PUBLIC LIBRARIES AND THE YOUNG
The special report on "Public Libraries in the United States of America," published in 1876 by the U. S. Bureau of Education includes the following paper by Mr. W. I. Fletcher, in which he advocates the removal of age-restriction and emphasizes the importance of choosing only those books which "have something positively good about them." This and the following eight papers give, in some measure, a history of library work with children.
William Isaac Fletcher was born in Burlington, Vermont, April 28, 1844. He was educated in the Winchester, Mass., schools, and received the honorary degree of A.M. from Amherst in 1884. He served as librarian of Amherst College from 1883 to 1911, when he was made librarian emeritus. Mr. Fletcher was joint editor of Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, and editor of the continuation from 1882 to 1911; edited the A. L. A. Index to general literature in 1893 and 1901; the Cooperative Index to periodicals from 1883 to 1911, and in 1895 published his Public Libraries in America. He was president of the A. L. A. in 1891-1892.
What shall the public library do for the young, and how? is a question of acknowledged importance. The remarkable development of "juvenile literature" testifies to the growing importance of this portion of the community in the eyes of book producers, while the character of much of this literature, which is now almost thrust into the hands of youth, is such as to excite grave doubts as to its being of any service, intellectual or moral. In this state of things the public library is looked to by some with hope, by others with fear, according as its management is apparently such as to draw young readers away from merely frivolous reading, or to make such reading more accessible and encourage them in the use of it; hence the importance of a judicious administration of the library in this regard.
One of the first questions to be met in arranging a code of rules for the government of a public library relates to the age at which young persons shall be admitted to its privileges. There is no usage on this point which can be called common, but most libraries fix a certain age, as twelve or fourteen, below which candidates for admission are ineligible. Only a few of the most recently established libraries have adopted what seems to be the right solution of this question, by making no restriction whatever as to age. This course recommends itself as the wisest and the most consistent with the idea of the public library on many grounds.
In the first place, age is no criterion of mental condition and capacity. So varying is the date of the awakening of intellectual life, and the rapidity of its progress, that height of stature might almost as well be taken for its measure as length of years. In every community there are some young minds of peculiar gifts and precocious development, as fit to cope with the masterpieces of literature at ten years of age, as the average person of twenty, and more appreciative of them. From this class come the minds which rule the world of mind, and confer the greatest benefits on the race. How can the public library do more for the intellectual culture of the whole community than by setting forward in their careers those who will be the teachers and leaders of their generation? In how many of the lives of those who have been eminent in literature and science do we find a youth almost discouraged because deprived of the means of intellectual growth. The lack of appreciation of youthful demands for culture is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the world's comprehending not the light which comes into it. Our public libraries will fail in an important part of their mission if they shut out from their treasures minds craving the best, and for the best purposes, because, forsooth, the child is too young to read good books.
Some will be found to advocate the exclusion of such searchers for knowledge on the ground that precocious tastes should be repressed in the interests of physical health. But a careful investigation of the facts in such cases can hardly fail to convince one that in them repression is the last thing that will bring about bodily health and vigor. There should doubtless be regulation, but nothing will be so likely to conduce to the health and physical well being of a person with strong mental cravings as the reasonable satisfaction of those cravings. Cases can be cited where children, having what seemed to be a premature development of mental qualities coupled with weak or even diseased bodily constitutions, have rapidly improved in health when circumstances have allowed the free exercise of their intellectual powers, and have finally attained a maturity vigorous alike in body and mind. This is in the nature of a digression, but it can do no harm to call attention thus to the facts which contradict the common notion that intellectual precocity should be discouraged. Nature is the best guide, and it is in accordance with all her workings, that when she has in hand the production of a giant of intellect, the young Hercules should astonish observers by feats of strength even in his cradle. Let not the public library, then, be found working against nature by establishing, as far as its influence goes, a dead level of intellectual attainments for all persons below a certain age.
