naj' more, if you will but find out what
3^our scholars want, — what healthy books are in demand among
them, — the trustees of the library will see to it that you do not
want material. You shall have all the books 3"ou will call for.
"Wlien, indeed, j'ou begin to call, we shall know exactly what to
buy ; and then, at last, we could arrange in printed bulletins the
courses of reading which 3'our experience would point out as best,
so that ever}^ book would be accessible. From that time both
schools and librar}- would begin to do their full work together, and
the last would become what it ought to be, the natural complement
of the first, — the People's CoUege.


A Paper read at the Third General, Meeting of the Americak
Library Association, at Boston, July 1, 1879.

In the course of a now somewhat prolonged connection, as
trustee, with the Public Library of the town of Quincy, my atten-
tion has more and more been called, especially of late, to certain
features in the management of our Public Library system, if such
it may be called, which it seems to me ought to be pretty carefully
discussed by both trustees and librarians, with a view to arriving
at some commonly accepted, as well as better considered results.
Before submitting what I have to say, I ought to premise that my
experience, somewhat amateurish at best, has been confined to a
purely Public Librarj^ of the average size and character, supported
on the educational principle by the annual appropriation of a town
in no respect different from the mass of other towns. My remarks,
therefore, have no bearing on the great endowed libraries, or the
libraries connected with our institutions of learning. Speaking
therefoi'c, as one coming dii'ectl}' from such a town library as I have
described, it is mypmpose, drawing directly on mj^own experience,
to call attention to two matters, one of which is connected with the
duties of the trustees of those institutions, and the other with the
needs of those using them ; — the former being the present indis-
criminate purchase of works of fiction for such libraries, and the
latter the art of cataloguing then' contents for popular educational

In the first place as respects the purchase of fiction. Inasmuch
as every one who has paid any attention to the statistics of libraiy
reading is well aware of the fact, it is unnecessary to saj^that fiction
constitutes, on a rough average, two-thirds of the whole of that
reading. That it does so, and in spite of anything which can be
done to alter the fact will continue to do so, I am not at all dis-


posed to lament. I look upon the appetite as a healthy and
natiu-al one, and the average as no more than fair. The lives ol
the mass of no community are over and above gay ; and when
those long hours of labor, the price of existence with the majority,
are over, the healthy nature craves amusement. Long before
Homer and Herodotus, the bard and the story-teller were the
authors in most eager request ; and it is juvenile fiction, and not
philosophy, which the children cry for now-a-days. I do not know
any more innocent way of getting this amusement which human
nature has ever craved than by losing one's-self in a novel. I
am glad, therefore, that other people do it as much as they do, and
am Sony that I do not myself do it more.

The single doubt which is forcing itself on mj' mind in this regard
is, whether furnishing any sort of amusement and relaxation of the
character referred to, — for education it is not, — is a proper func-
tion of the government. At present, so far as I am advised, all
trustees of Public Libraries do it. The demand on us for literature
of this kind is very great ; and, for some time past, the current of
loose public opinion has set strongly in favor of the supposed edu-
cational tendency of undirected and indiscriminate reading. Every
readable book which comes out, therefore, so it be of a not immoral
character, is at once forw&rded to the Public Library and placed
within the reach of every one. I am, however, more and more
inclined to doubt whether this wholesale purchase by us of trashy
and ephemeral literature is jvistifiable. We do not use the public
money to suppl}' every one with theatre, or concert, or even
lecture tickets. — Why then should we give them all the new
novels of the day? — Would not the more proper rule for the
guidance of us trustees be, that we would put upon the library
shelves, and bring within the reach of all, whether rich or poor, every
standard work, fiction or an^-thing else, within our means to pur-
chase ; but, so far as the passing publications of the day are con-
cerned, — the trashj^ and sensational novel in particular, — while we
sympathize entirel}" in the desire to read them, yet those who wish
to do so should be willing to pa}' for them, as thej^ do for their
theatres, their lectures, their concerts. Accordingly thej must seek
them at the counters of the circulating libraries, where, at a verj'
moderate cost, they will be always sure of finding them. The


Public Library has a sphere of its own within ' the general line of
education ; the cu'culating library has a sphere of its own within the
general line of amusement. Following after false theories, per-
haps — possibly led on by a not unnatural desire to increase
the figures of our circulation, — to magnify our business, if 5'ou
please, — it seems to me that we trustees are rapidly causing the
Public Library to invade the sphere of the circulating library ; and,
in so doing, not only are we removing a very desirable as well as
natiu-al check on an excessive indulgence in one form of amuse-
ment, but we are doing it through a misapplication of public
money. "

