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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/December 1904/A Decade of Library Progress in America

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 66‎ | December 1904


AMONG the many gatherings of specialists which were held in connection with the Chicago Exposition in 1893 was an International Congress of Librarians. The account of its sessions appeared, in the usual belated manner of government publications, in the Report of the Commissioner of Education some three years later. The American Library Association has just held another similar international congress for the St. Louis Fair. It seems a fitting time, in view of this event, to set forth as well as may be in brief compass the events which have made the ten years which have elapsed since the World's Fair at Chicago a memorable decade in the history of American libraries.

It was a saying of President Garfield's that American education runs too much to bricks and mortar. A biting sting of truth lies in these words, truth which applies but too well to the library world in common with that of education. It is perhaps a national failing to exalt the visible and tangible, and to ignore the subtle and unseen work of culture and study. Undoubtedly the average man will turn to the new buildings which have been reared in this decade for his criterion of progress in library affairs. They form, it must be said, a notable addition to the list of public buildings of merit in the country.

Perhaps it is not too much to say that the modern American library is a new architectural type. Conditions peculiarly our own, many of them the direct result of American innovations in planning library work, have produced a kind of building which is in many respects novel. The college gymnasium and the large library in the hands of our architects have become almost as markedly American forms of building as the sky-scraper and the grain elevator. The demands of the librarian for natural light throughout the structure, for compact storage and at the same time for instant accessibility of his books, for protection from fire and damp, joined with the need of supplying plenty of space for readers, for administration and for those who throng the corridors and desks where books are given out and returned, have resulted in some extremely interesting and beautiful buildings. More and more architects are studying the needs of libraries, and mistakes once made and realized are seldom repeated.

The small library also has furnished in the past decade numerous opportunities for the designer. Aside from the benefactions of Mr. Carnegie, which are in some respects the most striking event of the past ten years, literally scores of small buildings have been erected by private individuals and by towns. These are coming to form an architectural type fully as distinct as the large buildings. As a rule, of late years these smaller library buildings have taken the shape of a rectangular structure with a central hall, two large front rooms, a delivery desk across the hall and shelves in 'stacks' in the rear on the main floor. A second story usually provides space for additional study and administration rooms. A very large number of memorial libraries of this general type have been erected, particularly in New England. Numerous local and individual variations occur, but a building designed to shelve some ten thousand books so as to be easily reached by any visitor and to afford one attendant a fair view of the main floor has become the accepted type of the small library.

In 1893 there were but three examples of modern library buildings of a size much above the ordinary to be seen in America. These were the Boston Public Library, the Library of Cornell University and the Newberry Library of Chicago. All these are dignified and imposing structures, while the Boston edifice is distinctly one of the foremost public buildings of the country. No one of these buildings has ever satisfied librarians as an ideal, despite their abundant merits. In the past decade a round dozen structures have been reared, which undoubtedly rank as of the first order for size and cost. They are the Library of Congress, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Public Libraries of Chicago, Milwaukee, Providence, Newark and the District of Columbia, and the libraries of Columbia, Princeton, New York and Illinois Universities, together with that of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Each of these buildings is in itself a notable production; as a group they form a striking testimony to the extent and vitality of the library 'movement' in this country. None of them is without individuality. The reading room of the Library of Congress, the rotunda and impressive south façade of the Columbia Library, the Hall of Fame at the rear of the New York University Library, are characteristic features known to all readers of the illustrated papers. The others offer even more interesting and valuable returns to the student of our architecture and of library problems. The university libraries and that of the Wisconsin Historical Society in particular will repay the most careful examination.

It has been a decade of building, and the end is not yet. The New York Public Library's building now in process of erection is but the largest of scores either planned or under way. For most of this expansion Mr. Carnegie is responsible. There seems to be no limit to his generosity, and with very few exceptions, the money he has given to libraries has gone into buildings. Mr. Carnegie is a firm believer in the doctrine that the public should support the public library, and he has regularly stipulated that ten per cent, of the amount which he gives for a building should be pledged by the community as an annual appropriation for maintenance. His gifts have gone both to cities already possessing libraries great and small, and to others where libraries must needs be organized to take advantage of his gifts. Exactly what the results of his munificence, aside from the buildings, will prove, it is too early to say. There seems to be very little likelihood of any but good consequences resulting from his wholesale giving.