But there is a much larger class of young persons who ought not to be excluded from the library, not because they have decided intellectual cravings and are mentally mature, but because they have capacities for the cultivation of good tastes, and because the cultivation of such tastes cannot be begun too early. There is no greater mistake in morals than that often covered by the saying, harmless enough literally, "Boys will be boys." This saying is used perhaps oftener than for any other purpose to justify boys in doing things which are morally not fit for men to do, and is thus the expression of that great error that immoralities early in life are to be expected and should not be severely deprecated. The same misconception of the relations of youth to maturity and of nature's great laws of growth and development is seen in that common idea that children need not be expected to have any literary tastes; that they may well be allowed to confine their reading to the frivolous, the merely amusing. That this view is an erroneous one thought and observation agree in showing. Much like the caution of the mother who would not allow her son to bathe in the river till he had learned to swim, is that of those who would have youth wait till a certain age, when they ought to have good tastes formed, before they can be admitted to companionship with the best influences for the cultivation of them. Who will presume to set the age at which a child may first be stirred with the beginnings of a healthy intellectual appetite on getting a taste of the strong meat of good literature? This point is one of the first importance. No after efforts can accomplish what is done with ease early in life in the way of forming habits either mental or moral, and if there is any truth in the idea that the public library is not merely a storehouse for the supply of the wants of the reading public, but also and especially an educational institution which shall create wants where they do not exist, then the library ought to bring its influences to bear on the young as early as possible.
And this is not a question of inducing young persons to read, but of directing their reading into right channels. For in these times there is little probability that exclusion from the public library will prevent their reading. Poor, indeed, in all manner of resources, must be the child who cannot now buy, beg, or borrow a fair supply of reading of some kind; so that exclusion from the library is likely to be a shutting up of the boy or girl to dime novels and story papers as the staple of reading. Complaints are often made that public libraries foster a taste for light reading, especially among the young. Those who make this complaint too often fail to perceive that the tastes indulged by those who are admitted to the use of the public library at the age of twelve or fourteen, are the tastes formed in the previous years of exclusion. A slight examination of facts, such as can be furnished by any librarian of experience in a circulating public library, will show how little force there is in this objection.
Nor should it be forgotten, in considering this question, that to very many young people youth is the time when they have more leisure for reading than any other portion of life is likely to furnish. At the age of twelve or fourteen, or even earlier, they are set at work to earn their living, and thereafter their opportunities for culture are but slight, nor are their circumstances such as to encourage them in such a work. We cannot begin too early to give them a bent towards culture which shall abide by them and raise them above the work-a-day world which will demand so large a share of their time and strength. The mechanic, the farmer, the man in any walk of life, who has early formed good habits of reading, is the one who will magnify his calling, and occupy the highest positions in it. And to the thousands of young people, in whose homes there is none of the atmosphere of culture or of the appliances for it, the public library ought to furnish the means of keeping pace intellectually with the more favored children of homes where good books abound and their subtle influence extends even to those who are too young to read and understand them. If it fails to do this it is hardly a fit adjunct to our school system, whose aim it is to give every man a chance to be the equal of every other man, if he can.
It is not claimed that the arguments used in support of an age limitation are of no force; but it is believed that they are founded on objections to the admission of the young to library privileges which are good only as against an indiscriminate and not properly regulated admission, and which are not applicable to the extension of the use of the library to the young under such conditions and restrictions as are required by their peculiar circumstances.
For example, the public library ought not to furnish young persons with a means of avoiding parental supervision of their reading. A regulation making the written consent of the parent a prerequisite to the registration of the name of a minor, and the continuance of such consent a condition of the continuance of the privilege, will take from parents all cause for complaint in this regard.
Neither should the library be allowed to stand between pupils in school and their studies, as it is often complained that it does. To remove this difficulty, the relations of the library to the school system should be such that teachers should be able to regulate the use of the library by those pupils whose studies are evidently interfered with by their miscellaneous reading. The use of the library would thus be a stimulus to endeavor on the part of pupils who would regard its loss as the probable result of lack of diligence in their studies.
Again, it must be understood that to the young, as to all others, the library is open only during good behavior. The common idea that children and youth are more likely than older persons to commit offenses against library discipline is not borne out by experience; but were it true, a strict enforcement of rules as to fines and penalties would protect the library against loss and injury, the fear of suspension from the use of the library as the result of carelessness in its use, operating more strongly than any other motive to prevent such carelessness.
If there are other objections to the indiscriminate admission of the young to the library, they can also be met by such regulations as readily suggest themselves, and should not be allowed to count as arguments against a judicious and proper extension of the benefits of the library to the young.
CHOICE OF BOOKS
But when the doors of the public library are thrown open to the young, and they are recognized as an important class of its patrons, the question comes up, What shall the library furnish to this class in order to meet its wants? If the object of the library is understood to be simply the supplying of the wants of the reading public, and the young are considered as a portion of that public, the question is very easily answered by saying, Give them what they call for that is not positively injurious in its tendency. But if we regard the public library as an educational means rather than a mere clubbing arrangement for the economical supply of reading, just as the gas company is for the supply of artificial light, it becomes of importance, especially with reference to the young, who are the most susceptible to educating influences, that they should receive from the library that which will do them good; and the managers of the library appear not as caterers to a master whose will is the rule as to what shall be furnished, but rather as the trainers of gymnasts who seek to provide that which will be of the greatest service to their men. No doubt both these elements enter into a true conception of the duty of library managers; but when we are regarding especially the young, the latter view comes nearer the truth than the other.
