Front Page Titles (by Subject) the RATIONALE OF FREE PUBLIC LIBRARIES.∗ - Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers
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the RATIONALE OF FREE PUBLIC LIBRARIES.∗ - William Stanley Jevons, Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers 
Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers (London: Macmillan, 1883).
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the RATIONALE OF FREE PUBLIC LIBRARIES.∗
Among the methods of social reform which are comparatively easy of accomplishment and sure in action, may be placed the establishment of Free Public Libraries. Already, indeed, this work has been carried into effect in a considerable number of towns, and has passed quite beyond the experimental stage. In Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and some other great towns, where such libraries have already existed for many years, there is but one opinion about them. Perhaps it might better be said that they are ceasing to be matter of opinion at all, and are classed with town-halls, police-courts, prisons, and poor-houses as necessary adjuncts of our stage of civilisation. Several great towns, including the greatest of all towns, great London itself, are yet nearly, if not quite, devoid of rate-supported libraries. As to towns of medium and minor magnitude, it is the exception to find them provided with such an obvious requisite. Under these circumstances it will not be superfluous to review the results which have already been achieved under William Ewart's Free Libraries Act, and to form some estimate of the reasons which may be urged in favour of or against the system of providing literature at the public cost.
The main raison d'être of Free Public Libraries, as indeed of public museums, art-galleries, parks, halls, public clocks, and many other kinds of public works, is the enormous increase of utility which is thereby acquired for the community at a trifling cost. If a beautiful picture be hung in the dining-room of a private house, it may perhaps be gazed at by a few guests a score or two of times in the year. Its real utility is too often that of ministering to the selfish pride of its owner. If it be hung in the National Gallery, it will be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of persons, whose glances, it need hardly be said, do not tend to wear out the canvas. The same principle applies to books in common ownership. If a man possesses a library of a few thousand volumes, by far the greater part of them must lie for years untouched upon the shelves; he cannot possibly use more than a fraction of the whole in any one year. But a library of five or ten thousand volumes opened free to the population of a town may be used a thousand times as much. It is a striking case of what I propose to call the principle of the multiplication of utility, a principle which lies at the base of some of the most important processes of political economy, including the division of labour.
The extent to which this multiplication of utility is carried in the case of free lending libraries is quite remarkable. During the first year that the Birmingham Free Library was in operation every book in the library was issued on an average seventeen times, and the periodical literature was actually turned over about fifty times.∗ In the “Transactions of the First Annual Meeting of the Library Association” (p. 77), Mr. Yates, of the Leeds Public Library, has given an account of the stock and issues of his libraries. In the Central Library the average turn-over—that is to say, the average number of times that each book was used—was about eighteen times in 1873, gradually falling to about twelve times. In the branch libraries it was eight in 1873, falling to four-and-a-half. This fall in the turn-over is, however, entirely due to the increase in the stock of books, the total number of issues having largely increased. The general account of all the free libraries, as given in a Parliamentary Paper—namely, a “Further Return concerning the Free Libraries Acts” (No. 277, 1877)—shows that each volume in the lending libraries of corporate towns is used on an average 6·55 in the year, and in the reference libraries 2·65 times; in other than corporate places the numbers are 5·92 and 3·81. In Scotland there is a curious inversion; the books of the lending libraries being used on an average 5·58 times, and those of the reference libraries as much as 9·22 times. The numbers of volumes issued to each borrower in the year are from sixteen to eighteen in England and Wales, and more than forty-four in Scotland.
Of course, books suffer more or less damage from incessant reading, and no small numbers of books in Free Libraries are sooner or later actually worn out by steady utilisation. Such books, however, can almost invariably be replaced with ease; in any case, how infinitely better it is that they should perish in the full accomplishment of their mission, instead of falling a prey to the butter-man, the waste-dealer, the entomological book-worm, the chamber-maid, or the other enemies of books which Mr. Blades has so well described and anathematised.
One natural result of the extensive circulation of public books is the very low cost at which the people is thus supplied with literature. Dividing the total expenditure of some of the principal Free Libraries by their total issues, we find that the average cost of each issue is: at Birmingham, 1·8d. per volume; at Rochdale, 1·92d.; at Manchester, 2·7d.; at Wolverhampton, the same. At Liverpool the cost was still lower, being only 1·55d.; and at Tynemouth it was no more than 1·33d. In the smaller libraries, indeed, the average cost is, as we might reasonably expect, somewhat larger; but, taking the total returns of issues and expenditure as given in Mr. Charles W. Sutton's most valuable “Statistical Report on the Free Libraries of the United Kingdom,”∗ we find the average cost per volume issued to be 2·31d. This is by no means a fair mode of estimating what the public get for their money. We must remember that, in addition to the borrowing and consulting of books, the readers have in most cases a cheerful, well-warmed, and well-lighted sitting-room, supplied with newspapers and magazine tables. To many a moneyless weary man the Free Library is a literary club; an unexceptionable refuge from the strife and dangers of life. It is not usual to keep any record of the numbers of persons who visit Free Libraries for other purposes than to apply for books; but at the Manchester libraries in 1868–69 an attempt was made to count the numbers of persons making use of the institutions in one way or other.∗ It was found that there had been altogether 2,172,046 readers, of whom 398,840 were borrowers of books for home reading; 74,367, including 228 ladies, were readers in the reference library; 91,201 were readers to whom books were issued on their signature in the branch reading-rooms; and 1,607,638 made use of the current periodicals, books, pamphlets, and other publications, in the news-room, in regard to which no formality is required. Taking the population of Manchester at 338,722, we might say that every man, woman, and child visited the libraries on an average six-and-a-half times in the year; or, putting it in a more sensible manuer, we might say, perhaps, that every person of adequate age visited the libraries on an average about thirteen times in the year.
