WITH the closing years of the nineteenth century the Public Library stood in such relation to its readers as the traditional mountain did to the prophet Mahomet. While any direct advertisement was in the nature of things impossible, the attitude of the library was too often that of a part of inanimate nature rather than of an intelligent mechanism which should have been in the full tide of advance. And, to maintain the metaphor, readers were suffered to obtain knowledge or amusement from its stock in much the same manner as they might have gathered blackberries from a hillside; the books were there to be taken,—if you took them judiciously, or injudiciously, or left them alone—what matter? But of late years improvement has appeared. In certain cases the progress has indeed been reluctant; some library committees and librarians, who had apparently quoted to their institutions Browning's line, “Grow old along with me,” were pushed indecently out into the open and forced to make some show (usually of the fuss and feathers order) of participation in the movement. The thrall of comparative statistics by which—like a bull's‐eye lantern, revealing the surroundings while the holder stands in darkness—one proved, not how bad he was, but how much worse his neighbours were, still held sway. It is now more abundantly realised that the public, which we have by turns feared, distrusted and ignored, is in reality and as a composite whole, of a childlike inquiring disposition, and needs, above all things, guidance—more guidance than it asks for, more perhaps than it appreciates. To every aid which the librarian offers, readers turn willingly, but it must be added that much of the reading which is done by the mass of the people is desultory, unsystematic and indiscriminating. It has no cumulative effect, nor does it lead in any definite direction. From whatever cause it arises, whether the increasing strenuousness of modern commercial conditions, or the attenuation of the national nerves, modern writers, of fiction especially, show a tendency to appeal almost exclusively to the emotions. Emotion precedes thought, and it is easy to fall into the evil habit of automatic reading, which clogs all avenues of thought and allows no appeal save through the emotions. Owing to this, the argument used against Public Libraries, that they foster a species of mental loafing, is difficult to refute. But now, “to redress the balance of the old,” to provide against this want of system, we have the National Home‐Reading Union. The objects of that body have been thus defined:—“To bring the Public Libraries into bearing.” The objection mentioned is attacked at its heart; the Union provides lists of books, encourages reading‐circles, meets and dispels incidental difficulties, and is both an educational and an examining body. The cost of member‐ship is small enough to be no deterrent to anyone, and as this is the day of cheap literature, many of the books which appear on its lists may be easily obtained. But as also there are many works of importance, which know not the cheap edition, and are thus beyond the purchasing powers of the “intelligent artisan” and his class, it follows that unless it finds a complement, the National Home‐Reading Union must remain only partial in grasp and effect. There can be no doubt that the Public Library is more fully equipped for fulfilling the absent requirements than any other institution. Not only does it interest and develop the minds of readers, but it is the only organisation which provides a wide range of books in a greater variety of subjects than could be obtained by any but the rich. Of late years many librarians, recognising the immense advantages accruing from a connection between the library and the school, have formulated plans for actively interesting the children in the library. The National Home‐Reading Union forms an admirable connecting link between these two agencies of popular education, lending aid from itself to both, and borrowing something from each to transmit to the other.
MCB UP Ltd
Copyright © 1903, MCB UP Limited