Questia Online Library

A. L. A. Proceedings, 1913, P. 275.

The "possibility and duty," on the part of the children's library, of being a moral force in the community, was discussed by Clara W. Hunt in a paper presented at the Narragansett Pier Conference of the A. L. A. in 1906. Seven years later, at the Kaaterskill Conference in 1913, Miss Hunt again considered the influence of children's libraries as a civic force. This later paper, representing more fully her point of view, and embodying her later experience, is here reprinted.

Clara Whitehill Hunt was born in Utica, N. Y., in 1871. She was graduated from the Utica Free Academy in 1889, and from the New York State Library School in 1898. From 1893 to 1896 she was a public school principal in Utica. She organized work with children in the Apprentices' Library, Philadelphia, in 1898, and had charge of it in the Newark, N. J., Free Public Library from 1898 to 1902. Since 1903 she has been Superintendent of the Children's Department of the Brooklyn Public Library. Miss Hunt has been a lecturer and contributor to magazines on children's literature, library work with children and related topics, and has published a book on "What shall we read to the children?"

You are probably familiar with the story of the man who, being asked by his host which part of the chicken he liked best replied that "he'd never had a chance to find out; that when he was a boy it was the fashion to give the grown people first choice, and by the time he'd grown up the children had the pick, so he'd never tasted anything but the drumstick."

It will doubtless be looked upon as heresy for a children's librarian to own that she has a deal of sympathy for the down-trodden adult of the present; that there have been moments when she has even gone so far as to say an "amen"--under her breath--to the librarian who, after a day of vexations at the hands of the exasperating young person represented in our current social writings as a much-sinned-against innocent, wrathfully exploded, "Children ought to be put in a barrel and fed through the bung till they are twenty-one years old!"

During the scant quarter century which has seen the birth and marvelous growth of modern library work with children, the "new education" has been putting its stamp upon the youth of America and upon the ideas of their parents regarding the upbringing of children. And it has come to pass that one must be very bold to venture to brush off the dust of disuse from certain old saws and educational truisms, such as "All play and no work make Jack a mere toy," "No gains without pains," "We learn to do by doing," "Train up a child in the way he should go," and so on.

Our kindergartens, our playground agitators, our juvenile courts, our child welfare exhibits are so persistently--and rightly --showing the wrongdoing child as the helpless victim of heredity and environment that hasty thinkers are jumping to the conclusion that, since a child is not to blame for his thieving tendencies, it is our duty, rather than punish, to let him go on stealing; since it is a natural instinct for a boy to like the sound of crashing glass and the exercise of skill needed to hit a mark, we must not reprove him for throwing stones at windows; because a child does not like to work, we should let him play--play all the time.

The painless methods of the new education, which tend to make life too soft for children, and to lead parents to believe that everything a child craves he must have, these tendencies have had their effect upon the production and distribution of juvenile books, and have added to the librarian's task the necessity not only of fighting against the worst reading, but against the third rate lest it crowd out the best.

It is the importance of this latter warfare which I wish mainly to discuss.

We children's librarians, in the past fifteen or twenty years, have had to take a good many knocks, more or less facetious, from spectators of the sterner sex who are worried about the "feminization of the library," and who declare that no woman, certainly no spinster, can possibly understand the nature of the boy. Perhaps sometimes we are inclined to droop apologetic heads, because we know that some women are sentimental, that they don't all "look at things in the large," as men invariably do. In view, however, of the record of this youthful movement of ours, we have a right rather to swagger than to apologize.

The influence of the children's libraries upon the ideals, the tastes, the occupations, the amusements, the language, the manners, the home standards, the choice of careers, upon the whole life, in fact, of thousands upon thousands of boys and girls has been beyond all count as a civic force in America.

And yet, while teachers tell us that the opening of every new library witnesses a substitution of wholesome books for "yellow" novels in pupils' hands; while men in their prime remark their infrequent sight of the sensational periodicals left on every doorstep twenty years ago; while publishers of children's books are trying to give us a clean, safe, juvenile literature, and while some nickel novel publishers are even admitting a decline in the sale of their wares; in spite of these evidences of success, a warfare is still on, though its character is changing.