So much for the 'bricks and mortar.' On the side of library science substantial progress has been achieved. The spirit of cooperation between libraries was never so strong as at present. That spirit which produced 'Poole's Index' has resulted in the current indexing of over two hundred serials of a technical sort in addition to a continuation of this earlier work on the more popular magazines. Far more important than any other feature of the decade has been the adoption of uniform rules for cataloguing by many of the libraries of the country, for the purpose of securing printed catalogue cards from a central bureau. The master minds among librarians since the middle of the nineteenth century have been urging that it was folly for each individual library to reproduce for itself, after the fashion of the middle ages, manuscript catalogue entries for current printed books. A printed book should be catalogued on a printed card which could be bought either with, or at the same time as, the book. So ran the preaching of the idealists. The American Library Association for a time endeavored to do this through its publishing board; later a commercial organization took the work from the hands of the association and continued it for a short time. Both finally dropped the scheme as financially unprofitable. It was reserved for the Library of Congress to take the first effective step toward emancipating the library profession from the ancient bondage of the scribe. First by a series of compromises the libraries of the country, through a committee of their association, adopted a new set of rules for cataloguing. Then the Library of Congress announced that it was ready to sell the printed cards which it makes for copyright books, its other accessions, and such books as it re-catalogues, at the regular price of government publications, i. e., the cost plus ten per cent. This is now being done with great benefit to all concerned. The result has undoubtedly been disappointing to some enthusiasts who had confidently expected that henceforth their catalogues would make themselves. But while the labor of cataloguing has by no means been completely eliminated, the result attained by the use of this printed card is a far finer, fuller and more perfect card index than any one library could ordinarily afford to make, and that at a cost much less than that of manuscript cards. There is every reason to look forward not alone to a great extension of the present work of supplying printed cards to scholars, bibliographers and libraries, but also to an extension of the scheme in the direction of international exchange or purchase of printed catalogue cards. The beginnings of such a movement are to be seen in the bibliographical labors of the Institute Internationale of Brussels and the Concilium Bibliographicum of Zurich, while the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature for which the Royal Society of London is sponsor is another great step toward international cooperative cataloguing.

Bibliography has received a great impetus in the past decade in America. Among other signs is the inevitable one of an organization. Americans, said Agassiz, when they have anything to do, must have a president, vice-presidents, secretary, treasurer and a constitution. The genial Swiss was right. The Bibliographical Society of Chicago is about to become the American Bibliographical Society. Meantime private and corporate activity has produced some noteworthy bibliographies, of which The American Library Association's 'Guide to the Literature of American History,' Mr. Evans's 'American Bibliography,' the 'United States Catalogue of Books in Print' and the 'American Catalogue' are perhaps the most remarkable. The list might be indefinitely extended. Bibliography, whether seen in the form of the scholarly treatise, such as the catalogue of the Dante collection of Cornell University, or in that of the latest reading list for children, has become a distinct feature of library progress in America.

There has been no small amount of legislation affecting libraries in the period we are considering. This has taken, as a rule, two directions, first, that of laws creating or amending a general act providing for the establishment of libraries, and second, laws establishing library commissions in the several states. The latter feature is the most prominent in the history of the relation of the state to libraries. In 1893 Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut alone possessed these boards. Now twenty states have established them by statute. Generally these commissions are composed of certain state officials ex officio (usually the librarian of the state library and the state superintendent of public instruction) and certain public-spirited citizens who serve without pay. They have a modest sum to be expended in employing inspectors and organizers. In general their work has been limited to helpful suggestion to the libraries of their states, and to the administration of a system of traveling libraries, another new development of the decade. In certain states the commission is empowered to render some small financial support from state funds to public libraries. The Wisconsin commission has furnished the model which has generally been followed in the west, while the Massachusetts commission has been the type for the eastern states. The western commissions have had somewhat more legal authority, as well as larger sums to expend, and have usually employed more officers than have those in the east. The future will doubtless see an extension of this benevolent state supervision and help. It must be confessed that no other influence has been so potent in the improvement of the condition and administration of the smaller and more backward libraries as these commissions. They have fully justified their right to exist. They have also furthered to a remarkable extent the creation of new libraries in communities not previously possessing them. 'Traveling libraries' small collections of some fifty books, have been called into being and managed largely through the commissions. These small collections are sent to rural communities, and even to places in large cities where they are desired, are kept for a few weeks, and exchanged for another set. They have commended themselves most highly to those interested in bringing books to people who have few or none.

This leads us naturally to a consideration of what may be termed the missionary spirit in library work. It may be remarked in passing that this seems a peculiarly American development, and that in general a growing consciousness of the possibilities a high and useful service in the life of the municipality has been one of the conspicuous features of the public library movement. The librarian who regards himself as a missionary of the book has been much in evidence of late, and on the whole has been both efficient and sane. The idea that he is a custodian of books merely has ceased in large measure to be the librarian's conception of his office. He is rather a guide and helper to the use of books. "The best that can be said for any book in this library," said an enthusiastic leader in this sort of work, "is that it is entirely worn out, and we must buy two new copies of it." This was in answer to the faint protest of an elder librarian to the effect that children should not be allowed in libraries because they wore out the books by reading them so much. This zeal for helping others to books, to the right books, has resulted in many reforms in the internal arrangement of library buildings and in the relations of the administration to the public. As a rule, the newer libraries are allowing a great amount of freedom in direct access to the shelves on the part of all users of the library. Many of the more recent buildings have been planned so that the visitor may go directly to the shelves, and many of the older buildings have been remodeled to permit this practise. In almost every way this has been a gain. There has come with it no small loss of books, but that loss is insignificant in view of the greatly increased use of the libraries which has resulted from easy personal contact with books. Most libraries in the future will undoubtedly be planned to permit direct access to open shelves for a great part of their collections. There is, however, a point where this privilege ceases to be of use to the public and to the library, and this fact is now very generally recognized.

