THE GROWING TENDENCY TO OVER-EMPHASIZE THE CHILDREN'S SIDE
An investigation of rural libraries in North Carolina and of library work with children in Boston and New England towns led Miss Caroline Matthews, a member of the Examining Committee of the Public Library of Boston to believe that "exaggerated leaning toward one phase of library work must throw out of the true the work as a whole." The following paper explaining her conclusions was read before the Massachusetts Library Club in October, 1907.
Caroline Matthews was born in Boston in 1855. She has contributed articles to the Educational Review and to the Atlantic Monthly. Miss Matthews is at present living in Switzerland.
I have been asked to speak on this subject, not because I have professional or technical knowledge of the subject to be discussed, but rather because I have not. This does not mean that I have no knowledge whatever of this or other phases of library work. It simply means that the little knowledge I do possess is non-professional, and that my impressions, points of view, conclusions, are wholly those of an outsider.
Up to three years ago I had had no connection with public libraries beyond being an occasional borrower of books. Then suddenly, through making a comparative study of the financing of public school systems here and in France, I found myself in touch with the public schools of an American city, and through them with the school deposits of the Public Library of the same city. Even so, I did not come in touch with the library side of the work. It was always the school or teachers' side, or the pupils' side, never any other.
The second year I became a member of the Examining Committee of the Public Library of the city of Boston. My position on this committee for my first year of service was a minor one. There was never anything very important to do, certainly not enough to keep up one's interest to the point of being a live interest. Moreover, I spent the winter away from town. But I had the great good fortune to pass it in the mountains of North Carolina. There I lived for weeks at a time in the homes and cabins of the mountain whites. I knew the men their wives, their children. I visited the logging camps, the mines, the missions, the mills, the schools. The life was rough, but it was worth while. It gave me an intimate knowledge of the social surroundings of the people, and I found the one vital problem, the problem touching the citizen the nearest, to be that of the rural school, and affiliated with the rural school, though affiliated in a crude way, was the library.
Thus, for the second time in my life, I came into contact with the library by means of the school. This coincidence led me to think, and I reasoned out that library workers North and South must be working along similar lines toward unity in practice. Both were doing educative work. And both, apparently, had the same goal--the reaching of the parent or adult through the child or through child growth.
How far such work was legitimate work, how far such work had intellectual or educational value, how far such work lacked or had balance, I now wished to determine. To do this it was necessary to assume some line of active investigation; also to study results from the standpoint of the library, as well as from that of the school and the citizen.
There was no need to search for a subject. I had it at hand. Living as I did with the people I found myself in the very center of the rural library movement--a movement so splendid in conception; so successful in results, if statistics are credited; so direct as to method, the entire appropriation being expended on but two things, books and bookcases; so naively simple as to administration, there being neither librarians, libraries, or pay-rolls--that a study of it could not fail to prove helpful.
What were the actual conditions? First, the name "rural libraries" I found a misnomer. It in no sense represents facts. The words imply community interests, interests alike of adult and child, whilst the reality is that these libraries are simply school deposits, composed wholly of "juvenile books," graded up to but not beyond the seventh grade. When one realizes that these books reach a total of 200,000 volumes, that they are sent to people living in scattered communities strung shoe-string fashion high along mountain ridges--back and apart from civilization-- to a people of rugged character, demanding strength in books as in life, capable of appreciating strength, one sees what a stupendous opportunity for community uplift has been wasted, and one stands aghast at the folly, economic and intellectual, of the limitations imposed. Why should children alone be considered? And if they alone are to be considered why should they be fed nothing but "juvenile" literature? It is both over-emphasis and false emphasis of the most harmful kind.
Second, far and away the most interesting phase of this library work in North Carolina is that the whole movement lies outside of the hands of professionally trained librarians. To understand why this is so it is necessary to turn to the Department of Education. Education in North Carolina is a state affair and centralized, the state being for all practical purposes autocratic in every educational matter. Decentralization has set in to the extent of admitting local taxation; otherwise education in North Carolina to-day is as highly centralized as it is in France. There is no difference whatever between the power of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction at Raleigh, and that of the Minister of Public Instruction in France. Such being the case it is but natural that the rural library movement should be absorbed by the state, incorporated into the Department of Education, and administered by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Neither would it be wise to change this. It would be wise, however, to appoint as one of the county superintendents of public instruction a trained librarian, having as his charge the entire supervision and administration of library interests.