Every librarian who has examined children's books for a few years back knows exactly what to expect when she tackles the "juveniles" of 1913.

There will be a generous number of books so fine in point of matter and makeup that we shall lament having been born too late to read these in our childhood. The information and the taste acquired by children who have read the best juvenile publications of the past ten years is perfectly amazing, and those extremists who decry the buying of any books especially written for children are nearly as nonsensical as the ones who would buy everything the child wishes.

But when one has selected with satisfaction perhaps a hundred and fifty titles, one begins to get into the potboiler class--the written-to-order information book which may be guaranteed to kill all future interest in a subject treated in style so wooden and lifeless; the retold classic in which every semblance to the spirit of the original is lost, and the reading of which will give to the child that familiarity which will breed contempt for the work itself; the atrocious picture book modeled after the comic supplement and telling in hideous daubs of color and caricature of line the tale of the practical joker who torments animals, mocks at physical deformities, plays tricks on parents, teases the newlywed, ridicules good manners, whose whole aim, in short, is to provoke guffaws of laughter at the expense of someone's hurt body or spirit. There will be collections of folk and fairy tales, raked together without discrimination from the literature of people among whom trickery and cunning are the most admired qualities; there will be school stories in which the masters and studious boys grovel at the feet of the football hero; in greater number than the above will be the stories written in series on thoroughly up-to-date subjects.

I shall be much surprised if we do not learn this fall that the world has been deceived in supposing that to Amundsen and Scott belong the honor of finding the South Pole, or to Gen. Goethals the credit of engineering the Panama Canal. If we do not discover that some young Frank or Jack or Bill was the brains behind these achievements, I shall wonder what has become of the ingenuity of the plotter of the series stories--the "plotter" I say advisedly, for it is a known fact that many of these stories are first outlined by a writer whose name makes books sell, the outlines then being filled in by a company of underlings who literally write to order. When we learn, also, that an author who writes admirable stories, in which special emphasis is laid upon fair play and a sense of honor, is at the same time writing under another name books he is ashamed to acknowledge, we are not surprised at the low grade of the resulting stories.

With the above extremes of good and poor there will be quantities on the border line, books not distinctly harmful from one standpoint--in fact, they will busily preach honesty and pluck and refinement, etc., but they will be so lacking in imagination and power, in the positive qualities that go to make a fine book, that they cannot be called wholly harmless, since that which crowds out a better thing is harmful, at least to the extent that it usurps the room of the good.

These books we will be urged to buy in large duplicate, and when we, holding to the ideal of the library as an educational force, refuse to supply this intellectual pap, well-to-do parents may be counted upon to present the same in quantities sufficient to weaken the mental digestion of their offspring beyond cure by teachers the most gifted.

There are two principal arguments--so-called--hurled at every librarian who tries to maintain a high standard of book selection. One is the "I read them when I was a child and they did me no harm" claim; the other, based upon the doggedly clung- to notion that our ideal of manhood is a grown-up Fauntleroy, infers that every book rejected was offensive to the children's librarian because of qualities dangerously likely to encourage the boy in a taste for bloodshed and dirty hands.

Now, in this day when parents are frantically protecting their children from the deadly house fly, the mosquito, the common drinking cup and towel; when milk must be sterilized and water boiled and adenoids removed; when the young father solemnly bows to the dictum that he mustn't rock nor trot his own baby-- isn't it really matter for the joke column to hear the "did me no harm" idea advanced as an argument? And yet it is so offered by the same individual who, though he has survived a boyhood of mosquito bites and school drinking cups, refuses to allow his child to risk what he now knows to be a possible carrier of disease.

The "what was good enough for me is good enough for my children" idea, if soberly treated as an argument in other matters of life, would mean death to all progress, and it is no more to be treated seriously as a reason for buying poor juvenile books than a contention for the fetich doctor versus the modern surgeon, or for the return to the foot messenger in place of electrical communication.

