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CHAPTER 10: FREE LIBRARIES BY M.D. O’BRIEN - Thomas Mackay, A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation (LF ed.) 
A Plea for Liberty: An Argument against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation, consisting of an Introduction by Herbert Spencer and Essays by Various Writers, edited by Thomas Mackay (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Foreword by Jeffrey Paul.
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A Free Library may be defined as the socialists’ continuation school. While State education is manufacturing readers for books, State-supported libraries are providing books for readers. The two functions are logically related. If you may take your education out of your neighbour’s earnings, surely you may get your literature in the same manner. Literary dependency has the same justification as educational dependency; and, no doubt, habituation to the one helps to develop a strong desire for the other. A portion of our population has by legislation acquired the right to supply itself with necessaries and luxuries at the cost of the rates. The art of earning such things for themselves has been rendered superfluous. Progress therefore halts because this all-important instinct has fallen into disuse. At a point the rates will bear no more, and those who depend on them for their pleasures are doomed to disappointment. They are entitled to our pity for the helpless condition into which the system contracts their faculties and their character. Those who have been compelled to accept a semigratuitous education, which is not, in all probability, the sort of education they would have chosen for themselves, but which is intended to create a taste for reading, can hardly be expected to relish paying the market value for their books and newspapers. They have been taught to read at other people’s expense, and why should they not be provided with books in the same easy way? It is not at present proposed to supply them with foolscap, etc., in order that they may ‘keep up’ their writing proficiency, but no doubt this is a luxury reserved for the near future. No doubt this ‘cheap’ way of getting literature helps to throw light on the fact that so many public books are injured by bad usage, and defaced by marginal notes. That which is got for nothing is valued at nothing. Possibly the advocates of literary pauperism will see little force in the argument that if readers were left to pay for their own books, not only would books be more valued, but the moral discipline involved in the small personal sacrifice incurred by saving for such a purpose, would do infinitely more good than any amount of culture obtained at other people’s expense. It is true the Free Library party strongly repudiate the charge of dishonesty; but it is difficult to see any real difference between the man who goes boldly into his neighbour’s house and carries off his neighbour’s books, and the man who joins with a majority, and on the authority of the ballot-box, sends the tax-gatherer round to carry off the value of those books.
We insist most strongly on the injury done to the pauperised recipients of these favours. Want is the spring of human effort. Self-discipline, self-control, self-reliance, are the habits which grow in men who are allowed to act for themselves. The meddlesome forestalling of individual effort, which is being carried into mischievous excess, is going far to bind our poorer classes for another century of dependence.
Let us run, as rapidly as possible, through a few of the pleas set up by the advocates of this form of municipal socialism. Good books, it is said, are out of the reach of the working man. Even if this were true, it is no reason for persuading him to tax his neighbour for them. If the working man cannot come by his books honestly, let him wait until he can. But a glance down the lists of some of our publishers will show anyone that the statement is not true—is the very reverse of truth. When books like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ ‘Rasselas,’ ‘Paul and Virginia,’ Byron’s ‘Childe Harold,’ ‘Lady of the Lake,’ ‘Marmion,’ and others, can be purchased from Messrs. Dicks at twopence each; when all Scott’s novels can be obtained from the same publishers for threepence per story; when, from the same source, any of Shakespere’s plays can be got for a penny each, it will not do to say that the best kind of literature is unpurchasable by a class that spends millions a year on alcohol, as well as thousands on tobacco and other luxuries. Three or four pence, which even comparatively poor people think nothing now-a-days of spending on an ounce of tobacco or a pipe, will buy enough of the best literature to last an ordinary reader at least a week or a fortnight. And when the book is read, there is the pleasure to be derived from lending or giving it to a friend, and of accepting the loan or gift of his in return; a custom that largely obtains in country districts where no socialistic collection of unjustly gotten