The figures already given seem to show that there is probably no mode of expending public money which gives a more extraordinary and immediate return in utility and innocent enjoyment. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to rest the claims of the Free Library simply on the ground of economy. Even if they were very costly, Free Libraries would be less expensive establishments than prisons, courts of justice, poor-houses, and other institutions maintained by public money; or the gin-palaces, music-halls, and theatres maintained by private expenditure. Nobody can doubt that there is plenty of money in this kingdom to spend for worse or for better. The whole annual cost of Free Libraries does not amount to more than about one hundred thousand pounds per annum; say, one-fifth part of the cost of a single first-class iron-clad. Now, this small cost is not only repaid many times over by the multiplication of utility of the books, newspapers, and magazines on which it is expended, but it is likely, after the lapse of years, to come back fully in the reduction of poor-rates and Government expenditure on crime. We are fully warranted in looking upon Free Libraries as an engine for operating upon the poorer portions of the population. In many other cases we do likewise. Mr. Fawcett's new measure for attracting small deposits to the Post Office Savings Banks by postage stamps cannot possibly be approved from a direct financial point of view. Each shilling deposit occasions a very considerable loss to the department in expenses, and it is only the hope and fact that those who begin with shillings will end with pounds, or even tens and hundreds of pounds, which can possibly justify the measure. The Post Office Savings Banks are clearly an engine for teaching thrift—in reality an expensive one; so Free Libraries are engines for creating the habit and power of enjoying high-class literature, and thus carrying forward the work of civilisation which is commenced in the primary school.
Some persons who are evidently quite unable to deny the efficient working of the Free Library system, oppose arguments somewhat in the nature of the “previous question.” They would say, for instance, that if there is so wonderful a demand for popular books, why do not the publishers issue cheap editions which anybody can purchase and read at home? Some astonishing things have no doubt been done in this way, as in the issue of the “Waverley Novels” at sixpence each. Even this price, it will be observed, is three, four, or more times the average cost of the issue of all kinds of literature from the larger Free Libraries. Any one, moreover, in the least acquainted with the publishing business must know that such cheap publication is quite impracticable except in the case of the most popular kinds of works. Quite recently, indeed, a “Pictorial New Testament” has been issued for a penny per copy, and Bunyan's “Pilgrim's Progress” in like manner. But the copies of these issues which I have met with are devoid of anything to call binding, and I presume it is understood that such publications could not have been undertaken from pecuniary motives. In the same way, the Bible Society, of course, can issue Bibles at whatever price they like, so long as their subscription list is sufficient.
Every now and then, when the papers are in want of padding, there springs up a crowd of correspondents who advocate cheap literature. A new novel, instead of costing 31s. 6d., ought not to cost more than 5s., or even 1s. Cheapness, we are assured, is the secret of profit, and, as the Post Office raises a vast revenue by penny stamps, so we have only to issue books at very low prices in order to secure a vast circulation and great profits. The superficiality of such kinds of argument ought to be apparent without elaborate exposure. It ought to be evident that the possibility of cheap publication depends entirely on the character of the publication. There are some books which sell by the hundred thousand, or even the million; there are others of which five hundred copies, or even one hundred, are ample to supply the market. Now, the class of publications which can be profitably multiplied, almost to the limits of power of the printing press, are those always vapid and not unfrequently vicious novelettes, gazettes, and penny dreadfuls of various name, whose evil influence it is the work of the Free Library to counteract.
Practically, the result of establishing Free Libraries is to bring the very best books within the reach of the poorest, while leaving the richer classes to pay the expenses of publication of such books. Any boy or beggar who can raise sixpence may enjoy from that “coign of vantage,” the gallery, some excellent play or opera, which is really paid for by the stalls and boxes at 10s. 6d. or a guinea a head. A little observation will convince anyone that there are many social devices which carry the benefits of wealth to those who have no wealth. Public ownership is a most potent means of such vulgarisation of pleasures. A public park is open to everyone. Now, if the burgesses of a British borough are wise enough to open a Free Library, it is a free literary park, where the poorest may enjoy as a right what it is well, both for them and everybody else, that they should enjoy. Judging from the ample statements of the occupations of book borrowers given in the annual reports of various libraries, or the summary of such reports printed as a Blue Book,∗ it is quite plain that the borrowers are, for the most part, persons of no wealth, few probably having an income of more than £100 a year. Too many science lectures, cheap entertainments, and free openings of exhibitions, intended for the genuine working men, are taken advantage of chiefly by people who could well afford to pay; but in the Free Library the working man and the members of his family put in an unquestionable appearance. Thus, we find that at the Birmingham Library, out of 7,688 readers in the reference library, 56 are accountants, 17 actors, 115 agents, 27 apprentices, 80 architects, 153 artists, 31 bakers, 7 bedstead-makers, 25 bookbinders, 48 booksellers, 44 bootmakers, 141 brassworkers, 3 bricklayers, 17 brokers, 15 brushmakers, 26 builders, 18 burnishers, 7 butchers, 14 buttonmakers, 43 cabinetmakers, 90 carpenters, 14 carvers, 18 chainmakers, 85 chemists, 167 clergymen, 1,562 clerks, 19 coachmakers, 8 coal-dealers, 140 commercial travellers, 30 curriers, and so on to the end of the alphabet. Similar statistics are shown by all the libraries which record the occupations either of borrowers or reference library readers.