It would be tactless, if not positively dangerous, if we children's librarians openly expressed our views when certain people point boastfully to themselves as shining products of mediocre story book childhoods. So I would hastily suppress this thought, and instead remind these people that, as a vigorous child is immune from disease germs which attack a delicate one, so unquestionably have thousands of mental and moral weaklings been retarded from their best development by books that left no mark on healthy children. In spite of the probability that there are to-day alive many able-bodied men who cut their first teeth on pickles and pork chops, we do not question society's duty to disseminate proper ideas on the care and feeding of children.

Isn't it about time that we nailed down the lid of the coffin on the "did me no harm" argument and buried the same in the depths of the sea?

Another notion that dies hard is one assuming that, since the children's librarian is a woman, prone to turn white about the gills at the sight of blood--or a mouse--she can not possibly enter into the feelings of the ancestral barbarian surviving in the young human breast, but must try to hasten the child's development to twentieth century civilization by eliminating the elemental and savage from his story books.

If those who grow hoarse shouting the above would take the trouble to examine the lists of an up-to-date library they might blush for their shallowness, that they have been basing their opinions on their memory of library lists at least twenty-five years old.

We do not believe that womanly women and manly men are most successfully made by way of silly, shoddy, sorry-for-themselves girlhoods, or lying, swaggering, loafing boyhoods; and it is the empty, the vulgar, the cheap, smart, trust-to-luck story, rather than the gory one, that we dislike.

I am coming to the statement of what I believe to be the problem most demanding our study today. It is, briefly, the problem of the mediocre book, its enormous and ever-increasing volume. More fully stated it is the problem of the negatively as the enemy of the positively good; of the cultivation of brain laziness by "thoughts-made-easy" reading. It is a republic's, a public school problem, viz.: How is it possible to raise to a higher average the lowest, without reducing to a dead level of mediocrity the citizens of superior possibilities? Our relation to publisher and parent, to the library's adult open shelves of current fiction enter into the problem. The children's over-reading, and their reluctance to "graduate" from juvenile books, these and many other perplexing questions grow out of the main one.

I said awhile ago that the new education has had a tendency to make life too soft for children, and to give to their parents the belief that natural instincts alone are safe guides to follow in rearing a child. I hope I shall not seem to be a good old times croaker, sighing for the days when school gardens and folk dancing and glee clubs and dramatization of lessons and beautiful text-books and fascinating handicraft and a hundred other delightful things were undreamed-of ways of making pleasant the paths of learning. Heaven forbid that I should join the ranks of those who carp at a body of citizens who, at an average wage in America less than that of the coal miner and the factory worker, have produced in their schools results little short of the miraculous. To visit, as I have, classrooms of children born in slums across the sea, transplanted to tenements in New York, and to see what our public school teachers are making of these children--the backward, the underfed, the "incorrigible," the blind, the anaemic--well, all I can say is, I do not recommend these visits to Americans of the stripe of that boastful citizen who, being shown the crater of Vesuvius with a "There, you haven't anything like that in America!" disdainfully replied, "Naw, but we've got Niagara, and that'd put the whole blame thing out!" For myself I never feel quite so disposed to brag of my Americanism as when I visit some of our New York schools.

And yet, watching the bored shrug of the bright, well-born high school child when one suggests that "The prince and the pauper" is quite as interesting a story as the seventh volume of her latest series, a librarian has some feelings about the lines-of- least-resistance method of educating our youth, which she is glad to find voiced by some of our ablest thinkers.

Here is what J. P. Munroe says: "Many of the new methods . . . methods of gentle cooing toward the child's inclinations, of timidly placing a chair for him before a disordered banquet of heterogeneous studies, may produce ladylike persons, but they will not produce men. And when these modern methods go as far as to compel the teacher to divide this intellectual cake and pudding into convenient morsels and to spoon-feed them to the child, partly in obedience to his schoolboy cravings, partly in conformity to a pedagogical psychology, then the result is sure to be mental and moral dyspepsia in a race of milk-sops." How aptly "spoon-fed pudding" characterizes whole cartloads of our current "juveniles"!

Listen to President Wilson's opinion: "To be carried along by somebody's suggestions from the time you begin until the time when you are thrust groping and helpless into the world, is the very negation of education. By the nursing process, by the coddling process you are sapping a race; and only loss can possibly result except upon the part of individuals here and there who are so intrinsically strong that you cannot spoil them."