Third, all responsibility for the care of these libraries rests with teachers. The teachers should never have such responsibility. It is entirely beyond and outside of their proper work. I feel sure that this problem of how to care for school deposits of library books, a problem which is an issue North as it is South, is not so difficult of solution as library workers would have us believe. Disabuse yourselves of the notion that it is the teachers' work, and a way out of the difficulty will be found.
Fourth, not only is there a growing dissatisfaction with the library act as administered, but there is actually active opposition to it--on the part of some teachers, and on the part of certain public-spirited citizens. So much so is this a fact that a counter movement is already in progress. This consists in the establishment of rural libraries by private gift, by the citizens at large, and by certain societies. Tryon has such a library, a delightful building with two rooms and an ample supply of standard books; Lenoir has one; Boone has one. Yet these are small towns, two of them not exceeding 300 inhabitants each. An interesting feature of one of these libraries is that it serves largely as a social center for community life. Afternoon tea is served in it; musicals held; club papers read; even the Woman's Exchange meets and exhibits once a week. I had no means of discovering how general this movement was, nor yet of determining the ratio of emphasis laid on the social side of the work. But I want you to note one point--the movement starts with the adult and with standard works, and only by means of the adult, or through the parent, is the child reached. It is the exact antithesis of the state movement.
Fifth, the libraries are neglected. In no school did I find a well-appointed one, and where there were bookcases they were tucked aside in corner or entry, thick with dust, unused.
The state statistics as to the growth of this movement ignore absolutely the facts I have mentioned. Therefore, I claim that in no true sense are these statistics representative. The movement, however, has interest. It is alive. It is sweeping through the state. It spends thousands of dollars a year. It concerns itself wholly with children. These are its characteristics. There can be no two opinions as to its lack of balance, for the adult is not even considered. There can be no two opinions as to its intellectual and educational values. Buying only "juvenile literature" they are of the smallest. There can be no two opinions as to its morality: the people are taxed, yet only a fraction of the people, only those who have children below the seventh and above the first grades, receive a return.
How far North Carolina was seeking guidance of the North, how far the North was also over-emphasizing, if it was, the children's side in library work, I next wished to determine.
This brought me back to Boston, and to my second and final year of service on the Examining Committee. The chairmanship of the sub-committee on branches gave me opportunity for studying library work as it touched the child and the school in cities. This I supplemented by a less intensive study of library conditions in towns, in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, seeking to make my knowledge comprehensive.
The first impression I received was that of the many interpretations put upon library work. These were almost as numerous as were the librarians and custodians. Viewing the work as a whole such divergence in practice seemed an error. There is power in unity; results worth while follow. There is loss in the frittering away of time caused by casual experiment; moreover, it bears heavily on the child. To this you may be inclined to answer that social and moral conditions vary so in each city and town that the individual condition must be faced individually. Granted, but not to the extent you might wish. To illustrate: there is wisdom in allowing a certain station of the Boston system complete liberty of action. But the situation at this station is unique. It could not be duplicated even in Boston. The work is in the hands of a skilled leader, and it forms part of a large private work, financed by a philanthropist noted for leadership in wise experimentation. The library shows breadth in accepting the situation. But it is not wisdom to allow the introduction of the story hour, or, as is the case in a neighboring town, the throwing wide open of the children's room to tots so tiny that picture blocks have to be furnished them to play with--before the educational authorities have pronounced such work necessary and just.
I next noticed and with some alarm the feminization of the library corps. And I confess that I see no remedy. The schools are facing the same difficulty, but eventually it will be solved for them in the raising of certain salaries to a man's standard. This is not likely to happen in library work. Consequently we have this feminization to reckon with, and to me it is an active factor in the diversity of library practice to which I have referred, for women far more than men are prone to indulge individual fads.
