The Changing Character of Libraries

THE day of the library of books has gone by; the day of the library of useful print has come. The tradition that a library is a collection of books, and of books only, is still very strong; but it is a tradition and not a reasoned belief. The fact that a library should be a collection of records of human thought and action, and of the thought and action of yesterday as well as of all recorded times, is now favorably accepted by many, and is daily weakening the hold of the ancient library tradition.

The old belief was that the units which compose a library are books and books only, and must be treated as books even if they are not books. This may be illustrated by two incidents. The first is that of an unused theatre ticket which worked its way by some unhappy chance into the mechanism of one of our great libraries. Once within the grasp of workers trained to treat all things that come into the library as if they were books, whether endued with the integuments of bookishness or not, it was straightway treated as a book. It was solemnly entered as No. 348,756 in the volume of records devoted to the serial entry of all incoming books; then, having been just as solemnly considered as to its form and content, it was pronounced a prose treatise on the drama in America — being, as it was, a ticket to one of Clyde Fitch’s comedies; next, it was given a cabalistic mark, say, 748.62F47, indicative of its assumed content, and saying also that it must forever stand among books on the American drama, before books by authors whose names began with Fj and after any whose names began with Fh. That it might be found when asked for, it was recorded on a card under the entry-word Fitch, on another under ‘Drama,’ on another under ‘Theatre,’ and on still others under words of appropriate exhaustiveness. It underwent also other treatment proper to the book which, for the purpose of carrying out the ancient library cult, it was supposed to be.

All this happened a few years ago, and, unless time and the elements have devoured it, that tiny bit of printed pasteboard still exalts itself as a book on the shelves and in the vast catalogue of a great library. That it may have been thus treated partly in fun, as a satire on the over-refinement of the process of making records of books and of treating as books everything a library may possess, does not decrease the value of the incident as an illustration of the strength of the tradition that the component units of a library are books, and that if, by chance, any are not books, then the error lies in them and not in the tradition!

The other illustration is found in the conclusion, arrived at again and again, even in very recent years, by practitioners of library technique, that, as a library is a collection of books, a pamphlet, in its original and degrading dress of mere paper, cannot be given admission to it. The pamphlet that would become part of a library must first be bound, no matter if it is of four pages only, and then can be, and should be, submitted to all the sacred ceremonies which have been devised for the installation of a library’s proper unit, a bound volume.

The library of records, the library of useful print, which is taking the place of the library of books only, it is impossible as yet to describe, for it is in process of making and daily takes on new features. It has books, of course. The qualities which distinguish it from a library of the type that prevails today are qualities due to the inclusion of new material and not to the exclusion of old material. This new material daily increases in quantity and in variety.

Some of the characteristics of the new type of library may be noted in the special collections of books, and of other records of thought and action, formed in the last ten years in hundreds of banks, trust companies, railroad central offices, insurance companies, and industrial plants of every kind. The reference here is not to the libraries gathered for the recreation and general enlightenment of minor employees, or to the mere official records of the institutions themselves, but to collections made with the very definite purpose of having at hand a carefully collected and skillfully mastered mass of information bearing directly upon the activities of the several institutions by which they are established. These collections already have the trade name of special libraries, and most of their administrators are members of an independent library organization of their own. The material gathered in them is of infinite variety, ranging from the latest English Blue Book on education in India to the prospectus of a company for the exploitation of a peat bog in Maine.

And the method of handling the material is as varied as is the material itself. Since much of it consists of excerpts from papers, books, and journals, or is of the lowly pamphlet class, it is very conveniently kept in one of the many forms of the familiar vertical file. The methods of classification and marking used to make it easy to discover each piece as needed are adjusted as skillfully as may be to the size, character and method of use of each collection.

These special libraries tell us quite plainly what are to be some of the characteristics of the coming general library of records; for just as the modern enterprise, of whatever kind, finds that it needs a library of records to help it to be wise in its special work, so will each community find that it needs a similar library of records, wider in its range but of like material, to help it to be wise also.

Thus far the argument for the enlargement of the conception of the general library has proceeded mainly from the needs of those who use the library.

This argument is greatly reinforced by a glance at the vast quantity of the records themselves of man’s thought and action which we are now producing, and at the physical characteristics of those records.

In passing, mention should be made of the records of sound and action found in the phonograph disk and the ’movie’ film. These present a problem to librarians which is so new and vast that they have not even ventured to think of attacking it, though they hesitatingly confess that, if libraries are to continue to be the storehouses of records of the world’s activities, then the records which the camera and the phonograph make, and the records of like importance made by other inventions which are surely on the way, must find in libraries their proper homes. But, of books which are so obviously not books as are these two marvelous records, it is not yet possible to say more than that the library of the future must admit them, and must adjust its ancient methods to their proper care.

As to printed records, these have increased marvelously in quantity in the last thirty years. The increase does not seem very remarkable if measured only by the growth of book-publication; but measured by the growth of printing as an industry and by the growth of journal and pamphlet publications, it is most astounding. In 1889 the value of the total output of the printing press in this country was $313,000,000; in twenty years it increased, in 1909, to $738,000,000, or 230 per cent. Since 1909 the growth of the industry has been more rapid than ever before. There is ample evidence to be had for the conclusion that the production, and consumption, of print are now just beginning their era of great development.