It must not be forgotten, too, that the cost of a book is not the only inconvenience which attaches to it. If a book is to be read only once, like a newspaper or penny dreadful, and then destroyed, the cost must be several, if not many, times as great as if furnished by a circulating library. If books are to be kept in the home, so that different members of the family may use them successively when of suitable age, there is the cost of the bookcase and the space taken up in a small house where it can ill be spared. No doubt a great deal of cheap literature is passed from hand to hand through the second-hand bookseller and thus multiplied in utility; but there is much inconvenience in this method, and the second-hand dealer likes to have a good percentage.
Mr. Sutton's valuable table of statistics enables us to form a clear idea of the extent to which the Free Library movement is capable of further development. The number of rate-supported libraries, not counting branches, is now at least 86. Of these only 5 are found in boroughs having in 1871 a population less than 10,000; in 39 cases the population lay between 10,000 and 50,000; in 16 cases between 50,000 and 100,000; and in 15 cases the population exceeded 100,000. In the few remaining cases the population could not be stated. In almost all the towns in question, too, the new census will doubtless show greatly increased numbers of inhabitants. Opinions may differ as to the number of people which we may in the present day assign as adequate to the efficient support of a library; but, looking to the number of towns of about 20,000 inhabitants which already succeed with their libraries, we cannot doubt that every town of more than 20,000 inhabitants should possess its rate-supported library. In that case we can draw up from the census tables the following formidable list of English and Welsh towns which are clearly in default:
These cases of flagrant default vary much in blackness. Some of the towns, such as Gorton and Oldham, are near libraries supported by other larger towns, so that, somewhat meanly, they prefer to borrow books at other people's expense. Two or three towns, such as Southampton and Hastings, are perhaps, already provided with institutions partly serving in the place of Free Libraries. The remaining cases admit of little extenuation so far as my knowledge goes. Some cases are very bad. Bath appears to be the worst one of all. With a population numbering 52,557 in 1871, and which ought at least to make pretensions to intelligence and civilisation, the Bath ratepayers have four times rejected the Library Act. On the 8th of November, 1869, a public meeting was held in that town to consider the desirableness of adopting the Act, but a resolution in favour of the project was lost. The like result happened at a second meeting, on the 5th of November, 1872. In May, 1877, a common law poll of the burgesses was taken, with a negative result. Finally, as recently as October, 1880, a poll of the ratepayers was taken by means of voting-papers, but an ignorant majority again, for a fourth time, overruled an intelligent and public-spirited minority. On the last two occasions the trustees and owners of a considerable library, with the building in which it was deposited, offered the whole as a gift to the public if the Corporation were empowered to maintain it at the public expense, the library being, I believe, altogether suitable for the purpose. It is with regret that we must learn that the ratepayers have now lost their chance, the building having been sold and the books dispersed. With the exception of the metropolis, Hull appears to be the largest town in England which is still devoid of a rate-supported library, the population having been 121,892 in 1871, since probably increased in as high a ratio as in any other town in the kingdom. There is hardly any place which would derive more benefit from a Free Library, or which could more readily afford it. With some surprise, too, we find Burton-on-Trent in the list of defaulters; where there are many great breweries one might expect to meet one moderately-sized library.
It is quite an open question whether all towns of 10,000 inhabitants ought not to have libraries. The number of such towns, even in 1871, was 221, since greatly increased. This view of the matter would make a list of 135 defaulters, to be increased to at least 150 when the results of the new census are published. The question must soon arise, too, whether literature is to be confined to towns—whether rural parts may not share in the advantages of a library seated in the nearest market-town. Owing to the simple intervention of distance country people never can have the facilities of town dwellers; but on market-days almost every farmer's family could exchange books.
Thirteen or fourteen years ago, Mr. George Harris proposed the establishment of Parochial Libraries for working men, in small towns and rural districts.∗ The ground upon which he advocated his plan is very good as applying to Free Libraries generally—namely, that the country already spends a great deal of money in promoting education, and yet omits that small extra expenditure on a universal system of libraries which would enable young men and women to keep up the three R's and continue their education. We spend the £97, as Mr. Harris put it, and stingily decline the £3 per cent. really needed to make the rest of the £100 effective. But as applied to rural districts his scheme is weak in the fact that numbers and concentration are needed to make an efficient, attractive, and economical library. A small collection of a few hundred books is soon exhausted by an active reader, and fails ever afterwards to present the novelty which is the great incentive to reading. The fact is that there exists no legal impediment to the establishment of parochial libraries, because the Sixth Section of the Public Libraries Amendment Act, 1866 (29 & 30 Vic. cap. 114), provides that the Public Libraries Act of 1855, and the corresponding Scotch Act, “shall be applicable to any borough, district, or parish, or burgh, of whatever population.” Moreover, the Fourth Section of the same Act enables any parish of whatever population to unite with the Town Council of a neighbouring borough, or a Local Board, or other competent authority, and provide a Free Library at the joint expense. So far as I am aware these powers have hardly been put into operation at all.