My remedy for this evil would be a simple one, and I long since
suggested it in Quincy. The Public Librar}'' and the circulating
library should come to an understanding, so that they could work
together and not in competition. As trustees we should agree
with any person, desiring to keep a ckculating library, upon a list of
books and of authors into which we would not go and he should ;
and whoever wanted those books, or the works of those authors,
should be referred by us to him. These persons could then pay for
what they wanted, or they could go without ; but they could not
have it at the public cost. The demand for the sentimental and
more highly seasoned literature of the day, — the Southworths, the
Ouidas, the Optics, and the Kingstons, — would then be measured
and limited, as it should be, by the willingness to pay something
for it, and not stimulated by a free distribution, on something
which seems very like the panem-et-circenses principle. Such a
method of division would, I thinli, reduce the circulation of our
Pubhc Libraries nearly one-third ; — but the two-thirds that were left
would be worth more than the whole is now, for it would all be
really educational. As things are now going, say what we will,
this sensational and sentimental trash-gratis business is at best a
dangerous experiment, especially for bo^'s and gu-ls ; and I fear
the I'ublic Libraries arc, by degrees, approaching somewhat near
to what it is not using too strong a term to call pandering.

Passing from this topic to m}"" other one, I wish to suggest that,
for the highest form of ordinary Public Library use, a perfect sys-


tern of cataloguing it yet to he (lc\ised. Some years ago I tried
1113' 'prentice hand on a catalogue, and, though my work was most
kindlj'' received by those better able than I to judge of its relative
merit, I have since concluded that, so far as it was m}' work and
not that of a peculiarlj^ competent coadjutor, it was, except in the
excellence of its intention, all wrong, and must be done over agaiu
upon a wholly different plan.

We need, it would appear, thi-ee distinct kinds of catalogTje, and
the attempt now is to combine the three in one. Fu-st, there is
the general reader's catalogue ; second, the specialist's catalogue ;
and, third, the educational or Public Library catalogue. As re-
spects the fii'st two, here at least, I have nothing to sa}'. I doubt
if any improvement can be made on the genei'al reader's catalogue,
as exemplified in those specunens of the highest recent type with
which I am acquainted, — the catalogues of the Boston Athenoeum, of
the Boston Public Librar}', and of the Brookl3'n Mercantile Library.
These also, in their subject catalogues, provide to a certain, though
sadl}' limited extent, for the needs of the specialist ; and the Boston
Public Library and the Harvard College Librarj^ have recently
shown what could be done, if the work were not so well-nigh un-
limited, iu a series of what may be called monographic catalogues.
How much more ma}' have beeu elsewhere done iu these dkections
I cannot say. I do not for a moment pretend to have kept up with
this new science in all its ramifications, and I am here only to speak
of the single educational point to which I have referred ; and as
respects that even, I fear much may have been done or now be
doing with which I am not familiar.

So far as I know, however, not a single step in the right
du'cction has as 3-et been taken towards the Pubhc Library
catalogue for educational uses.^ A number of years ago the

1 At the time this paper was prepared I was not aware of the very valuable work in
the direction indicated which Mr. S. S. Gfcen, of the Worcester Public Library, now
has ill hand. Without being even yet fully acquainted with Mr. Green's plan, I have
no doubt that it will prove a great step in pdvance. This will especially be the case if
It is so arranged in detail as to permit of his work being made the common property of
Public Libraries. The immense cost of doing the same copy and press work over and
over again seems at present to bo the chief obstacle in the way of all educational cata-
logues. It is an obstacle which would seem, also, to require very little ingenuity to
overcome; there is, laoreover, money to bo made by some one in overcoming it.


Boston Public Library incorporated into its catalogue a number
of elaborate notes, historical and otherwise, for popular use. It was
a fli'st step towards realizing a great conception ; and, as such first
steps always are, it was necessarilj- tentative. More recently, when
preparing the Quincy catalogue, I freely imitated those notes, and
in some respects elaborated the S3'stem. I have since, as I have
already intimated, come to the conclusion that, for the purposes at
least for which I designed them, the notes of the Quinc}' catalogue
were almost wholly useless. I came to tliis conclusion ver}' reluct-
antly', and I now have no time in which to carry out m}- more recent
ideas. I therefore submit them here for what they are worth, in
the hope that others ma}' see something in them, and do w^hat I
cannot do.

