Libraries and Learning

Author and historian, OSCAR HANDLIN has from his early boyhood spent countless hours in the public and special libraries of this country, reading and studying their immense treasures. His article is particularly appropriate for the celebration of National Library Week, April 12 to 18.

WHY should I care?” the librarian asked as I rose to leave. But she did care, although she believed that hardly anyone else in the town did.

We had talked but briefly. She was short of help, did almost everything herself, and time was precious on a Monday afternoon. Besides, her problems were simply stated. There was not enough money, and everything cost so much that she was all the time forced to make ridiculous decisions. Here was a battered Tom Sawyer, a book no decent library could do without. If it went back to the shelf as it was, it would soon disintegrate. The expense of rebinding it now was higher than its original price, but a new copy, properly bound, was more costly still. Whatever was spent to salvage or replace this volume reduced the amount available to add much-needed new titles.

The city manager was tolerant and had permitted her budget to rise slowly in the five years she had been here. But she knew that he was only tossing her scraps to keep her content; he gave lowest priority to the library among the departments that pressed their claims for a greater share of the tax dollar. And most citizens, she thought, agreed with him. The children, after all, could get their books in school, and for the adults there was a good selection of paperbacks at each of the drug-stores. That the library itself served an independent educational function, more important now than ever, seemed known only to the harried young woman.

I went away perturbed. As I came out into the neat streets of the prosperous Midwestern town, my mind went back to quite another setting, to New York’s East Side, where the library had begun to mold my own life. My education took a decisive turn at the age of six, when my mother led me by the hand up those stone steps.

As we climbed the staircase to the children’s room on the second floor, I caught a glimpse of the reading room, of earnest grown-ups studying at the long oak tables, of the seemingly endless rows of books beyond. My mother talked to the lady at the desk, and I was given my card.

I could borrow two books at a time, but I could not return them until a day later. I could, however, get a third in by reading it on the spot. I consumed the little volumes voraciously, but by the time we moved away, I still had a long way to go toward my objective of working through every case that lined the walls.

Thereafter I never allowed myself to be separated from the library. Tompkins Park, New Utrecht, Gravesend — the branches dotted across the city marked the various stages of the family’s movings. Some collections occupied buildings of their own; others hid behind the painted-over glass windows of converted stores. All held the books that were the means of my learning.

Throughout my youth, the library rather than the school stood for education. The school was a prison, its teachers custodians of an alien adult code to which, since there was no escape, their charges conformed out of docility, fear, or greed. The library put immense treasures at my disposal without constraint or external discipline; it only waited to be used. The person behind the desk did not make herself known as authority. And the books were their own reward, to be read not for adult approval or for grades but for the pleasure and knowledge they conveyed. Here the mind was free to inquire, free, therefore, to learn.

Later I discovered that my experience was far from unique. Hundreds of boys and girls who grew up in the great cities in my generation and in that which preceded it could be seen each day, like Mary Antin, on the library steps, “waiting for the door of paradise to open.” They fell upon their books “as a glutton pounces upon his meat after a period of enforced starvation.” In an adverse social environment the library was the saving element that enabled them to make found men and women of themselves.

Before their day, access to the collections of a generous neighbor or of a mechanics institute had aided many a lad, like Andrew Carnegie, toward self-understanding and toward a sense of life’s purpose. And back farther still, when sellteaching was a common mode of education, it was in the library that men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Godfrey had sought learning.

In 1672, Concord, Massachusetts, established the first collection of books for circulation among the townspeople. In 1698, Charleston, South Carolina, created a short-lived public library. In the next century and a half, various subscription companies made books available throughout the expanding country. In 1833, Peterboro, New Hampshire, set up its town library; and after Boston established the precedent in 1853, the municipalities took up the burden. In this variety of forms, the library made a contribution of inestimable importance to the development of American culture.

Through its whole evolution, the public library was not an adjunct or a supplement but an alternative to the school system. It was open to all persons at every stage of their lives and laid out no prescribed course of reading but permitted each individual to seek the instruction or the release of fantasy that he himself desired. In that permissiveness and flexibility lay its strength.

THE library still has an important educational role. Only our inclination to identify education with the formal school system leads to neglect of an institution which awards no degrees and prepares for no careers. In the competition for public and private funds, in the attention of students and their parents, the library is too often treated as a dispensable luxury, with only secondary claims to support. However the statistics are regarded, they tell the same story. Far more Americans should have access to libraries now than earlier. The total population has risen since 1940 by almost 40 percent, and an ever-larger percentage of it is urban, able to read, educated, and leisured, and therefore in a position to use the resources of the library if they were put within reach. The urban population went up from little more than 55 percent of the total in 1940 to 70 percent in 1960. At the same time, the percentage of the foreign-born and illiterate fell steadily, while the number of retired and the level of completed schooling both climbed.