books exists to hinder the development of personal thrift, or poison the springs of spontaneous generosity. Lying on the table where this is written is a list of the works published in Cassell’s National Library. How some of the old book-lovers who are gone—who lived in the days when the purchase of a good book involved some personal sacrifice—would have appreciated this valuable library! Here are 208 of the world’s best books, each one of which contains some 200 pages of clear readable type. The published price is threepence each; but a discount of twenty-five per cent is allowed when four or five or more are purchased. It would be a waste of space to give the entire list; but a few typical examples may be taken. Here are the Essays of Lord Macaulay; here are works by Plutarch, Herodotus, Plato, Xenophon, Lucian, Fénelon, Voltaire, Boccaccio, Goethe, and Lessing—in English, of course. Here is Walton’s ‘Complete Angler,’ Goldsmith’s ‘Plays,’ Bacon’s ‘Wisdom of the Ancients’ and ‘Essays.’ Here are works by Burke, Swift, Steele and Addison, Milton, Johnson, Pope, Sydney Smith, Coleridge, Dickens, Landor, Fielding, Keats, Shelley, Defoe, Dryden, Carlyle, Locke, Bolingbroke, Shakespeare, and many others. All Shakespere’s plays are here complete, and each play is accompanied by the poem, story, or previous play on which it is founded. Here, for example, is the last of the series as yet published, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’; it contains a translation of the story of Giletta of Narbona from Painter’s ‘Palace of Pleasure’: it is worth threepence to a student, if only for showing the difference between raw material and finished product. Hundreds of new novels, including some of those of Thackeray, Kingsley, Dickens, Lytton, and other well-known authors, are to be obtained in most places for 4-1/2d., and their second-hand price is less still. Considering the marvellous cheapness of good books, it is difficult to understand how anyone can either blackmail his neighbour for them, or encourage working-men to do so. If a man will not deduct a few coppers now and then from his outlay in other luxuries to purchase literature, he cannot want literature very badly; if he does not value books sufficiently well to buy them with his own earnings he does not deserve to have them bought for him with other people’s earnings. That poor women and others, who are often the sole support of a large family of children, should have their hard earnings confiscated to maintain readers—many of them well-to-do—in gratuitous literature, is an injustice not to be palliated by all the hollow cant about culture and education so freely indulged in at the present time. Some time ago there was a discussion on ‘the sacrifice of education to examination.’ There is another question quite as serious—the sacrifice of justice to so-called education.
But, we are told, the educational value of Free Libraries is so great as to outweigh all other considerations. Some estimate will shortly be given of this value, but just now it is not out of place to inquire what is meant by this misleading term, education. What is it to be educated? I am a farmer, let us say, and my fathers have been farmers for generations back. Heredity has done something to fit me for a farm life, as it has fitted the Red Indian for his hunting grounds. But I have a son whose tastes are similar to my own. I was bred up on the farm, and accustomed to rural work from infancy. I have thus acquired a practical knowledge which life-long experience alone can give. Naturally I decide to give my son the same education. No, no, says the State, you must send your children to this school for some five or six of the best hours of every day; we cannot allow you to bring them up in ignorance. Now what does this mean? It means that just at the time when a child is beginning to form his tastes, just at the period when the daily habituation to the simple duties of farm life would lay the foundation, both of sound health and practical knowledge, he is taken out of the parent’s control, and subjected to a mind-destroying, cramming process, which excludes practical knowledge and creates a dislike for all serious study—for force is always the negation of love. And this, forsooth, is education! This is fitting men and women for the practical duties of a world in which the largest proportion of the work requires no book learning to do it! The pulpit and the press, the guides of popular opinion, have put it about that there is nothing like books, the shoemaker has been heard to make the same remark about leather, and our School Board mill does its best to turn out the article ‘clerk’ for a uniform pattern. When shall we learn that the only useful education for nineteen out of every twenty is one which develops a quick ear, a sharp eye, a strong well-knit and muscular frame, and that it is not to be got by repeating lessons, but by continual contact with the facts of everyday life; for thus only can children acquire a practical knowledge of the world in which their future life has got to be lived.