According to Mr. Sutton's tables, there is only one Free Library district, that of Birkenhead, which has succeeded in incorporating the “out-townships.” At Leamington, Newport, Northampton, Southport, Thurso, and Wigan, attempts have been made to get neighbouring districts to join, but without success. In several important boroughs, such as Liverpool, Salford, Manchester, even the lending libraries are open to residents of the country around, and in other places the librarians interpret their rules with great liberality. It goes without saying that the reference departments are freely open to all comers, any questions which are asked having a purely statistical purpose. The Manchester librarians printed in 1865 a table showing the residences of readers. While 62,597 belonged to Manchester and Salford, 5,666 came from other parts of Lancashire, 3 from Bedford, 849 from Cheshire, 124 from Derbyshire, 2 from Devonshire, 2 from Durham, 3 from Leicestershire, 83 from London, 139 from Yorkshire, 5 from Ireland, 8 from Scotland, 4 from Wales, and 6 from America. Although this liberality is wise and commendable in the case of such wealthy cities as Manchester and Liverpool, it is obviously unfair that small towns should provide books for half a county; and though the difficulty is surmounted in a few places, such as Dundalk and Rochdale, by allowing non-residents to pay a small subscription, the really satisfactory method would be for the parishes to adopt the Free Libraries Acts, and pay a small contribution to the funds of the nearest Free Library district.
If this were frequently done, there is little doubt that some arrangement could be devised for circulating the books of the lending department through the surrounding parishes, as proposed by Mr. J. D. Mullins. It would be rather too Utopian to suggest the adoption in this country of the method of book-lending which has long been in successful operation in the colony of Victoria. Thus, under the enlightened management of Sir Redmond Barry, whose recent death must be a serious loss to the colony, the duplicates of the Melbourne Public Library are placed in cases of oak, bound with brass clips, lined with green baize, and divided by shelves. Each case contains about fifty volumes, and is transmitted free of cost by railway or steamer to any Public Library, Mechanics' Institution, Athenaeum, or corporate body which applies for a loan. When a series of lectures on any subject are about to be given in some remote part of the colony, a box of suitable books bearing on the subject will be made up at Melbourne upon application. The volumes may be retained for three months or more. The number of volumes thus circulated in 1876–7 was 8,000, and by the multiplication of utility, they were rendered equivalent to 32,000 volumes, in seventy-two towns of an aggregate population of 440,000. A full description of this method of circulation was given by Sir Redmond Barry at the London Conference of Librarians in 1877, in the Report of which important meeting it will be found (pp. 134–5, 194–9) duly printed. An account of an enterprising village library club in the New York county will be found in the American “Library Journal,” vol. iii. No. 2, p. 67.
This method of circulating libraries is not, however, so novel as it might seem to the average Englishman. Not to speak of the extensive systems of country circulation main tained by Mudie, Smith, the London Library, and some other institutions, there has long existed in East Lothian a system of Itinerating Libraries, originally founded by Mr. Samuel Brown of Haddington. The operation of these libraries is fully described in a very able and interesting pamphlet upon “The Free Libraries of Scotland,” written by an Assistant Librarian, and published by Messrs. John Smith and Son, of 129, West George Street, Glasgow. Samuel Brown's plan was to make up a collection of fifty books, to be stationed in a village for two years, and lent out gratuitously to all persons above the age of twelve years who would take proper care of them. At the end of the two years the books were called in and removed to another town or village, a fresh collection of fifty different works taking their place. The imperative need of novelty was thus fully provided for, and the utility of the books was multiplied in a very effective way. The scheme was for many years very successful, though hardly so much so as the more recent Free Libraries. The books appear to have been issued on an average about seven or eight times a year. At one period there were as many as fifty of these local libraries, all confined within the limits of East Lothian. The system is said to have been started about the year 1816, and it reached its climax about 1832. In that year a charge of one penny per volume was imposed during the first year of issue, Samuel Brown being of opinion that he had so far educated the population that they could bear this small impost. In this he was mistaken, and the number of readers began to fall off. The death of the originator in 1839 accelerated the decline of his admirable scheme, and at present but slight vestiges of his remarkable network of libraries remain.
It is interesting to find that this system of itinerating libraries attracted the special attention of Lord Brougham, and is described in his “Practical Observations upon the Education of the People” (London, 1825), a tract which marks an era in social reform, and contains the germs of much that has since been realised. Lord Brougham says of Samuel Brown's plan:
“It began with only a few volumes; but he now has nineteen Itinerating Libraries of fifty volumes each, which are sent round the different stations, remaining a certain time at each. For these there are nineteen divisions, and fifteen stations, four divisions being always in use at the chief town, and two at another town of some note. An individual at each station acts as librarian. There are 700 or 800 readers, and the expenses, under £60 a year, are defrayed by the produce of a sermon, the sale of some tracts, and subscriptions, in small sums averaging 5s. This plan is now adopted in Berwickshire, by Mr. Buchan, of Kelloe, with this very great improvement, that the current expenses are defrayed by the readers, who pay twopence a month, and, I hope, choose the books.”