The difficulty with the notes of the Quincy catalogue, and, as I
should suppose, with those of the Boston Pubhc Library catalogue,
was that, as educational notes they were prepared on a preconceived
theory as to the capacit}- and acquu-ements of those for whose use
they were intended, — a theory that street children are the
same as professors' children, — that they can understand the
same instructions, and assimilate the same mental nuti-iment.
But they are not. The}' are, on the contrary', as distinct from
them as two things which natm-e made alike can become when
exjDosed all their lives to dilferent influences and conditions. The
difference will average the same as that between plants grown in
sheltered places and cared for, and those left to struggle up from
crevices in the north face of rocky exposures. Not to recognize it
is to ignore or denj- the efficacy of home education, and to insist
that the few hours passed in the school-room contribute alone to
the child's moral and mental make-up ; — but, if this is indeed so,
then the whole talk of the responsibility incurred b}' superior ad-
vantages becomes senseless cackle. In point of fact, however,
and theory- apart, the intellectual atmospheres which the laborer's
sou and the professors son breathe from the cradle up, have almost
nothing in common ; and this fact the Public Library, officered as
it necessaril}' is by professors, must recognize, if it is ever to begin
even to fuliil its educational functions. But in preparing the
notes in the catalogues I have referred to, the professors had only
their own children, and highl}' precocious children at that, in


tlieir minds. Those note? were, accordingl}^ "caviare to the
general." Now, if there is one thing about a Public Library-
more instructive than another it is the realizing sense it gives
an^^ educated and observi ng man connected with it of the size
of that intellectual world in which we live. This, too, is in
Tenn3-son's language, " a loiindless universe," and within it there
" is boundless better, boundless worse." Take, for instance, the
(xlucational, intellectual, and litcrar}^ strata ; I have come to the
conclusion that we of the so-called educated classes know absolutel}'
nothing about them ; we live in an acquu'ed atmosphere of our own,
and we cannot go out of it, except on excursions of discover^-, —
from which, like our friend Pi'ofessor Sumner the other day, we are
apt to return in a ver}' dishevelled and panicky condition. I have
consequently found that, taking the mass of those who use the Pub-
lic Library, and especially the children in our pubUc schools who
are born and bred in the habitations of labor, — those offspring of
the dollar and the dollar and a half a day people whom we especially
wish to reach, — these cannot and will not read what, as a rule, I am
willing to recommend. "What I like is to them incomprehensible ;
and what the}' lilce is to me simply unendm-able. They are in the
Sunday police-paper and dime- novel stage. It is only when you
become thoroughly conscious of the existence and extent of this
class that you understand the why and the wherefore of the make-up
of the daily journals of our Western cities, with then* long sensa-
tional headings of murders, robberies, and deeds of violence. But
when, from actual observation, I did get a realizing sense both of the
magnitude and the torpid, uninformed condition of this stratum, I
am free to say that a strong sense of the humor of the thing over-
came me when I thought of mj somewhat elaborate notes in the
Quincy catalogue, intended for popular use, on the books relating
to French and English histor}-. So far as accomplishing the pur-
pose I had in view was concerned, I might as well have directed the
librarian to hand to each apphcant a copy of Kant's Critique of
Pure Reason in the original. The difficult}' was simply here : those
competent by education to use and profit by ni}' notes, could, as a
rule, be safel}' left to do without them ; while for those — and thej'
constitute the majorit}' — who reall}- need assistance, a whollj' dif-
ferent assistance was necessarj'. I did the work subjectively, — it


should have been done objectively. In other words the professor,
out of his inner self-consciousness, knows nothing whatever about
the street child, and if he means to get hold of him he has first got
to study him.

Neither is the stud}" a difficult one. On the contrary- it is very
simple, if it is only begun in the true missionary spirit and with
an entire absence of any fixed notions of how things ought to be,
instead of how they really are. The first thing to be gotten rid of,
however, is that idea which is the bane of our present common-
school system, — the idea that information, knowledge, if you
please, is in itself a good thing, and that people in general, and
especially chikken, are a species of automatons or india-rubber
bags, into which we must stuff as much as we can of that good
thing in as many of its diflerent forms as possible. But we may
stuff and stuff, and in om' Public Libraries it will be just as it has
been and now is in our common schools, even those who are forced
or coaxed into receiving it, will be unable to assimilate it. Intel-
lectually, as physically, if you mean to impart nom-ishment you
must adapt the food to the digestive powers. In the matter of
reading, where those powers are natm-ally considerable, or have
been properly developed, the ordinary catalogue vdU supply all the
needful aid in the search for new food ; but with only a small por-
tion of those who come to our PubUc Libraries is this the case.
The difficulty, moreover, is vastty increased by the fact that the
great field of work at the Public Library is among the chilcken.
As respects reading, and self-education thi'ough reading, it is to be
remembered that the habits of life are acquired at a very early
age, and once fixed cannot l3e changed. In this matter adults may
be dropped out of consideration ; for bettor or for worse they are —
what they are. There is, indeed, probably no human faculty which
depends so much for its development on early habit and training
as the facult}' of acquiring information out of books. As the
phrase goes, you have got to catch them young ; and if you do not
catch them young, certainl}- in then* " teens," you will never catch
them at all.

