Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/632

This page has been validated.
616
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

allowing the railways and the public a chance to arrange terms between them, with public opinion as the principal court of appeal.

 

 

THE FUNCTION OF THE PUBLIC LIBRARY.

A paper that was read by Mr. Lindsay Swift, of the Boston Public Library, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Library Club, on the subject of Paternalism in Public Libraries, and which we find in the Library Journal for November last, is one which, in our opinion, deserves to be separately printed and widely circulated. It abounds in good sense, and preaches a doctrine of self-help and self-reliance which is much needed in these days.

A question which the author of the paper does not discuss, but which, it seems to us, lies at the threshold of the whole subject, is whether the very existence of a public library—if we understand by the term a library supported by public taxes—is not in itself an exemplification of paternalism. Mr. Swift strikes us as a benevolent bureaucrat who wants to give the people at large a wider liberty in the matter of reading than the ruling influences of time and place are disposed to allow. He sees that liberty is good, that leading strings belong to infancy, and he raises his protest against a paternalism in the management of public libraries which, under the plea of providing only the most approved reading for all classes, would tend to the repression of individuality in the reader and the establishment of the supremacy of commonplace. But what if commonplace insists on being supreme and shutting out whatever is not of one complexion with itself? How are we to resist its demand in the administration of a State-supported, and therefore majority-ruled, institution? "You offer us," say its representatives, "a liberty we do not want for ourselves, and are not prepared to concede to others, as we are sure it can not be for their good. We are not going to consult the tastes of cranks, criminals, intellectual aristocrats, or social mugwumps of any kind. For all practical purposes we are the public, and we mean to run this public library." To the objection that a portion, at least, of the taxes is paid by those whose views and tastes are not going to be consulted, the answer would be ready: "It is for the majority to say how taxes shall be applied." We recognize the excellence of Mr. Swift's intentions and sympathize with his way of looking at things, but we feel that his objections to "paternalism" in connection with public libraries are delivered from a somewhat shaky platform. We observe that a periodical quoted in the Library Journal—the Overland Monthly—makes the remark that "there is nothing to be said for free books that could not be urged in favor of free beef-steaks and free overcoats."

Some of the points, however, that are made by Mr. Swift are deserving of attention. The several professions—law, medicine, theology, etc.—would more or less like to have only such books placed upon the shelves of a public library as represent what may be called their respective orthodoxies. But, as Mr. Swift observes, "libraries are as much the depositories of the folly as of the wisdom of the ages." A library, therefore, should tell us what men have thought and attempted in the past, and what they are thinking and attempting now. It is for schools and colleges, for newspapers and reviews, to afford guidance in the wilderness of opinions, not for the library to make a point of putting out of people's reach everything that is not in line with the scientific, literary, or other orthodoxy of the hour.