Leisure, too, is more abundant than before. The decline in the length of the work week has made additional free hours available to men of every social status. The mechanization of housework has put time at the disposal of ever more women, and the drop in the retirement age has increased the corps of mature people without occupations. In every part of the country adulteducation and reading courses multiply in response to the hunger for education.

The schools also make greater calls upon library resources. Teachers are not so ready as formerly to depend upon a textbook, but they send all their students for special reports and other assignments to the same list of books. These trends have enormously expanded the number of potential readers.

Yet before it could meet these additional needs, the library also had to cope with social pressures which already strained its facilities. The population explosion of the past two decades did not come in the older areas of settlement, already partially equipped with books and buildings. Americans since 1940 have continued their restless moving about. The drift from the countryside to the cities and from East to West has taken new forms in response to the industrialization of the Pacific Coast, the Gulf states, and the upper South. Meanwhile, the spread of the suburbs has redistributed the residents of many metropolitan regions, and redevelopment has altered the character of many neighborhoods. Central districts that were densely settled in 1920 have often lost population to new communities on the outskirts; yet the planners, in allocating future resources, must also reckon on the possibility that further changes in housing facilities will bring back some of the departed.

To provide services as adequate as those of 1940, therefore, the library would have had to expand more rapidly than it has. To meet the new needs would have called for truly phenomenal growth. The response has fallen far short of the requirements of the situation. Despite the services of devoted stalls, the educational potential of the library has hardly been exploited.

We must leave out of account, in judging the adequacy of our systems, the medical, legal, college. school, governmental, and other libraries that serve special purposes and do not add to the general resources for reading. Properly speaking, there are about 7500 public libraries in the United States, in addition to some 3625 branches in municipal or county systems. The total is impressive. But the record becomes somewhat less satisfying when any qualitative criteria are applied to it. Perhaps a third of the libraries are too small to be effective; they have incomes of less than $2000 a year or are open fewer than six hours a week. Realistically speaking, the United States enjoys the services of about 5000 useful libraries. Even these are not all they should be. Many outside the larger cities are underequipped and poorly staffed, and fully half the total are open only twenty-four hours a week or less.

This situation represents some improvement since 1940. The number of libraries has risen by about 10 percent in the past two decades. The number of volumes on their shelves has increased; but the number per capita has remained about the same, and in some years has actually declined. There are more cardholders than before, but the fact remains that some fifty million Americans still live out of reach of any public library, and about 75 percent of the population never use one.

No other medium has compensated for the deficiency. Subscription clubs, paperbacks, and other mass marketing devices have sustained the book-buying habit among a minority of the population. But the growth in sales has not kept pace with the increase in the potential reading public. And, in any case, these expedients can only supplement, not substitute for, the library, which alone can extend to all people the opportunity to learn freely and independently.

MANY library problems are the products of a poverty that limits staffs, services, and plants. Librarians have always been underpaid. Like nurses and social workers, they earned professional recognition only slowly and grudgingly. These, after all. were women’s occupations that needed no particular reward. Starting salaries have gone up from an average of about $3000 before the war to about $5000, a rise that just about compensates for the increases in cost of living, but one that is not enough to elevate the status of the librarians or increase the attractiveness of their calling.

In the competition for talent, the public library suffers most of all. It recruits and holds on to an adequate staff with difficulty because trained personnel now find more attractive openings in the special libraries of industry, government, and the universities, which command greater financial resources and research opportunities. The public library sadly lags.

All other costs have also soared. Book budgets have risen since the war, but hardly enough to offset higher prices. The average novel went up from $2.58 in 1941 to $4.33 in 1961, the average history from $3.89 to $7.84, the average biography from $3.30 to $6.23; and the upward trend has shown no sign of easing off. Other charges, for binding, for supplies, and for services, have risen corresporvingly. The enterprising librarian who wishes to reach out toward a wider public is trapped in a fiscal vise. It takes extraordinary ingenuity to maintain programs for children or elderly folk, to launch a lecture series, or to develop collections of special interest to the community.

Some big cities are plagued by obsolete plants built fifty years or more ago on sites that fitted earlier residential patterns but that are now inappropriate. The old structures should be replaced, and new ones should rise where they will be used — in the shopping center if necessary. Communities that have invested in new construction have been rewarded by immediate and dramatic increases in the use of books. More important, cities like Miami Beach, Florida, and Flint. Michigan, have shown how a modern building can establish an intimate, flexible relationship between the library and readers of every age. Yet the costs of new buildings are so high that many hard-pressed municipalities refuse even to consider such additional charges upon their budgets.