It is hardly necessary for us to say that we have no objection, either for ourselves or for our neighbours, to novel-reading. On the contrary, we regard it as a legitimate form of recreation. All we argue is that it is not a luxury which should be paid for out of the rates. Now, to listen to the advocates of Free Libraries one would imagine that these institutions were only frequented by students, and that the books borrowed were for the most part of a profound and scholarly character. But the very reverse of this is the case. The committee of the Blackpool Free Library, in their Report for the year 1887-8, say: ‘Works of fiction and light literature enjoy the greatest degree of popularity, each book circulating eleven times in the year, while the more instructive books in the other classes circulate only once during the same period.’ The following table, taken from page 5 of the Blackpool Report, shows ‘the number of works in the Library in each class, the number of issues in each class, the average number of times each work in each class has been issued, and the daily average issue in each class’:
No wonder is it, after such results as this, that the Committee should express the opinion ‘that the rich stores of biography, history, travels, and works of science and art which have been added in recent years are deserving of greater attention than has hitherto been given to them.’
It will be seen that in the above table, novels, poetry and general literature are all lumped together. The usual and more satisfactory custom is to classify fiction by itself. The following tables, taken from page 7 of the Report of the Cambridge Free Libraries for 1888-9, show the work done there during something over thirty years (See Table A). A similar return is given (in Table B) for the Norwich Free Library.
The aggregate yearly issue of course varies in different towns. We print a table taken from page 18 of the eighth annual Report of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Free Library (See Table C).
We give also a balance-sheet which will serve to show the kind of expenses attendant on these institutions (Table D).
Of course the cost of a Free Library varies with the amount realised by the rate which is levied on the assessed rentals of householders. Subjoined are two tables, taken from the second and third annual Reports of the Yarmouth Free Library, which show both the amount paid and the work done for it in a number of boroughs in different parts of the country (Table E).
The rate is limited by law to a penny in the pound. There are, however, various devices by which it may be raised. The most usual is to smuggle a clause into a ‘Local Improvement
Act’ or ‘Omnibus Bill.’ The following letters were received in reply to an inquiry on this point:
Wigan Free Public Library,
The clause we have obtained for increasing the rate to 2d. was contained in a local Act (or omnibus Bill), which included as well many other matters relating to other departments of the Corporation. The Mayor of Wigan took the chair at a public meeting of the ratepayers, and the Bill was approved by a majority of those present. No poll was taken or asked for. Very few libraries are rated at less than 1d. in the £. I do not believe they could work at all successfully on less except in the case of very large centres, producing a large return. I do not know of individual cases of libraries on less than a 1d. rate.
I am, yours truly,
H. T. Folkard
M. D. O’Brien
Town Hall, Preston,
There was no poll on the Bill which contained the power to increase the Free Library rate to 1-1/2d.
M. D. O’Brien
The Council of this borough obtained power to levy a higher rate than 1d. in the £ through an Improvement Bill, which, I believe, passed the House of Commons in 1865.
Thos. W. Hand,
M. D. O’Brien
Free Library, Nottingham,
Our library rate is only 1d. in the £, though we get a separate allowance from the Council of £1500 per year for support of nine or ten reading-rooms in different parts of the borough.
M. D. O’Brien
Leicester Free Public Library,
A poll was not taken when the library rate was increased to 2d. in the £.1 The present levy is 1½d., which is allotted by the Council to three committees, Free Library, Museum, and Art Gallery. When the rate was increased a clause was inserted in the local Act.
M. D. O’Brien
Reference Library, Birmingham,
The Free Libraries’ rate in Birmingham for last year (1889) was 1.27d. in the £.