A relatively small part of this increase has been in book-production; much of it has been in posters, circulars, and commercial blanks and forms of countless kinds; but a very large part of it has been in pamphlets and journals. No library can keep all these things. Did one now attempt to preserve even one copy of all things printed, it would in a few weeks fill every square inch of its storage space. The printing press has outrun the most enthusiastic and richest of collectors, public or private. The day of completeness, even in the records of things printed on subjects of the day, has passed.

Note, now, that the printer’s products are, not only of a quantity which is overwhelming, but also of a quality which is peculiarly, and fortunately, ephemeral. The word ephemeral here means, not that a given piece of print is of slight value, — for it may be in its brief day of the very highest value, — but that its value soon passes, since other printed things soon take its place. It is ephemeral in its form, usually that of pamphlets and journals printed on paper which can endure for a few years only; and is published with the definite thought that it will be used for a short time and will then be cast aside as out of date.

It is in this ephemeral quality, as well as in the prodigious quantity of our rising flood of print, that we find the definite and sufficient reason for the change from the library of books only to the library of records.

Books, journals, and pamphlets, and many other things not here touched on, are all needed to form a helpful record of man’s thoughts and activities. And the journals and the pamphlets are to-day so essential to the fullness of these records, and they so far outweigh books in quantity and, for the day at least, in importance, that they must be included in the field which the library covers; and, being included, they compel a diversion to them of a great part of the librarian’s activities.

To prove this statement to those who have not noted the change in character of the products of the press which has in recent years accompanied the increase in quantity, it would be necessary to present an imposing and tiring array of figures. It is enough here to give two illustrations.

The Library of Congress compiled and published a few months ago a pamphlet — note that it is a pamphlet and not a book — called The United States at War. It contains a list, far from complete, of the names of more than one hundred and fifty auxiliary and volunteer organizations, most of them formed since the great war opened and many of them since our country began to take part in it. Many of these organizations publish pamphlets or journals, not books save in very few cases; and each and every one of their publications is to-day of some importance, and in many cases of great importance, as a record of man’s thoughts and actions, and should find its place, temporarily, in many of our libraries. Here then are new thousands of ‘records.’ If a library does not make many of them easily accessible, it will fail in what is a library’s chief function, that of adding to a community’s efficiency by keeping it informed on whatever of importance may be doing in the world.

In recent years we have seen rise in this country a cult of altruism of quite unexampled vigor. It has shown itself, among other ways, in the publication of journals and pamphlets, and chiefly the latter, issued to explain the purpose and the methods of a given organization, or to spread abroad certain opinions, information, and advice to the wider acceptance and use of which that organization devotes itself. Of these societies of altruistic endeavor a very incomplete list, made a few years ago, included more than fifteen hundred. Their publications, within the space of one year, are numbered by the thousands. Of those publications the same things may be said that have been said of the publications of the societies named in The United States at War. They are pamphlets, not books; they record some of the most interesting and immediately important of man’s thoughts and actions; they must be found in our libraries of records; they cannot be treated as books, for so to treat them would exhaust the financial resources of our largest libraries; they are ephemeral by intent, in that they are published with the expectation that they will soon be superseded by others. To handle them efficiently and with sound economy, libraries must take on certain new characteristics and become in a large part filing devices for temporary storage, joined to easy accessibility, of material which is of great value to-day, but of little or no value to-morrow.

It should be noted, as bearing on the general argument in hand, that it costs a library from twenty to fifty cents to prepare for use each and every book it adds, as a book, to its collections, and, the larger the collection, the greater the cost. Hence, to treat as books all the pamphlets which a modern library should acquire and master would entail an enormous initial cost, and would load shelves and catalogues with things that would soon be quite useless.

These two illustrations refer only to a mere fraction of to-day’s vast stream of printed things which are ephemeral in content and in physical character. It would be easy to add others. The Federal Government now publishes some fifty pamphlet lists of its publications. The number of entries in these lists ranges from a few score to nearly two thousand. These publications are nearly all in pamphlet form. They cover thousands of subjects. To the Congressional Record and its many monthly journals the government has now added two daily papers, both in the form of pamphlets. Of trade journals one zealous inquirer has recently collected one copy each of about two thousand titles, and has not exhausted the subject. These merely suggest the size of our modern flood of print.

To check this flood is quite impossible. It creates daily, by its mere presence, new armies of readers for its use. The efforts to-day being made by these armies of readers and inquirers to master their flood of print, to find a way through it to the specific lines, the paragraphs, the pages, or chapters which they need, again illustrate its quantity. Indexes to journals multiply. Keys, guides, and lists of countless kinds are constantly appearing. Libraries, societies, city and state and national governments, are combining to form agencies which shall gather and arrange, not all the print of the day, — of that they quite despair, — but merely the indexes to the print of the day. So far has the printer outpaced the old type of library — a collection of books.

It would be idle to attempt to describe this Niagara of print. A description adequate to-day, could one be made, would be quite incomplete tomorrow. It is a stream beside which the ’flood of books,’ at times so feelingly alluded to, is a mere rivulet. We do not need to fear that it will ever wipe out of existence all of the library’s ancient bookishness; but it already demands that, to the library’s old-time methods for records in books only, be added new methods for all records.