Hugo Munsterberg is a keen observer of the product of American schools, and contrasting their methods with those of his boyhood he says: "My school work was not adjusted to botany at nine years because I played with an herbarium, and at twelve to physics because I indulged in noises with home-made electric bells, and at fifteen to Arabic, an elective which I miss still in several high schools, even in Brookline and Roxbury. The more my friends and I wandered afield with our little superficial interests and talents and passions, the more was the straight-forward earnestness of the school our blessing; and all that beautified and enriched our youth, and gave to it freshness and liveliness, would have turned out to be our ruin, if our elders had taken it seriously, and had formed a life's program out of petty caprices and boyish inclinations."

And Prof. Munsterberg thrusts his finger into what I believe to be the weakest joint in our educational armor when he says, "As there is indeed a difference whether I ask what may best suit the taste and liking of Peter, the darling, or whether I ask what Peter, the man, will need for the battle of life in which nobody asks what he likes, but where the question is how he is liked, and how he suits the taste of his neighbors."

What would become of our civilization if we were to follow merely the instincts and natural desires? Yet is there not in America a tremendous tendency to the notion, that except in matters of physical welfare, the child's lead is to be followed to extreme limits? Don't we librarians feel it in the pressure brought to bear upon us by those who fail to find certain stories, wanted by the children, on our shelves? "Why, that's a good book," the parent will say, "The hero is honest and kind, the book won't hurt him any--in fact it will give the child some good ideas."

"Ideas." Yes, perhaps. There is another educator I should like to quote, J. H. Baker in his "Education and life." "Whatever you would wish the child to do and become, that let him practice. We learn to do, not by knowing, but by knowing and then doing. Ethical teaching, tales of heroic deeds, soul-stirring fiction that awakens sympathetic emotions may accomplish but little unless in the child's early life the ideas and feelings find expression in action and so become a part of the child's power and tendency. . ."

Now we believe with G. Stanley Hall that, "The chief enemy of active virtue in the world is not vice but laziness, languor and apathy of will;" that "mind work is infinitely harder than physical toil;" that (as another says) "all that does not rouse, does not set him to work, rusts and taints him the disease of laziness destroys the whole man."

And when children of good heritage, good homes, sound bodies, bright minds, spend hours every week curled up among cushions, allowing a stream of cambric-tea literature gently to trickle over their brain surfaces, we know that though the heroes and heroines of these stories be represented as prodigies of industry and vigor, our young swallowers of the same are being reduced to a pulp of brain and will laziness that will not only make them incapable of struggling with a page of Quentin Durward, for example, but will affect their moral stamina, since fighting fiber is the price of virtue.

Ours is, as I have said, a public education, a republic's problem. To quote President Wilson again: "Our present plans for teaching everybody involve certain unpleasant things quite inevitably. It is obvious that you cannot have universal education without restricting your teaching to such things as can be universally understood. It is plain that you cannot impart 'university methods' to thousands, or create 'investigators' by the score, unless you confine your university education to matters which dull men can investigate, your laboratory training to tasks which mere plodding diligence and submissive patience can compass. Yet, if you do so limit and constrain what you teach, you thrust taste and insight and delicacy of perception out of the schools, exalt the obvious and merely useful things above the things which are only imaginatively or spiritually conceived, make education an affair of tasting and handling and smelling, and so create Philistia, that country in which they speak of 'mere literature.' "

In our zeal to serve the little alien, descendant of generations of poverty and ignorance, let us not lose sight of the importance to our country of the child more fortunate in birth and brains. So strong is my feeling on the value of leaders that I hold we should give at least as much study to the training of the accelerate child as we give to that of the defective. Though I boast the land of Abraham Lincoln and Booker Washington I do not give up one iota of my belief that the child who is born into a happy environment, of parents strong in body and mind, holds the best possibilities of making a valuable citizen; and so I am concerned that this child be not spoiled in the making by a training or lack of training that fails to recognize his possibilities.

It is encouraging to kind growing attention in the "Proceedings" of the N. E. A. and other educational bodies to the problem of the bright child who has suffered by the lock-step system which has molded all into conformity with the capabilities of the average child.