J. D. Mullins
M. D. O’Brien
But although the nominal and frequently exceeded limit is now one penny in the pound, there is no knowing how soon it may be raised. Already the Library Association of the United Kingdom, a body composed of librarians whose bureaucratic instincts naturally impel them to push their business by all possible means, has awarded a prize of ten guineas for a draft Library Bill, which, among other things, permits a twopenny instead of a penny rate. ‘But,’ says the Daily News of Oct. 4th, 1889, ‘the feeling appeared to be unanimous that it would be unwise to put this forward as a part of the Association’s programme, as it would enormously increase the opposition to the adoption of the Act in new localities.’ No regard for the ratepayers’ pockets holds them back; but only a fear of injuring business by frightening the bird whose feathers are to be plucked. Were it not for this the Bill would be pushed forward, and those ratepayers who have voted for the adoption of the Act in the belief that no more than one penny can be levied, would have the rate suddenly doubled over their heads without knowing it. Perhaps, after all, it would serve them right.2
The enormous amount of light reading indulged in by the frequenters of Free Libraries leads us to expect that these places are largely used by well-to-do and other idlers. And this is exactly what we find. Free Libraries are perfect ‘god-sends’ to the town loafer, who finds himself housed and amused at the public expense, and may lounge away his time among the intellectual luxuries which his neighbours are taxed to provide for him. Says Mr. Mullins, the Birmingham librarian, ‘No delicacy seemed to deter the poor tramp from using, not only the news-room, but the best seats in the reference library for a snooze. Already the Committee had to complain of the use of the room for betting, and for the transaction of various businesses, and the exhibition of samples, writing out of orders, and other pursuits more suited to the commercial room of an hotel.’ And referring to another Free Library, the same authority continues: ‘In the Picton Room of the Liverpool Library, alcoves were once provided with small tables, on which were pens, ink, etc., but it was found that pupils were received in them by tutors, and much private letter-writing was done therein; so that when a respectable thief took away £20 worth of books they were closed.’3
After the cant usually indulged in by the officials of literary pauperism such candour as this is positively refreshing. It is seldom the high priest allows us to look behind the curtain in this fashion. As a rule, the admission is much less direct, and can only be gathered from a careful analysis of the statistics. According to the Bristol Report for last year, there were 416,418 borrowers during the twelve months preceding December 31, 1889: of these 148,992 are described as having ‘no occupation.’ The Report of the Atkinson Free Library of Southport informs us that out of the 1283 new borrowers who joined the library last year, 536 are written down as of ‘no occupation.’ At the same town, in the years 1887-8, there were 641 who, according to the report, were without any occupation, out of a total of 1481. According to the annual Report of the Leamington Free Public Library for 1888-9, 187 made a return ‘no occupation,’ out of a total of 282 applicants. In the Yarmouth Report for the same year, out of a total of 3085 new borrowers, 1044 are described as of ‘no occupation’; the report for the previous year states the proportion as follows: Total of borrowers, 2813; ‘no occupation,’ 1078; in the year before that the total was—3401; ‘no occupation,’ 1368.
Some reports give a fuller analysis of the different classes of people who use the libraries to which they refer. In the Wigan Report for last year we are told that 13,336 people made use of the reference library in that town during 1888-9. The largest items of this amount are given as follows: Solicitors, 1214; clergy, 903; clerks and bookkeepers, 1521; colliers, 961; schoolmasters and teachers, 801; architects and surveyors, 418; engineers, 490; enginemen, 438. At Newcastle-on-Tyne, last year, there were 11,620 persons used the reference library, and only 3949 of these were of ‘no occupation.’ Yet, notwithstanding the numerical weakness of the letter, they managed to consult nearly half the books that were consulted during that year. The total number consulted was 36,100; and 16,800 were used by people who had ‘no occupation.’ And this is legislation for the Working Classes!