I cannot help thinking that this plan of itinerating libraries, or a cross between it and what we may call the Redmond Barry plan, as carried out at Melbourne, is just the thing needed to extend the benefits of the Free Library to the rural parts of England and Wales. Every three months, for instance, the central library in the market-town might despatch to each principal village in the neighbourhood a parcel of fifty books in a box like that used at Melbourne; after remaining twelve months in use there, the parcel should be returned to the principal library for examination and repair, and then reissued to some other village. A farthing or at the most a halfpenny rate would amply afford a sufficient contribution from the country parish to the market-town. The books might be housed and issued in the Board school-room, the parish school-room, the workman's club, or other public building, at little or no cost. Even the vestry of the parish church would not be desecrated by such a light-and-life-giving box of books. Should this plan of circulation be eventually carried into effect, we might expect that every town of 5,000 inhabitants would become the centre of a district. Estimating roughly, we ought to have some 500 Free Central Libraries and News-rooms, with a great many more, perhaps 3,000, village circulating libraries.
It ought to be added that even should the Free Library system assume in time the dimensions here contemplated there is no fear of injury to the interests of any respectable publishers, owners of circulating libraries, newspaper proprietors, or others. It is the unanimous opinion of those who observe the action of Free Libraries that they create rather than quench the thirst for literature. As Mr. Mullins says: “Booksellers, who feared that they would injure their trade, find that they create a taste for reading, and multiply their customers. Subscription Libraries find that the Free Libraries, so far from injuring them, serve as pioneers for them.” At the same time, this plan would add considerably to the funds of the town libraries, and the country people when going to town would fairly acquire the right of using the news-rooms and reference library. No doubt it seems rather a grotesque idea to speak of a country bumpkin frequenting a reference library, but it is what we are gradually coming to. At any rate, it may most confidently be said that we must come to it, unless we are content to be left far behind in the race of intellectual, material, and moral progress. What we are too stupid and antiquated to do, the Colonies and the United States are doing. The eyes of the British landowner and the British farmer have been opened a little in the last few years, and the most conservative people will perhaps appreciate more than they would formerly have done the value of the warning —“Beware of the competition of your own educated offspring.”
It is difficult, however, to find fault with minor towns, while the vast metropolis of London, in the wider sense of the name, remains practically devoid of rate-supported libraries. The fact itself is its own condemnation; no extenuation is possible; it is a case of mere ignorant impatience of taxation. It would not be correct to say there are no Free Libraries in London. There is in Westminster a real rate-supported library belonging to the united parishes of St. Margaret and St. John, started as long ago as 1857, with only three dissentient votes. It is a lending library possessing 11,700 volumes, with an annual issue of nearly 85,000 volumes, and it is supported by a half-penny rate. To show the extent of the deficiency in London, it is enough to mention that the 86 provincial towns possessing Free Libraries have an aggregate population (in 1871) of not quite 6,000,000 persons; while London, with its one small rate-supported library, has a population of 3,620,000 persons.
Though there is only one library under the Public Libraries Act as yet, there are several Free Libraries of various importance and character. There is the admirable Guildhall Library, so well managed by Mr. Overall, and supported by the Corporation of the City. There is a small Free Library at Notting Hill, maintained entirely by the munificence of Mr. James Heywood, F.R.S. Several institutions, too, have of late thrown open small libraries to the public, as in the case of the Free Library of 1,000 volumes, with abundant periodicals, maintained entirely on voluntary contributions by the South London Working Men's College at 143, Upper Kennington Lane. Bethnal Green practically possesses a fair library of 5,000 volumes, opened to the public by the trustees of “The Hall” in London Street. In St. Pancras an anonymous lady benefactress opened a small Free Library at 29, Camden Street, and after three years of successful operation it was placed in the hands of a committee of subscribers and residents of the parish, who are gradually increasing its usefulness.
There are, it is true, several other important libraries which are practically free to the public. The Lambeth Palace Library is open to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and Tuesday mornings; but the collection of books, though highly valuable to the scholar, is totally unsuited to popular use. The excellent library of the London Institution in Finsbury Circus is practically opened to the use of any suitable readers by the liberality of the managers of that institution and the public spirit of its principal librarian, Mr. E. B. Nicholson. The remarkable scientific library collected by Sir Francis Ronalds and bequeathed to the Society of Telegraph Engineers, is also available to the public. But such special libraries do not in the least fill the place occupied in Manchester, Birmingham, and other towns by the public libraries, with their numerous branches, news-rooms, &c.
It has been seriously argued that London does not want rate-supported libraries, because there is in the British Museum a vast library maintained at the cost of the State. To anyone in the least acquainted with the British Museum it is not necessary to give an answer to such an absurd argument. It would be in the highest degree wasteful and extravagant to open such a library to popular use. Panizzi's great reading-room is the national literary laboratory, whence no small part of the literature of the country directly or indirectly draws its material and inspiration. The cost may be considerable, but the work done there is essential. Already the privileges of the reading-room are to some extent abused by loungers, students reading the commonest text-books, or others who like the soft seats and rather warm atmosphere; but it is impossible to draw the line with perfect accuracy. If any change is to be made, more restriction rather than more freedom of entry to the Museum Library is desirable. In any case, the National Library is probably the most admirable and the most admirably managed institution belonging to the British nation; but it has nothing to do with the Free Library movement.