The question simply' is, then, how J'ar Uie Public J^ibrary can
be so organized and equii)[)ed with appliances as to enable it to
leaven with its contents this inchoate mass while it is 3'et in the


formative condition. Thus far we have only got to the JDoint of
thi'ustiug a complicated list of great collections of books into peo-
ple's hands, and telUng them to find out what they want, and
take as much of it as thej' please. The}' natm-ally took fiction,
and the weakest forms of fiction ; and then in due time followed
the comically absurd theory of mental evolution through indis-
criminate stor^'-books gi'atis. Now, that insipid or sensational fic-
tion amuses I fi-eelj' admit, but that it educates or leads to an^ -
thing bej-ond itself, either in this world or the next, I utterl}' deny.
On the contrary, it simply and certainly emasculates and destroj's
the intelligent reading power. It is to that what an excessive use
of tobacco, tea, coffee, or any other stimulant is to the nervous

In this vast field of public instruction, then, in which, more than
anj-where else, direction is all important, no direction at all is
given. But the mass cannot do without it. Consequentl}' nothing
in m}' observation of owe library at Quincy has astonished me more
than the utter aimlessness of the reading done from it, — that, and
the lack of capacitj' for any sustained effort in reading. Few,
indeed, of those who come there have the com-age to begin any
work in several volmnes ; and of those few hardly anj^ get beyond
the fii'st. This is ti'ue of all authors except a few wiiters of nov- .
els. The number of those who have not the strength of literary
appetite to take up any volume, but want an illusti-ated magazine
or some book of short stories or papers, to turn over of a Sunday''
or in the evening before going to bed, is enoiTuously large. So
much have I been impressed bj' this, that, studj-ing the subject
objectivel}' and from the educational point of "view, — seeking to
piovide that which, taken altogether, will be of the most service to
the largest number, — I long ago concluded that, if I could have
but one work for a PubUc Library, I would select a complete set of
Harper's Monthly.

Having said this I cannot resist the temptation of making a little
historical digression. If the world is not yet perfect, it certainly-
does move, as I now propose to show. To plant one's standard on
Harper's Monthly as the most valuable work for public librar}' uses


in existence, is taking, as many of you may think, a tolerably ad
vanced stand in the long struggle betwe ^n liberaUsm and eonsers'a-
tism in library' management. "When we go back and see where our
fathers stood, this certainly seems to be the case. Could they exam-
ine oar modern shelves of books they would indeed rub their eyes
and gasp ! — In illustration of all this I propose at this point to con-
ti'ibute a rather amusing page to the historj^ of American Public
Libraries, — a page, too, which, unless I contribute it here and now,
will probably be overlooked and forever lost.

I doubt if the best informed of those who have devoted their
lives to Public Libraries have ever heard of Stephen Burroughs as
being one of theh founders ; — he, once known as " the notorious
Stephen Burroughs," — a gentleman who in the course of his life
was fated to repeatedly come in somewhat violent contact with the
laws of his country', and who has left behind him an autobiography
which is almost as amusing a specimen of impudent mendacity as that
of Benvenuto Cellini. It is full of que&r glimpses of New England
life just subsequent to the War of Independence. The Quincy
library boasts a copy of the book — a waif from some house-clearing
dispensation — and there, while cataloguing, I stmnbled over it, and
read it with great delight. Burroughs was the son of a New
Hampshu'e Presbyterian clergyman, who sent hun to Dartmouth
College, from which institution he suffered an earl}' and deserved
expulsion. Subsequently he became a preacher, a counterfeiter, a
jail-breaker, a schoolmaster, and, in consequence of his misdeeds
in this last capacity, he did not escape the whipping-post at
Worcester in the 3'ear 1790. Always a rogue, he was also a
philosopher, and two of his aphorisms have lived, at least until
receutl}', in the memor}' of the New England pedagogue ; for I m^'self
have often heard the late Dr. Gardner, of the Latin School, luul
them, always with their author's name attached, at the head of his
bo3's Avhen caught in the act. Those aphorisms, more worldly wise
than good, were thus expressed: the first, " Never tell a lie when
you know the truth will be found out ; " and the second, "■ Never
tell a lie when the truth will serve your purpose equallv well."
But here let me add that tlie man who has not read Stephen Bur-
roughs' extemporaneous sermon on the text • ' Old shoes and clouted


on their feet" (Joshua ix., 5), has yet to complete his acquaint-
ance with pulpit eloquence.

In addition, however, to being a rogue, philosopher, and
preacher, St(>phen Burroughs was also the founder of a Public
Library ; and it is in that capacity, and as throwing a queer glance
of light on what was looked upon as popular reading about the
year 1791, that I take the Uberty of introducing him here. Having
fled from the Worcester whipping-post in 1790, Burroughs, in 1791,
set up as a school-master in a town on Long Island ; and presently
he goes on to say : —

The people on this island were very illiterate, making but a small calcula-
tion for information, further than the narrow circle of their own business
extended. They were .almost entirely destitute of books of any kind except

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Online LibraryCharles Francis AdamsThe public library and the common schools: three papers on educational topics → online text (page 2 of 5)