There is little doubt that at least forty-nine out of every fifty working-men have no interest whatever in these institutions. For one penny they can buy their favourite newspaper, which can be carried in the pocket and read at any time; whereas if they wanted to see a paper at a Free Library they would generally have to wait half an hour or an hour in a stuffy room, without being allowed to speak during the time. The following sensible remarks are from the pen of one who has risen to an honourable position from a very humble beginning without the aid of Free Libraries or Board Schools:
Not long ago a conference of working men was held at Salford to consider the question of rational amusement, when, in reply to a series of questions, it was stated that Free Libraries were not the places for poor, hard-working men, who had social wants which such libraries could not gratify. It was argued that people who went to work from six in the morning till six at night did not want to travel a mile or so to a Free Library. Music, gymnastics, smoking and conversation rooms, and other things were suggested, but in summing up the majority of replies, it appeared that amusement rather than intellectual improvement, or even reading, was what was most wanted by men after a hard day’s toil. This appears to have been realised in the erection, according to Mr. Besant’s conception, of the Palace of Delight in the east end of London.
The truth is that a Free Library favours one special section of the community—the book-readers—at the expense of all the rest. The injustice of such an institution is conspicuously apparent when it is remembered that temperaments and tastes are as various as faces. If one man may have his hobby paid for by his neighbours, why not all? Are theatre-goers, lovers of cricket, bicyclists, amateurs of music, and others to have their earnings confiscated, and their capacities for indulging in their own special hobbies curtailed, merely to satisfy gluttons of gratuitous novel-reading? A love of books is a great source of pleasure to many, but it is a crazy fancy to suppose that it should be so to all. If logic had anything to do with the matter we might expect to hear proposals for compelling the attendance of working men at the Free Library. But surely in this nineteenth century, men might be trusted to choose their own amusements, and might mutually refrain from charging the cost thereof to their neighbours’ account. This pandering to selfishness is bad for all parties, and doubly so to the class it is specially intended to benefit.
The following imaginary dialogue will perhaps serve to show the inherent injustice of literary socialism.
A and B earn 1s. each by carrying luggage. Says A to B: ‘I am in favour of circulating books by means of a subscription library; from this 1s. I therefore propose to deduct 1d. in order to compass my desire. There is my friend C, who is of the same opinion as myself, and he is willing to subscribe his quota to the scheme. We hope you will be willing to subscribe your mite, but if not, we intend to force you to do so, for, as you know, all private interests must give way to the public good.’
‘Perhaps so,’ replies B, ‘but then, you see, I have my own opinions on the subject, and I do not believe that your method of supplying literature is the best method. Of course I may be wrong, but then I am logically entitled to the same freedom of thought and action as you yourself are. If you are entitled to have your views about a “Free” Library and to act upon them, I am equally entitled to the same liberty, so long as I don’t interfere with you. I don’t compel you to pay for my church, my theatre, or my club; why should you compel me to pay for your library? For my own part I don’t want other people to keep me in literature, and I don’t want to keep other people. I refuse therefore to pay the subscription.’
‘Very well,’ rejoins A, ‘if that is the case I shall proceed to make you pay; and as I happen to represent a numerical majority the task will be an easy one.’
‘But are we not man and man,’ says B, ‘and have not I the same right to spend my earnings in my own way as you have to spend yours in your way? Why should I be compelled to spend as you spend? Don’t you see that you are claiming more for yourself than you are allowing to me, and are supplementing your own liberty by robbing me of mine? Is this the way you promote the public good? Is this your boasted free library? I tell you it is founded upon theft and upon the violation of the most sacred thing in this world—the liberty of your fellow man. It is the embodiment of a gross injustice, and only realises the selfish purpose of a cowardly and dishonest majority.’
‘We have heard all this before,’ replies A, ‘but such considerations must all give way before the public good. We are stronger than you are, and we have decided once and for all that you shall pay for a “Free” Library; don’t make unnecessary resistance, or we shall have to proceed to extremities.’
And, after all, the so-called Free Library is not really free—only so in name. If the penny or twopenny rate gave even the shabbiest accommodation to anything like a fair proportion of its compulsory subscribers, there would not be standing room, and the ordinary subscription libraries would disappear. According to Mr. Thos. Greenwood, who in his book on ‘Free Libraries’ has given a table of the daily average number of visitors at the different Free Libraries distributed up and down the country, there is only one per cent, on an average, of visitors per day of the population of the town to which the library belongs accommodated for a rate of one penny in the pound, sometimes more, sometimes less; but the general proportion is about one per cent. Now what do these facts mean? If it costs one penny in the pound to accommodate so few, what would it cost for a fair proportion to receive anything like a share that would be worth having? Even now it is a frequent occurrence for a reader to wait for months before he can get the novel he wants.4 Says Mr. George Easter, the Norwich librarian: ‘Novels most read are those by Ainsworth, Ballantyne, Besant, Braddon, Collins, Craik, Dickens, Fenn, Grant, Haggard, Henty, C. Kingsley, Kingston, Edna Lyall, Macdonald, Marryat, Oliphant, Payn, Reade, Reid, Verne, Warner, Wood, Worboise, and Young; of those underlined (in italics) the works are nearly out.’5 The fact is, the Free Library means that the many shall work and pay and the few lounge and enjoy; theoretically it is free to all, but practically it can only be used by a few.
While there is such a run on novels, solid works are at a discount. At Newcastle-on-Tyne during 1880-81 we find that 2100 volumes of Miss Braddon’s novels were issued (of course some would be issued many times over, as the whole set comprised only thirty-six volumes), while Bain’s ‘Mental and Moral Science’ was lent out only twelve times in the year. There were 1320 volumes issued of Grant’s novels, and fifteen issues of Butler’s ‘Analogy of Religion’; 4056 volumes of Lever’s novels were issued, while Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ circulated four times; 4901 volumes of Lytton’s novels were issued, while Locke ‘On the Understanding’ went eight times. Mill’s ‘Logic’ stands at fourteen issues as against Scott’s novels, 3300; Spencer’s ‘Synthetic Philosophy’ (8 vols.) had forty-three issues of separate volumes; Dickens’ novels had 6810; Macaulay’s ‘History of England’ (10 vols.) had sixty-four issues of separate volumes. Ouida’s novels had 1020; Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ (2 vols.) had thirty-six issues; Wood’s novels, 1481. Mill’s ‘Political Economy’ had eleven issues; Worboise’s novels, 1964. Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ (2 vols.) had fourteen issues; Collins’ novels, 1368.
‘No worse than in other libraries,’ it may be said; ‘knowledge is at a discount: sensation at a premium everywhere!’ Perfectly true; but are people to be taxed to give facilities for this? Novel reading in moderation is good: the endowment of novel reading by the rates is bad—that is our contention. And when it is remembered that any book requiring serious study cannot be galloped through, like a novel, in the week or fourteen days allowed for use, it becomes at once evident that this gratuitous lending system is only adapted for the circulation of sensation, and not for the acquirement of real knowledge. It would be interesting to know what portion of a book like Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ or like Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations,’ was studied, or even read, during the year! And this is the sort of thing people allow themselves to be rated and taxed for! This is progressive legislation, and its opponents are backward and illiberal!
Free Libraries are typical examples of the compulsory co-operation everywhere gaining ground in this country. Like all State socialism they are the negation of that liberty which is the goal of human progress. Every successful opposition to them is therefore a stroke for human advancement. This mendacious appeal to the numerical majority to force a demoralising and pauperising institution upon the minority, is an attempt to revive, in municipal legislation, a form of coercion we have outgrown in religious matters. At the present time there is a majority of Protestants in this country who, if they wished, could use their numerical strength to compel forced subscriptions from a minority of Catholics, for the support of those religious institutions which are regarded by their advocates as of quite equal importance to a Free Library. Yet this is not done; and why? Because in matters of religion we have learnt that liberty is better than force. In political and social questions this terrible lesson has yet to be learned. We deceive ourselves when we imagine that the struggle for personal liberty is over—probably the fiercest part has yet to arise. The tyranny of the few over the many is past, that of the many over the few is to come. The temptation for power—whether of one man or a million men—to take the short cut, and attempt by recourse to a forcing process to produce that which can only come as the result of the slow and steady growth of ages of free action, is so great that probably centuries will elapse before experience will have made men proof against it. But, however long the conflict, the ultimate issue cannot be doubted. That indispensable condition of all human progress—liberty—cannot be permanently suppressed by the arbitrary dictates of majorities, however potent. When the socialistic legislation of today has been tried, it will be found, in the bitter experience of the future, that for a few temporary, often imaginary, advantages we have sacrificed that personal freedom and initiative without which even the longest life is but a stale and empty mockery.