Open shelves are but one manifestation of the missionary spirit. Special rooms for children in charge of specially trained assistants are another result of this desire to bring books and people together. The creation of 'children's rooms' has been on the whole a great blessing to libraries. It has drawn away the younger children from the reading rooms and delivery counters, and has perhaps ingrained the reading habit in very many little ones. Certainly the children's room with its cheerful and prettily decorated walls, its low tables and chairs and its tactful, kind, experienced director has proved a boon to countless children into whose homes none of these delectable things enter. This particular form of library work is, however, as yet too young to enable us to judge of its ultimate results.

Another form which the missionary spirit has taken is a closer relation and a more effective cooperation between libraries and schools. The desire for an organization to give opportunity for the public exploitation of this sort of work produced in 1896 the Library Section of the National Educational Association. Not the schools alone, but women's clubs and social settlements, and, in general, all organizations whose members use books in their work, have been brought into friendly relations with the progressive libraries. In short we may safely affirm that public libraries are studying the needs of their communities as never before, and that the somewhat vague notion of aiding the 'public' is fast being replaced by concrete and tangible assistance to organizations and individuals.

The libraries in the large cities have been showing a most decided desire to assist their clients in securing books. To this end the branch library and the delivery station have experienced an almost marvelous development in the past decade. There is hardly a public circulating library of prominence in the country which does not maintain from half a dozen to half a hundred reading-rooms with small collections of reference books, as well as numerous stations for delivery of books from the central library. The largest number of these branch libraries will ultimately be found in New York, where Mr. Carnegie's gifts provide for eighty of these smaller centers in the greater city. Branch libraries have not infrequently been established at the request of large manufacturers or other employers of labor near their places of business, and in some cases the running expenses have been paid by them.

Among librarians also the spirit of mutual helpfulness which has been so characteristic a feature of the library movement in this country has grown greatly. Library clubs, state associations, interstate conferences and the American Library Association have all grown in membership, while their number has increased threefold at least. Two new schools for training librarians have been established in the past decade, and the older schools have strengthened their curricula and raised their standard for admission. One new journal devoted particularly to the work of public libraries has come into existence.

Any summary of this decade would be incomplete which failed to mention the great additions to American libraries in the shape of special collections or endowments for special purposes. Such gifts as the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University, the Giant collection at Harvard, the Yale collection of Semitic manuscripts, the Dante collection presented to Cornell by Willard Fiske, the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia, the Morgan collection of Vergils and the Garrett collection of Arabic manuscripts at Princeton, and the Ford and other collections of the New York Public Library, are but conspicuous examples of the collector's generosity which has been so prominent a part of recent library history. The man of wealth may easily give money for a building, but the scholarly collector who turns over to a library for keeping and use the result of his efforts of years gives perhaps even more munificently. The libraries of this country are yearly receiving such donations in ever increasing numbers.

It would be a rare and happy fate were the librarians of America able to remind themselves of no great losses from their ranks in the past decade. Such is, unfortunately, not the case. Three of the pioneers in library progress have died during this period. Those who know intimately the history of the library movement will at once acknowledge that in the loss of Wm. F. Poole, Justin Winsor and C. A. Cutter the library world has been sorely stricken. Dr. Poole is remembered by historians and librarians alike for his services to American history and bibliography. Mr. Winsor's achievements as a cartographer, historian and librarian are too well known to need more than mention. Mr. Cutter, whose death occurred only last summer, was not so widely known outside the circle of technical workers. To librarians he was celebrated for a long series of most valuable contributions to the problems of classification and cataloguing, while his personal qualities endeared him to all. That such men were to be found foremost among American librarians is one of the occasions for pride in their calling. Their memory should prove one of the greatest incentives to future workers in their chosen field.

It would be a rash man who should venture to predict the directions of library growth in the next ten years. Certain tendencies, however, may be inferred from the immediate past. It is almost certain that the impetus given to public libraries by Mr. Carnegie will result in steady growth and an increased efficiency in this field. It is equally certain, I think, that more efficient and widely extended state inspection and advice to libraries are likely to be had in the near future. Library legislation is tending to become more uniform in the several states, and perhaps the enabling acts which now permit public libraries to be supported by taxation may be exchanged for mandatory acts compelling their establishment after the manner of public schools. The greatest internal improvements which can be foreshadowed will probably be the growth of a scholarly spirit among librarians, and an increased emphasis on bibliographical work. A large measure of cooperation in the technical details of library administration and the consequent cheapening of its cost may also confidently be expected. Finally, it is entirely probable that the educational value of libraries in the community will come to be greater both by reason of the conscious efforts of the librarians to increase their efficiency, and by the recognition of those efforts on the part of the public whom they serve.