Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/October 1902/Scientific Heading in a Public Library

1412259Popular Science Monthly Volume 61 October 1902 — Scientific Heading in a Public Library1902Arthur Elmore Bostwick




PUBLIC libraries usually divide their circulation into ten or a dozen broad classes and so report it. This division is interesting, but a subdivision of each class would be still more so. For instance the scientific man is interested to know that a given library circulates four per cent, of science, but he would be still more interested to know exactly what is included in 'science' and how much of the circulation is to be credited to each subclass. Those libraries that use the decimal classification of Melvil Dewey, which has been so generally adopted in this country, often report together as 'science' the classes 300 (sociology), 400 (philology) and 500 (natural science) and they exclude the applications of the last-named sciences, which are placed under useful arts. It is evident that in order to mean anything, a report of circulation should be more closely subdivided. This is true of many other classes, of course, as well as of science.

Percentage of Scientific Books Circulated by Various Public Libraries.

Brooklyn 4.0 New York[1] 9.0
Buffalo 5.3 Philadelphia 5.9
Chicago (including Arts) 5.3 Pittsburgh 5.9
Cleveland 8.4 Providence 7.6
Los Angeles 11.5 Salem, Mass 3.3
Newark 3.4 San Francisco 7.1

And yet a public library cannot systematically classify its circulation more closely than it does. To do so would involve a great amount of labor which would be more profitably expended in other directions. It is quite possible, however, to do this extra work for a short period and in a single class of literature and the result, even if partial and perhaps not typical, can not fail to interest those whose studies and work lie in the particular line of literature that is under investigation. Such a classification of the scientific circulation was made for this purpose in all of the circulating branches of the New York Public Library (11 in number at that time) during the month of May, 1901, with the result shown in the accompanying table. For purposes of comparison the circulation is accompanied by figures showing the number of volumes in each subclass, in each branch library.

During this month the total home circulation of these branch libraries was 131,700, and that of the sciences was 8,553, or 6.5 per cent. The first thing that strikes one is that this is a very small percentage. It is not so as compared with other libraries, as the smaller table shows; and of course it is impossible to say a priori what amount of scientific literature a public library ought to circulate; but taken in connection with other facts in the writer's experience as a librarian, it is believed that these figures show a general lack of public interest in science—the same lack of interest that has been brought out of late by several writers who note the general want of consideration for science and scientific men in this country as compared with those of Europe. But while this smallness of our scientific reading is doubtless symptomatic of something deeper, it is probable that interest in science might be stimulated in the library itself. The librarian has numerous effective ways of increasing the reading in a particular class of literature, but none of them appears to have been generally used in this case. Lists and bibliographies, in history, for instance, are very much more numerous than in science, probably for the reason that public librarians and also the teachers with whom they come most in contact are generally more interested in the former subject than in the latter.

Scientific men themselves could doubtless do much to better matters, and I am sure that those in charge of public libraries would welcome suggestions from them regarding the character of their scientific books and plans for making those books attractive to the public and stimulating interest in them. Men like Mr. Hodges, of Cincinnati, who is both a librarian and a scientific man, are doing much toward putting science on a better footing in our public circulating libraries, as his paper read at the recent conference of the American Library Association shows. A glance at the numerical table shows that the public interest in science is not even as great as the total figure would seem to indicate. The largest circulation by far in any one of the thirty subclasses represented is in 420—English philology. But in this are included many volumes of elementary language lessons, etc., which are used in connection with school work, and these doubtless account for the size of this figure. Next comes 370—education, and although it is interesting to see that books on this subject are so popular, their popularity has little to do with a general appreciation of the importance of scientific literature.

The next largest circulation is in 590—zoology. Here at last we have a natural science. But among works on zoology are classed a large number of popular animal stories, which probably make up a considerable number of the 778 books in this subject read during the month.

Mathematics has a relatively large circulation, but we must not suppose that in May, 1901, 673 citizens of New York devoted themselves to the theory of functions or the calculus of probabilities. Further analysis would reveal the fact that a very large proportion of the books taken out were text-books on arithmetic and algebra.

An examination of the records of the separate libraries reveals some points of interest. For instance the circulation in political science and political economy at Bond Street was twice as great as at Bloomingdale—five miles above. The proportion of Hebrews among the users of the two branches must be in nearly the same ratio—a fact that speaks for itself. On the other hand the circulation in education was larger at Bloomingdale. In English philology, the Chatham Square Branch circulated nearly as many books as all the other branches together, which is noteworthy when we remember that this is in a foreign section, where there are news-stands on which not a single English newspaper is exposed for sale. The same proportion holds good at this branch for general works on natural science (class 500). Some things about the table are inexplicable. Why, for instance, should the Ottendorfer Branch have circulated twice as much zoology as Bond Street, only a half mile distant? Doubtless this was owing to some temporary demand, which another month's record might reverse.

Comparison of the circulation in each class with the number of books in that class shows, as might have been expected, that the larger the stock the larger the circulation. There is a mutual reaction between these two numbers. On the one hand, if the demand for a particular class of books is not great, in any branch library, that library naturally does not call for books on that subject; on the other hand, if a library is meagerly supplied in any subject, so that users who wish to read in that subject can not get what they want, the circulation is apt to remain small. In such cases the circulation may be raised by replenishing the stock. The ratio does not always hold good, however, and there are some notable exceptions.

Evidently these are but a very few of the considerations suggested by a study of the table. Different parts of it will naturally interest different readers, and each will be able to find may things in it that can not be brought out here. Of course the record for a whole year would be still more valuable, but, as has been said, the amount of daily labor necessary to subdivide the report is so great that its continuance beyond a month would hardly be justified. So far as I know this is the first attempt made in any library to subdivide so closely in any subject and to present the results in a form suitable for observation and study.

  1. Percentage for the entire year. That given in the larger table is for one month only.