M. D. O’Brien
[1 ] When the article on Libraries in the present edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was written the Leicester rate was 1/2d. in the £. It is a common argument of the Free Library agitators to tell the ratepayers that the library rate will only be 1/2d. in the £. This was done at Hastings, where the Acts were recently rejected by a majority of more than three to one.
[2 ]Free Life of 10th Oct., 1890, illustrates the greediness of officialism for power in the following:
‘The Pall Mall Gazette reported (September 20) that, at the Library Association at Reading, Mr. MacAlister proposed, “that in the opinion of this association the time has come when the essential necessity of public libraries as an extension of the compulsory national education being recognised, the question of establishing libraries be no longer left to a plebiscite, and that the establishment of a suitable library in every district as defined under the Acts be compulsory.” He expected that the resolution would be lost, as on other occasions, but he should move it year after year till it was carried. Mr. Tedber said they would be laughed at if they passed such a resolution just now. Mr. MacAlister said he was aware of the objections and the dreadful things that would be said if they passed the resolution, but it seemed to him absurd that libraries should be the only institutions whose establishment depended on a popular vote. It seemed to him a reproach to civilisation and to the latter end of the nineteenth century that such should be the case. If he had moved such a resolution before compulsory education was adopted he could understand that the arguments against it would have been strong indeed; but we compelled people to read, some of whom did not want to, and he considered it a cruel thing to create a want the country was not prepared to supply. He held that to make it compulsory to establish free libraries was the logical outcome of the Education Act. The resolution was negatived by four votes—33 to 29. A few more MacAlisters scattered about the country, and people will begin to see what a weapon taxation is to put into the hands of logical fanatics, starting from a false premise. In some parts of the world there is a law obliging a man who has a vote to record it; perhaps Mr. MacAlister will propose presently that we should be obliged to read the books in his libraries.
‘What is interesting to observe in all these matters is that the compulsion-fanatics have given up the idea of the people choosing for themselves what is good for them. That pretence is worn out and thrown on one side, and whatever the busy-bodies think good for body or soul, that is to be established forthwith. How ludicrous this reign of busy-bodydom would be, if it were not for the rather dismal fact that so few people take the trouble to fight the busy-bodies resolutely.’
[3 ] Report of a Conference in Birmingham of the Library Association of the United Kingdom, published in the British and Colonial Stationer, 6th Oct., 1887.
[4 ] This is not mere theory. I have before me a letter from a friend in which he says he has ceased to borrow books from the Sheffield Library because ‘if you wanted any popular fiction you had a great difficulty in getting it, and often, if you did get it, the books were in such a dirty condition as to detract from the pleasure of reading them.’ On one occasion when the Sheffield Central Library was opened after a holiday, the books having all been called in for inspection, there were about half a dozen people at the door ready to rush in and get the latest popular novels before the rest of the public could secure them. The difficulty of getting any particular novel is so great.
[5 ] A few years ago the authorities had to take strong measures in the interests of students against the novel-reading users of the British Museum. It was found that vast numbers of people used the library only to get at the newly published novels, which in many cases are issued at 31s. 6d. the set of three volumes. And it must be admitted that there is something very arbitrary in taxing the general public for a library, and then preventing them from seeing the only books they care to read.