In the first place, among the special requirements of the young is this, that the library shall interest and be attractive to them. The attitude of some public libraries toward the young and the uncultivated seems to say to them, "We cannot encourage you in your low state of culture; you must come up to the level of appreciating what is really high toned in literature, or we cannot help you." The public library being, however, largely if not mainly for the benefit of the uncultivated, must, to a large extent, come down to the level of this class and meet them on common ground. Every library ought to have a large list of good juvenile books, a statement which at once raises the question, What are good juvenile books? This is one of the vexed questions of the literary world, closely allied to the one which has so often been mooted in the press and the pulpit, as to the utility and propriety of novel reading. But while this question is one on which there are great differences of opinion, there are a few things which may be said on it without diffidence or the fear of successful contradiction. Of this kind is the remark that good juvenile books must have something positively good about them. They should be not merely amusing or entertaining and harmless, but instructive and stimulating to the better nature. Fortunately such books are not so rare as they have been. Some of the best minds are now being turned to the work of providing them. Within a few months such honored names in the world of letters as those of Hamerton and Higginson have been added to the list which contains those of "Peter Parley," Jacob Abbott, "Walter Aimwell," Elijah Kellogg, Thomas Hughes, and others who have devoted their talents, not to the amusement, but to the instruction and culture of youth. The names of some of the most popular writers for young people in our day are not ranked with those mentioned above, not because their productions are positively injurious, but because they lack the positively good qualities demanded by our definition.
There is a danger to youth in reading some books which are not open to the charge of directly injurious tendencies. Many of the most popular juveniles, while running over with excellent "morals," are unwholesome mental food for the young, for the reason that they are essentially untrue. That is, they give false views of life, making it consist, if it be worth living, of a series of adventures, hair-breadth escapes; encounters with tyrannical schoolmasters and unnatural parents; sea voyages in which the green hand commands a ship and defeats a mutiny out of sheer smartness; rides on runaway locomotives, strokes of good luck, and a persistent turning up of things just when they are wanted --all of which is calculated in the long run to lead away the young imagination and impart discontent with the common lot of an uneventful life.
Books of adventure seem to meet a real want in the minds of the young, and should not be entirely ruled out; but they cannot be included among the books the reading of which should be encouraged or greatly extended. In the public library it will be found perhaps necessary not to exclude this class of juvenile books entirely. Such an exclusion is not here advocated, but it is rather urged that they should not form the staple of juvenile reading furnished by the library. The better books should be duplicated so as to be on hand when called for; these should be provided in such numbers merely that they can occasionally be had as the "seasoning" to a course of good reading.
But the young patrons of the library ought not to be encouraged in confining their reading to juveniles, of no matter how good quality. It is the one great evil of this era of juvenile books, good and bad, that by supplying mental food in the form fit for mere children, they postpone the attainment of a taste for the strong meat of real literature; and the public library ought to be influential in exalting this real literature and keeping it before the people, stemming with it the current of trash which is so eagerly welcomed because it is new or because it is interesting. When children were driven to read the same books as their elders or not to read at all, there were doubtless thousands, probably the majority of all, who chose the latter alternative, and read but very little in their younger years. This class is better off now than then by the greater inducements offered them to mental culture in the increased facilities provided for it. But there seems to be danger that the ease and smoothness of the royal road to knowledge now provided in the great array of easy books in all departments will not conduce to the formation of such mental growths as resulted from the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. There is doubtless more knowledge; but is there as much power and muscle of mind?
However this may be, none can fail to recognize the importance of setting young people in the way of reading the best books early in life. And as the public library is likely to be the one place where the masters of literature can be found, it is essential that here they should be put by every available means in communication with and under the influence of these masters.
It only remains now to say that, as we have before intimated the public library should be viewed as an adjunct of the public school system, and to suggest that in one or two ways the school may work together with the library in directing the reading of the young. There is the matter of themes for the writing of compositions; by selecting subjects on which information can be had at the library, the teacher can send the pupil to the library as a student, and readily put him in communication with, and excite his interest in, classes of books to which he has been a stranger and indifferent. Again, in the study of the history of English literature, a study which, to the credit of our teachers be it said, is being rapidly extended, the pupils may be induced to take new interest, and gain greatly in point of real culture by being referred for illustrative matter to the public library.