Not far from the Museum is another library which might well be converted into a Free Public Library. It is known as Dr. Williams's Library, and is placed in a very suitable building in Grafton Street, close to University College. It was founded by a Nonconformist minister, and contains a rather strong infusion of theological literature. In later years, however, the trustees have added the best books of general literature and science, and they admit any properly introduced person to read or even borrow the books. It can hardly be maintained, however, that the library renders the public services which it might readily do. In the close vicinity of University College and the Museum, it is not needed as a scholar's library, and therefore I think it should be converted into a people's library.
In spite of the existence of the above-mentioned and possibly several other practically Free Libraries, the fact is that there is no institution well adapted to give London ratepayers an idea of the advantages which are really within their reach under the Libraries Act, if they would once overcome the interested owners of cottage property and others, who from selfish motives oppose everything appearing to tend towards the slightest increase of the rates. If the populace of London could become personally acquainted with a well-constructed Free Library, with its open doors, its cheerful lights and bright fires, its inviting newspaper stands, its broad tables littered over with the best and most attractive periodical literature, with here and there a small table for chess and other quiet occupations, I feel sure they would demand a like institution in every division of that house-covered province called London. For some years past the Metropolitan Free Libraries Association, an offshoot of the Librarians' Conference, has been striving, under the able management of Mr. Edward B. Nicholson, to procure the adoption of the Acts in the metropolis, and it is to be hoped that we shall soon hear of some success.
In addition to their principal work of popularising the best literature of the country, public libraries have other functions to perform of no slight importance. The reference departments will naturally become, in the progress of time, the depositories of collections of local literature and records which would otherwise not improbably perish. The public librarian will consider it part of his duty to collect the ephemeral publications of the local press. Local pamphlets, municipal reports, companies' reports, fly-sheets of various kinds, local newspapers, minor magazines, election squibs; in fact, all the documents which register the life of the town and country, should be sedulously brought together, filed, and bound after due arrangement. It is sometimes supposed that the British Museum collects everything which issues from the press, but this applies at the best only to publications having copyright. Mr. W. E. A. Axon has urged that the Museum should not only collect all literature, but issue periodical indexes of all that is printed. I hardly see how it is possible for the Museum to cope with the ever-increasing mass of printed documents. Already the newspaper collections are increasing so much in bulk that it is difficult to find space for them. I know, as a positive fact, that there are immense numbers of statistical reports, police reports, country finance reports, and documents of all kinds, public, private, or semi-private, which seldom do and hardly can find their way to the Museum, or to any great metropolitan library; but where the Museum necessarily fails, the local library can easily succeed, so as to become in time the depository of invaluable materials for local history and statistical inquiry.
A good deal is already being done in this direction, as explained by Mr. W. H. K. Wright, of the Plymouth Free Library, in the Report of the first annual meeting of the Library Association (pp. 44–50). At Liverpool Mr. Cowell is collecting, arranging, and cataloguing a large number of books, plans, maps, and drawings of local interest. At Rochdale and Bristol like efforts are being made. In the Leicester Library there is a distinct “Leicestershire Department.” Birmingham has unfortunately lost its Shakespeare and Cervantes Libraries, and what is almost worse, its irreplaceable Staunton collection of Warwickshire literature has fallen a victim to the flames. But Mr. Mullins is doing all that can be done to recreate a valuable local library. At Plymouth Mr. Wright is himself forming the nucleus of a future Devon and Cornwall library.
Free Libraries will also become eventually the depositories of many special collections of books formed in the first place by enthusiastic collectors. At the London Conference of Librarians Mr. Cornelius Walford showed (Report, pp. 45–49) what important services may be done in this way; and in the Second Annual Report of the Library Association (pp. 54–60, Appendix, pp. 139–148) there is a really wonderful account by Mr. John H. Nodal of the special collections of books existing in the neighbourhood of Manchester. The best possible example of what may be done by a Free Library is furnished by the Wigan Free Public Library. The librarian at Wigan, Mr. Henry Tennyson Folkard, has formed a remarkable collection of works relating to mining, metallurgy, and manufactures, and has lately issued a first index catalogue. This forms a complete guide, or at least a first attempt at a complete guide, to the literature of the subject. It is to be hoped that in time other librarians will take up other special branches of literature, and prepare like bibliographical guides.
