Questia Online Library

Public Libraries, 1908, P. 349.

In the following article, contributed to Public Libraries for November, 1908, Mr. John Cotton Dana protests against the popular idea of library story-telling and advocates instruction given to teachers both in story- telling and in the use of books as a better method "as to cost and results." John Cotton Dana was born in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1856, received the degree of A.B. from Dartmouth in 1878, and studied law in Woodstock from 1878 to 1880. He was a land surveyor in Colorado in 1880-1881, was admitted to the New York bar in 1883, and spent 1886-1887 in Colorado as a civil engineer. He was Librarian of the Denver Public Library from 1889 to 1897; of the City Library, Springfield, Mass., from 1898- 1902, and since 1902 has been Librarian of the Free Public Library of Newark, N. J.

Story-telling to groups of young children is now popular among librarians. The art is practiced chiefly by women. No doubt one reason for its popularity is that it gives those who practice it the pleasures of the teacher, the orator and the exhorter. It must be a delight to have the opportunity to hold the attention of a group of children; to see their eyes sparkle as the story unwinds itself; to feel that you are giving the little people high pleasure, and at the same time are improving their language, their morals, their dramatic sense, their power of attention and their knowledge of the world's literary masterpieces. Also, it is pleasant to realize that you are keeping them off the streets; are encouraging them to read good books; are storing their minds with charming pictures of life and are making friends for your library.

In explaining its popularity I have stated briefly the arguments usually given in favor of library story-telling. There is another side.

A library's funds are never sufficient for all the work that lies before it. Consequently, the work a library elects to do is done at the cost of certain other work it might have done. The library always puts its funds, skill and energy upon those things which it thinks are most important, that is, are most effective in the long run, in educating the community. Now, the schools tell stories to children, and it is obviously one of their proper functions so to do at such times, to such an extent and to such children as the persons in charge of the schools think wise. It is probable that the schoolmen know better when and how to include story-telling in their work with a given group of children than do the librarians. If a library thinks it knows about this subject more than do the schools, should it spend time and money much needed for other things in trying to take up and carry on the schools' work? It would seem not. Indeed, the occasional story-telling which the one library of a town or city can furnish is so slight a factor in the educational work of that town or city as to make the library's pride over its work seem very ludicrous.

If, now, the library by chance has on its staff a few altruistic, emotional, dramatic and irrepressible child-lovers who do not find ordinary library work gives sufficient opportunities for altruistic indulgence, and if the library can spare them from other work, let it set them at teaching the teachers the art of story-telling.

Contrast, as to cost and results, the usual story-telling to children with instruction in the same and allied arts to teachers. The assistant entertains once or twice each week a group of forty or fifty children. The children--accustomed to schoolroom routine, hypnotized somewhat by the mob-spirit, and a little by the place and occasion, ready to imitate on every opportunity --listen with fair attention. They are perhaps pleased with the subject matter of the tale, possibly by its wording, and very probably by the voice and presence of the narrator. They hear an old story, one of the many that help to form the social cement of the nation in which they live. This is of some slight value, though the story is only one of scores which they hear or read in their early years at school. The story has no special dramatic power in its sequence. As a story it is of value almost solely because it is old. It has no special value in its phrasing. It may have been put into artistic form by some man of letters; but the children get it, not in that form, but as retold by an inspired library assistant who has made no mark in the world of letters by her manner of expression. The story has no moral save as it is dragged in by main strength; usually, in fact, and especially in the case of myths, the moral tone needs apologies much more than it needs praise.

To prepare for this half hour of the relatively trivial instruction of a few children in the higher life, the library must secure a room and pay for its care, a room which if it be obtained and used at all could be used for more profitable purposes; and the performer must study her art and must, if she is not a conceited duffer, prepare herself for her part for the day at a very considerable cost of time and energy.

Now, if the teachers do not know the value of story-telling at proper times and to children of proper years; if they do not realize the strength of the influence for good that lies in the speaking voice--though that this influence is relatively over-rated in these days I am at a proper time prepared to show--if they do not know about the interest children take in legends, myths and fairy tales, and their value in strengthening the social bond, then let the library assistants who do know about such things hasten to tell them. I am assuming for purposes of argument that the teachers do not know, and that library assistants can tell them. I shall not attempt to say how the library people will approach the teacher with their information without offending them, except to remark that tactful lines of approach can be found; and to remark, further, that by setting up a story-hour in her library a librarian does not very tactfully convey to the teachers the intimation that they either do not know their work or willfully neglect it.

With this same labor of preparation, in the room used to talk 30 minutes to a handful of children, the librarian could far better address a group of teachers on the use of books in libraries and schoolrooms. Librarians have long contended that teachers are deficient in bookishness; and it is quite possible that they are. Their preparation in normal schools compels them to give more attention to method than to subject matter. They have lacked incentive and opportunity to become familiar with books, outside of the prescribed text-books and supplementary readers. They do not know the literature of and for childhood, and not having learned to use books in general for delight and utility themselves they cannot impart the art to their pupils. As I have said, librarians contend that this is true, yet many of them with opportunities to instruct teachers in these matters lying unused before them, neglect them and coolly step in to usurp one of the school's functions and rebuke the teacher's shortcomings.

This is not all. A library gives of its time, money and energy to instruct 40 children--and there it ends. If, on the other hand, it instructs 40 teachers, those 40 carry the instruction to 40 class rooms and impart knowledge of the library, of the use of books, of the literature for children and--if need be--of the art of story-telling, to 1,600 or 2,000 children. There seems no question here as to which of these two forms of educational activity is for librarians better worth while.

Library Work with Children

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