The inability, or unwillingness, of the large metropolitan centers to adjust their governmental arrangements to the new conditions complicates the task. The library is primarily a responsibility of the local community; but in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, the power to govern and to tax is fragmented among hundreds of various entities, so that the resources of the whole region cannot be applied to its needs.

In the rural districts the problems are different but equally serious. Many county systems have made an effort to extend their services outside the built-up communities through bookmobiles and other devices. Again, costs have been a limiting factor; most states were slow even to take advantage of the federal funds made available by the Library Services Act of 1956.

Throughout the nation, expenditures had to rise radically in order to permit the libraries to do as good a job as they have. Between 1939 and 1958 alone, costs mounted from $30 million to $170 million. That was the price of staving off an absolute decline in the effectiveness of the existing systems. However, to enable the libraries to meet the new needs they now confront would call for far greater increases. A comparison with the public schools is instructive. To meet a rise in enrollments of 31 percent between 1940 and 1960, public school expenditures went up by 650 percent, from $2 to $15 billion, and even that was far from sufficient. The smaller rise in library budgets was much less adequate, for these lagged farther behind the needs to begin with.

Yet the local communities, dependent for their revenue upon an inflexible general property tax, are already sorely pressed by their mounting needs for educational, health, police, and recreation services. In the competition for public funds, the library stands at an enormous disadvantage. It lacks glamour, for it awards no degrees, gives no diplomas. No influential alumni press its claims, and no counterpart to the far-flung educational network of PTA members, teachers, and administrators makes its requirements known to legislators and city fathers.

Above all, the library offers neither a measurable return on the investment in it nor visible evidence of the damage done by its neglect. The schools can demonstrate what they do for their graduates in the race for careers. It is not so easy to demonstrate the educational service that the library renders in furthering the intellectual development of its users. No budget makers can fail to note the rising tide of students who must be provided for. It is not so easy to point up the missed opportunities when children or adults who might be reading and thinking idle their time away.

The library will strengthen its demand for support by clarifying its own function and by retooling for the job new conditions have created. It should resist all temptations toward becoming an adjunct of the school and insist upon the validity of its own role as the channel that makes the accumulated wisdom of the culture available to all the people.

But it ought to be flexible, adaptive, and experimental in the way it plays its role. It could ease the Tom Sawyer problem, for instance, by laying in a small stock of paperbacks for sale to those readers who do not wish to wait for titles in heavy demand. It could thus relieve the pressure on much-used volumes, nurture the book-buying habit, and still have popular titles available for those who wished only to borrow them.

Some areas have begun seriously to reorganize their resources. The Pennsylvania library code of 1961, for instance, aims to put every resident of the state within a half hour of an adequate library. Financial aid from the Commonwealth will permit local libraries to pool their facilities in thirty central districts and four regions, which will enable all to operate more efficiently. Elsewhere there are interesting efforts to reshape county and municipal systems in order to separate reference from branch lending functions and thus to stretch available resources. To make their services more widely known, some cities have found it useful to advertise in the press. Others have begun to enlist volunteers in the service of the library, counting on the heightened sense of participation to mobilize additional support and spread the reading habit. These are hopeful signs that some communities know the value of their libraries. Every step that demonstrates the vitality of the institution will buttress its claims for increased funds.

Its poverty has all too often prevented the library from competing successfully with powerful rivals that distract the attention of potential readers. The free time made available by the shorter work week has gone into sports and visual entertainment, and particularly into television watching. It has not increased the number of hours devoted to books. No more than 30 percent of the adult population now reads a book a month — any book.

Vaguely, Americans are aware that they are missing something, although they are not quite sure what it is. A study of television-audience attitudes by Gary A. Steiner, for example, reveals that many viewers feel a sense of guilt because they spend too much time at their sets and too little time at their reading. Such people need to be informed of what the library can do for them and helped in its use. The large cities which have most increased their library expenditures have invariably been rewarded by a corresponding rise in readership. Rarely has the public been unwilling to approve increased outlays for this purpose when the case has been made clear to it.

Americans have too long allowed these resources of great potential worth to remain largely inert. Surely the learning stored in them is more necessary for the boys and girls, the men and women of 1964 than ever before. One whose life was largely shaped by access to libraries can only hope that a determined effort will enable them to fulfill their role of furthering the continuing education of the people.