It is not well to ignore the fact that there may be a dark, or at least sombre and doubtful, side to the somewhat couleur de rose view which we have taken of Free Libraries. There are a few persons who assert that reading is capable of being carried to a vicious and enervating excess. At the Manchester meeting of the Library Association, Mr. J. Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen's College, read a paper, much criticised at the time, on “The Provision of Novels in Rate-supported Libraries.” In previous years Mr. Kay was one of the staff at the Manchester Free Library, and the following is the result of his observation of readers: “For many years a remarkable fact has been before my notice, and continually confirmed by a long experience in the Manchester Free Libraries, that schoolboys or students who took to novel reading to any great extent never made much progress in after-life. They neglected real practical life for a sensually imaginative one, and suffered accordingly from the enervating influence.” This matter is far too debatable to be argued out in this place; and I would only answer to Mr. Kay that it is quite too late in the political day to think of restraining the reading of sensational literature. In this respect our boats were long since burnt behind us. Time was when the paper duty and various cunningly devised stamp duties were supposed to save the common people from the demoralising effects of literature. But the moralist has now only to notice some of the dingy shops crowded with cheap penny and halfpenny papers, in order to feel that restraint of literature is a thing of the past, as much as the parish stocks or the ducking-stool. There is a perfect deluge of low class and worthless periodical literature spreading over the country, and it can only be counteracted by offering gratuitous supplies of literature, which, whether it be fiction or not, may at any rate be pure and harmless, and often of great moral and intellectual excellence. What between the multiplying powers of the steam-press and the cheapness of straw and wood paper, fiction of the “penny dreadful” class can be issued ad infinitum. The only question is, whether the mass of the people are to read the most worthless and often immoral trash, or whether they are to have the best class of fiction—that of Dickens, of George Eliot, of Trollope, and the rest—placed within their reach.
Many attempts have been made and are being made by societies or by enlightened publishers to place constant supplies of pure and yet attractive literature within the reach of the mass of the people. But I venture to think that a wide extension of the Free Library system is a necessary complement to such efforts. It seems to me impossible to publish the best light literature at a price to compete with the inane penny or half-penny novelettes, whereas the Free Library offers the best works of fiction or general literature free of charge to the borrowers, and at a cost to the public not exceeding a penny or twopence for a whole volume.
One point which it is worth while to notice about Free Libraries is, that they are likely to be most permanent and progressive institutions. I have pointed out in a former article (“Contemporary Review,” Feb. 1880, vol. xxxvii., p. 181), how evanescent many kinds of social movements have proved to be. But an important collection of books, once formed and housed, is a solid nucleus, which attracts gifts and legacies, and often grows altogether beyond the conception of the first founders. It would be possible to mention many public libraries which had small beginnings, and are already great. With the increase of education and general intelligence, libraries will be far more esteemed institutions half a century hence than they are now. It is difficult to imagine, then, a wiser and better way in which a rich man or a rich woman may spend available wealth than in founding a Free Library in some town which has hitherto feared the first cost of the undertaking. Several Free Libraries have already been established more or less at the cost of individuals. The Liverpool Library was built at the expense of the late Sir William Brown, on a site given by the Corporation. The Paisley Library building was presented by Sir P. Coats. Mr. David Chadwick gave a building and books, all complete, to Macclesfield. Mr. Bass built the Derby Library. The Wigan Library building was erected by Mr. Thomas Taylor, while Mr. Winnard presented £12,000 for the purchase of books. The site of the Stoke-upon-Trent Library, together with a handsome sum of money, was given by Mr. C. M. Campbell, a local society presenting a library of books and a museum. At Reading the adoption of the Act was defeated seven years ago; but Mr. William Palmer, of the great biscuit firm, proceeded to open a library at his own expense, under the management of a lady-librarian. The library soon became so popular that when the ratepayers again voted there was only a single dissentient. Hereford, Coventry, and several other places, owe their libraries partly to benefactors, while in many cases valuable collections of books have been handed over to the public by individuals or societies. It is to be hoped that the list of benefactions will be largely increased in future years.
The economical working of Free Libraries has been much advanced by the invention of Indicators, which, like finger-posts at cross-roads, afford a great deal of information at the least possible cost. The one now most in use was invented by Mr. John Elliot, librarian to the Wolverhampton Public Library. It was preceded, indeed, by a rude kind of indicator-board with the numbers of the books painted upon it, and pegs which could be stuck into holes so as to show to the library attendants whether the book so numbered was in or out. Mr. Diall, of Liverpool, improved upon this board by using numbered blocks, so moving upon a slide that they would exhibit to the public the numbers of all books available for borrowing.
Mr. Elliot's indicator is a much more valuable instrument, for it not only shows at a glance whether any book is in or out, but it also affords a means of recording mechanically the names of borrowers, so as almost entirely to replace the use of book-ledgers or other written records. It is well described by Mr. W. J. Haggerston, of the South Shields Library, at a conference of the Northern Union of Mechanics' Institutions. Some account of it will also be found in the “Transactions” of the First Meeting of the Library Association, in the paper of Mr. James Yates (pp. 76–78) already referred to. The Indicator consists of upright square frames, each containing a thousand small shelves, in ten vertical divisions of one hundred shelves each. The two faces of the frame are identical, with the exception that the one exposed towards the public is covered with plate-glass so as to prevent meddling, while the librarians have access to the inner face. Each shelf is numbered on both faces with the number of the one book which it represents. When a borrower takes a book out he hands his library ticket to the librarian, who writes upon it the number of the book taken and the date of borrowing, and then places it on the shelf corresponding to the book, where it remains until the book is returned. If any other person comes intending to borrow the same book, he looks at the Indicator, and seeing the ticket of the borrower lying on the corresponding shelf, knows at once that the book is out. It is also possible to indicate, by appropriate marks placed on the shelves, that books are at the binder's, withdrawn from circulation, or missing. An immense deal of trouble in searching and inquiring is saved by this simple means. The Indicator, as thus constructed, has been in use at the Public Libraries of Paisley, Exeter, Coventry, Hereford, Bilston, Stockton-on-Tees, Leeds, South Shields, Wolverhampton, Cardiff, Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Darlaston, and Southport, besides some private subscription libraries.
Efficient as Elliot's Indicator may seem, Mr. Cotgreave, formerly Librarian at Wednesbury, but now in charge of the beautiful little Library approaching completion at Richmond (Surrey), has succeeded in making improvements upon it. In this new Indicator the frames and shelves are much the same as in Elliot's, but each shelf bears a very small book or ledger, about three inches long and one inch wide. This is attached to a tin slide bearing the number of the library book on each end, but in different colours. When a borrower applies for any book, say 117D, the librarian, while delivering the book, takes out of the Indicator the corresponding slide and small ledger, records in spaces therein the number of the borrower's card and the date of issue, and then replaces the slide with the reverse end foremost—i.e., towards the public. Any subsequent applicant will then see by the altered colour of the book number that the book is out. Mr. Cotgreave has also devised a simple system of date marks, which will show in which week, and, if required, on what day in each week, a book was borrowed. The chief advantage of this Indicator is the fact that it preserves in the small ledger a permanent record of the use of each book. There are various incidental advantages not easily to be appreciated, except by those frequently using these devices. It is almost impossible, for instance, to make mistakes with Cotgreave's Indicator by misplacing cards, because all the shelves are full except that which is being dealt with. The numbers of the books, again, can be rearranged, if required, without taking the framework of the Indicator to pieces.
The economy effected in the working of a large public library by the use of these Indicators is very remarkable. Thus it is stated that in the Leeds Public Library books can be easily issued by the use of Elliot's Indicator at the rate of 76 per hour, at a cost of £1 3s. 3d. per 1,000 volumes. In the Leeds Mechanics' Institution books were issued without an Indicator at the rate of 11 per hour, at a cost of £5 6s. per 1,000. At South Shields as many as 169 volumes have been issued in one hour, being at the rate of nearly one volume per minute for each member of the staff! At Wolverhampton one librarian, assisted by two boys, effected a total issue in one year of 97,800 books. Technical details of this sort may seem trifling, but they are really of great importance in showing what ingenuity and systematisation can do in bringing the best classes of literature within the reach of the people.
Looking back over ten, fifteen, or twenty years, it is surprising to notice what an advance has been accomplished in our notions of library economy and etxension. This is greatly due, I believe, to the reflex effect of American activity. A glance through the Special Report on the Public Libraries in the United States of America, their history, condition, and management, issued at Washington in 1876, shows how wide are the American ideas of Library management. The Library Journal, edited by Mr. Melvil Dewey, and forming the official organ of the American and English Library Associations, supplies equally striking evidence of Library enterprise. The Library Association of the United Kingdom may have been inspired by the American spirit of associated labour, but it has soon become a thoroughly British body. I doubt whether any association could be named, which, in two short years, or, including the preliminary conference of librarians, in three years, has done more real and useful work. The two Annual Reports, together with the Conference Report, owe much to the editing which they have received from Mr. Henry R. Tedder and Mr. Ernest Thomas. The indexes prepared by Mr. Tedder are models of the indexing art, and must almost satisfy the requirements of the Index Society. These Reports, too, will probably be sought after by bibliophiles on account of their beautiful typographical execution, due to Messrs. Whittingham & Co., of the Chiswick Press. A French critic, recently writing in Le Livre, the French Bibliographical Journal, has commented on the luxurious paper and printing of these remarkable Reports. But it is more pertinent to our immediate purpose to observe that the Reports are full of all kinds of information bearing upon the advantages, purposes, and management of Public Libraries. The Library Association has also recently commenced the issue, through Messrs. Trübner, of a monthly journal of proceedings which contains much additional information. Those who are unable to consult these more voluminous publications, but desire to know how a Free Public Library is started, should procure Mr. W. E. A. Axon's well-known little brochure, “Hints on the Formation of Small Libraries intended for Public Use.” This tract was prepared for the Co-operative Congress of 1869, has been printed several times in a separate form at home and abroad, and is to be found reprinted in Mr. Axon's “Handbook of the Public Libraries of Manchester and Salford” (pp. 183–9). More detailed information, including the text of the Free Libraries Acts, is to be found in Mr. J. D. Mullins' tract on “Free Libraries and News-rooms; their Formation and Management,” the third edition of which was lately on sale by Messrs. Henry Sotheran & Co., at 36, Piccadilly. The standard work upon the subject is, of course, Mr. Edward Edwards' “Memoirs of Libraries,” published in two volumes in 1859, a work which has been of great service in promoting the cause of the Libraries Acts.
[∗]The Free Library of Birmingham. By Edward C. Osborne: “Transactions of the Social Science Association. London Meeting, 1862, p. 786.
[∗]“Transactions of the Second Annual Meeting of the Library Association,” Manchester, 1879, Appendix II. See also “Proceedings,” pp. 92, 93.
[∗]“Seventeenth Annual Report to the Council of the City of Manchester on the Working of the Public Free Libraries,” 1869, p. 5.
[∗]Return. Free Libraries Acts, No. 439, 1877.
[∗]“Transactions of the Social Science Association,” Manchester Meeting, 1866, p. 416.
[∗]Written in 1881–82.