A third impression was the lack of fitness of some library workers for their posts. This is particularly unfortunate when it occurs in a children's room. Unless the person in charge possess the requisite qualifications, better far close the room. The fault lies perhaps with the colleges offering library courses. It may well be that the training in these should be more specialized than it is. Take the case of a student intending to pursue a given line of work--say children's departments. Something definite should be offered her, something corresponding in worth to the graduate courses in practice and observation offered students of education in departments of education at universities. This is a practical suggestion; it only requires on the part of colleges and libraries similar agreements to those already existing between universities and schools. A second phase of this question is that of libraries whose employees are not drawn from library schools or colleges, but who reach the several posts by a system of promotion based on efficiency and faithful service. Is there any reason why employees of such a system, specializing in children's work should not serve an apprenticeship in the children's department at central and be required to return to it again and again for further instruction? As far as I know the heads of these children's departments have no duties of this kind. But would not the value of a library corps be increased tenfold if they had? They seize eagerly the opportunity to go out and instruct the teacher, to go out and instruct the parent. They have classes for the schools in the use of the library. But they neglect utterly the training of the library employee who is to serve as assistant first, as chief later, in the children's room at branch or station. Yet the knowledge acquired by only one day of observation under skillful guidance in the children's department at central would prove invaluable to these women. Broaden the training given employees, and centralize experimentation.
I found no TRUE affiliation with the schools. There was none in North Carolina; there is none here. In countless ways the library and the school are overlapping. Why there should not be a clearer vision as to what is library work and what is school work is incomprehensible to an outsider.
I grew to have a horror of children's rooms--as distinct from children's departments. Intellectually, physically, morally, I believe them harmful. Neither can I see their necessity.
As regards classification of books, I received the impression that the broad division into "adult" and "juvenile" is too dogmatic, too arbitrary. Whatever other forms or divisions are necessary, this particular one should be abolished. It lowers the intellectual standing of the library with the community.
The splendid character of library work in tenement districts stood out strongly. It is vigorous, alive, with an ever-broadening opportunity.
More vivid, however, than any other impression, stronger still, was that of the time and thought and care bestowed on the Child. Everywhere, in city, town and suburban library, the effort to reach the Child is apparent. Special attendants are in readiness to meet him the instant he comes into reading room and station after school hours. Thoughtful women are assigned to overlook and guide his reference work. Entertainment is offered him in the form of blocks to play with, scrap-books to look at, story hours to attend. Books specially selected with regard to his supposedly individual needs are placed on the shelves. Picture bulletins are made for his use in the schools. Where he is not segregated he is allowed to monopolize tables and chairs. I find no corresponding effort made to reach the adult, to reach the young mechanic, to draw to the library the parent. I at times wonder whether librarians and custodians are even aware that exaggerated leaning toward one phase of library work must throw out of the true the work as a whole.
Nothing has astonished me more than this new development in library practice--the placing of the child in importance before the adult. The old belief that the library is primarily for adults and only incidentally for children still holds good at the central buildings of large city public library systems. In these we find the children's department only one of many departments--the child always subordinate, the adult dominant--the result of a well balanced, admirable whole, each unit in its proper place, all forces pulling together. I fail to see why the same relative balance should not be maintained throughout the entire system, from branch to station, not always in kind and measure, but approximately.
A second thought to which I cannot adjust myself--is that of the parent as a factor in school and library work. The parent believes in the public school, and he pays heavily in taxes for the education of his children by means of it. The parent believes in the establishment of public libraries and he pays heavily in taxes for their equipment. Both sums raised are sufficiently generous to enable school and library to furnish trained, capable, efficient teachers and librarians. Such being the case does not the parent show intelligence in turning over to the public care the direction of his children's education and reading? Is he not justified in so doing? Why then should he be held ignorant or selfish? Eliminate the parent as a factor in library practice. Give the children quality in books. Strike off 50 per cent., if you only will, of the titles to be found on the shelves of children's rooms. Substitute "adult" books, and you will not need to appeal to the parent to guide the child's choice.
That there is similarity of practice in library work, in North Carolina and here, you can hardly deny. Point by point, in so far as the work relates to the child, the problems are mutual. Their solution lies in the getting together of school and library authorities, and the setting aside of the modern thought that library work is primarily educative and primarily for the child. Let the schools educate the children; and, if you can, let the adult once more dominate in library practice. You will then have a well-balanced whole, free from over-emphasis on the child's side.