The librarian's difficulty is perhaps greater than that of the teacher, because open shelves and freedom of choice are so essential a part of our program. We must provide easy reading for thousands of children. Milk and water stories may have an actual value to children whose unfavorable heritage and environment have retarded their mental development. But the deplorable thing is to see young people, mercifully saved from the above handicaps, making a bee line for the current diluted literature for grown-ups, (as accessible as Scott on our open shelves) and to realize that this taste, which is getting a life set, is the inevitable outcome of the habit of reading mediocre juveniles.

We must not rail at publishers for trying to meet the demands of purchasers. Our job is to influence that demand far more than we have done as yet. Large book jobbers tell us that millions and millions of poor juveniles are sold in America to thousands of the sort we librarians recommend. I have seen purchase lists of boys' club directors and Sunday School library committees calling for just the weak and empty stuff we would destroy. I have unwittingly been an eavesdropper at Christmas book counters and have heard the orders given by parents and the suggestions made by clerks. And I feel that the public library has but skirmished along the outposts while the great field of influencing the reading of American children remains unconquered. Until we affect production to the extent that the book stores circulate as good books as the best libraries we cannot be too complacent about our position as a force in citizen making.

An "impossible" ideal, of course, but far from intimidating, the largeness of the task makes us all the more determined.

This paper attempts no suggestion of new methods of attacking the problem. It is rather a restatement of an old perplexity. I harp once more on a worn theme because I think that unless we frequently lift our eyes from the day's absorbing duties for a look over the whole field, and unless we once and again make searching inventory of our convictions, our purposes, our methods, our attainments, we are in danger of letting ourselves slip along the groove of the taken-for-granted and our work loses in power as we allow ourselves to become leaners instead of leaders. May we not, as if it were a new idea, rouse to the seriousness of the mediocre habit indulged in by young people capable of better things? Should not our work with children reach out more to work with adults, to those who buy and sell and make books for the young? Is it not time for the successful teller of stories to children to use her gifts in audiences of grown people, persuading these molders of the children's future of the reasonableness of our objection to the third rate since it is the enemy of the best? May it not be politic, at least, for the librarian to descend from her disdainful height and make friends with "the trade," with bookseller and publisher who, after all, have as good a right to their bread and butter as the librarian paid out of the city's taxes?

And then--is it not possible that we might be better librarians if we refused to be librarians every hour in the day and half the night as well? What if we were to have the courage to refuse to indulge in nervous breakdowns, because we deliberately plan to play, and to eat, and to sleep, to keep serene and sane and human, believing that God in His Heaven gives His children a world of beauty to enjoy as well as a work to do with zeal. If we lived a little longer and not quite so wide, the gain to our chosen work in calm nerves and breadth of interest and sympathy would even up for dropping work on schedule time for a symphony concert or a country walk or a visit with a friend--might even justify saving the cost of several A. L. A. conferences toward a trip to Italy!

This hurling at librarians advice to play more and work less reminds me of a story told by a southern friend. Years ago, in a sleepy little Virginia village, there lived two characters familiar to the townspeople, whose greatest daily excitement was a stroll down to the railroad station to watch the noon express rush through to distant southern cities. One of these personages was the station keeper, of dry humor and sententious habit, whom we will call Hen Waters; the other was the station goat, named, of course, Billy. Year after year had Billy peacefully cropped the grass along the railroad tracks, turning an indifferent ear to the roar of the daily express, when suddenly one day the notion seemed to strike his goatish mind that this racket had been quietly endured long enough. With the warning whistle of the approaching engine, Billy, lowering his head, darted furiously up the track, intending to butt the offending thunderer into Kingdom Come. When, a few seconds later, the amazed spectators were gazing after the diminishing train, Hen Waters, addressing the spot where the redoubtable goat had last been seen, drawled out: "Billy, I admire your pluck--but darn your discretion!"

The parallel between the the ambitions and the futility of the goat, and the present speaker's late advice is so obvious that only the illogicalness of woman can account for my cherishing a hope that I may be spared the fate of the indiscreet Billy.

Library Work with Children

Next Section: