The Future of Local Libraries

THE action of the State of Massachusetts, a year or two ago, in creating a library commission, and committing to a small body of selected men and women the task of fostering local libraries, opens a new era in the history of such institutions. The act went farther than any legislation had gone before in pledging in a moderate way the help of the commonwealth to towns finding it difficult, by reason of financial inability, to avail themselves of their right to establish a library. The founding of this commission has only increased the preëminence which this State had before achieved in the number of her public libraries. Before the creation of this commission Massachusetts possessed a predominating influence in the whole country by the number and activity of her local libraries, and with this renewal of her energy the State is not likely for many years to have her lead in library matters questioned. Therefore it is in Massachusetts that the problems of a public library system are more numerous than elsewhere, and the elements of these problems are more likely to be arrayed with the best chance of instructing a wider and national public. These elements necessarily vary from the necessities and expansions incident to a free municipal library of the first class, like that of Boston, to the conditions attached to the smallest possible collection of books which the public is likely to sustain. There will also be corresponding differences in the constituencies, depending on this wide range of conditions.

When the State recognized the desirability of exercising an advisory relation to such small libraries, adding at times the financial aid of an almoner, the first step was taken towards preparing the way for a larger interposition. There can be no question, from the experience of the Société Franklin in France, that judicious paternal supervision over a large circle of dependent libraries, as scattered as they are in the French provinces, can yield many advantages, both financial and administrative, to each library of the circle. This organization, with its main seat at Paris, is not, indeed, an exact parallel of what a state might do, because the society named after the promoter of popular libraries in America is a private instrumentality, supported by the friendly aid of subscribers. The many small libraries scattered through the length and breadth of France are its absolute creatures, and subject primarily to its central discipline. Such an autocratic control is probably impossible, and in many ways undesirable, in an American community accustomed to local autonomies. It is, however, a pertinent question whether the French methods cannot be adapted in this country in such a way as to preserve for the town a vital interest in its library.

It is necessary to look to what the French system can accomplish, both in the saving of money and in the perfection of method, in order to consider whether these advantages are enough to render such an adaptation, because of the allurements, both possible and likely. The advantages are these : —

A central station of control amasses experience, derived from observation in all sorts of communities, far beyond what is possible in a single small library.

Such a station can furnish material appliances for library service, made on approved patterns, and, being manufactured or bought in large quantities, at less cost.

The same chance for better advantages would accrue in the purchase of books in large quantities.

The cataloguing of such books, once done, would suffice for all the libraries in the circle, and the same printed lists would serve equally well in all, each library inserting its own shelf-marks where it has the books. Every trustee of a small library knows what an onerous proportion of its income is given by compulsion to the preparation and printing of its book-lists, and can perceive what great help in bearing the burden this combination would afford, to say nothing of the better results in the uniform excellence of the catalogue work. The printing charges of all administrative blanks, etc., could be shared in the same way.

In the choice of books, the large experience of the central agency would have a like free scope for the general good, and this choice could be made without slighting the peculiar needs of different localities and the preferences of local helpers in such matters. Every purveyor to such libraries knows how often a new interest in the public appreciation demands a suitable book. Often the market is not supplied with just what is wanted. The Paris society has found that, with an assured sale for its circle of libraries, a trained writer and responsible publisher can be found to prepare the needed book.

These are all great advantages, patent to every one, but there are undoubted offsets. The system strikes hard at local interests and pride. The town carpenter and printer think they are deprived of their just chances of profit when the metropolis furnishes tables and catalogues. The few educated men of the village — the minister, the doctor, the lawyer — judge their natural ascendency amongtheir neighbors to be imperiled, if they are not allowed to select the books or supervise the cataloguing. If the town or its citizens furnish the money for the library’s support, they prefer to entrust its expenditure to neighbors rather than to a distant executive council. All these are obvious disadvantages, and a system which induced them would be regarded as abridging both public and private rights.

A decision, however, may arise from weighing advantages against disadvantages, and in ascertaining whence, on the whole, the greater profit comes. With the tendency to centralization which is seen in every direction, and the breaking down of old barriers of opinion on every hand, there seems little doubt that the public is drifting to a position in which this central control will be naturally and effectively applied to local libraries. If we consider a moment the history of railroad amalgamation, we shall find the public mind forty years ago as respects small local corporations where it is now in relation to these minor libraries. It was thought that these petty local corporations looked best after local interests, and protected the public against monopolies. Forty years have shown that better service and greater convenience can be assured by the abolition of such corporations, and their union into a wide, methodized consolidation. It is apparent that if this tendency takes at last the library interests of the community under its control, the scope of such a commission as Massachusetts now possesses has a good chance of enlargement.

No indication, by any means, has been given of all the ways in which a uniform system and common administration could benefit these local libraries. They might have not only relations to a central bureau, but improved relations to each other and to the higher functions of literature. Every local board of library management knows how difficult it is to decide upon the proportion of expenditure to be maintained between expensive books, — including those of reference, — which are always to some extent a necessity in small libraries, and the books of a low cost and merely pastime character. There is no reason why, in such a system of combination as is above outlined, a central agency should not gradually amass a collection of more costly books, to be sent to this library or the other, as a loan, as occasion might require. There is no reason why the central agency might not mediate between libraries of the circle, and transfer books, or classes of books, temporarily, to answer local demands of a casual nature.

It is a common experience in local libraries that their shelves become weighted with books practically dead, which have been poured into the collection from overstocked garrets, and have escaped from households at the refurnishing of family sitting-rooms. Such books take the same space that active ones do, and require as much care and cost of cataloguing, and almost always fail of the proper mission of a book, — to be read. This is an old grievance, and has been much talked about. In the big Report on Public Libraries, issued by the national Bureau of Education in 1876, the suggestion was made that some system should be devised by which the large libraries of the country should have the chance of selecting from such a superfluous mass what they could make use of, while the rest should be sent to the auction room or the paper mill. When this hint was thrown out, seventeen years ago, there was little chance of any result from such ruthless advice, since it was thought that the sensibilities of givers of books should be respected ; and it was a hard thing for the board of trustees of any local library to consent to a diminution of the count of volumes in its rivalry with neighboring towns. If perhaps a college student, home on his vacation, chanced to ask for one of these despised volumes, the incident was held to be enough to vitalize the whole of them.

The public mind, in such a condition, seldom or never acts without a leader, and it is not every man who has the courage to conduct his neighbors to the right. The last report of the public library of Quincy, Mass., shows that in Mr. Charles Francis Adams its board of trustees had a chairman who dared to become a champion of intelligence against slumberous tradition. Mr. Adams squarely met the question of a new extension of their library building by packing off to the auction room some thousands of just such books, rubbish there, but possibly provender in some other place.

Mention has been made that one of the leading obstacles to reform lies in the transfer of care and responsibility from a local management to a central board, thus serving to depress public interest and subordinate individuality. There is one particular in which this self-control can most effectually be preserved, whether in a circle of libraries or out of it, and it is most desirable that it should be so preserved. Every locality has its traditionary interest. A town may have its roll of authors ; and, taking advantage of this, the public libraries of Concord and Cambridge have made a collection of the writings of their sons. Hingham has a reputation for buckets ; Duxbury lives in its clams and Myles Standish ; another village is famous for its paper mills, and still another because its button factory has carried its name the world over. One town has a distinguished son, as Woburn was the birthplace of Rumford ; Salem has its witch history ; other places figure in the annals of war or peace. There is every reason why such distinguishing features of a town’s record should be the motive of a collection of books illustrating that characteristic of which it is proud, or whose memory it cannot escape. Watching the growth of such a collection would be an excellent object lesson to its people of the way in which large libraries are gathered, and the lesson would be a salutary one.

Justin Winsor.