WORK WITH CHILDREN IN THE SMALL LIBRARY
The blessings rather than the limitations of the small library are portrayed and the "possibility of personal, individual, first-hand contact with the children" is emphasized in this paper presented by Miss Clara W. Hunt at the Niagara Conference of the A. L. A. in 1903. A sketch of Miss Hunt appears on page 135.
As the young theological student is prone to look upon his first country parish as a place to test his powers and to serve as a stepping-stone to a large city church, so the librarian of the country town who, visiting a great city library and seeing books received in lavish quantities which she must buy as sparingly as she buys tickets for expensive journeys out of her slender income, a beautifully furnished, conveniently equipped apartment especially for the children, for the student, for the magazine reader, evidences everywhere of money to spend not only for the necessities but also for the luxuries of library life--so it is quite natural for such a visitor to heave a deep sigh as she returns to her library home and contrasts her opportunities, or limitations as she would call them, with those of the worker in a numerically larger field; and quite natural is it for her to long for a change which she feels would mean a broadening and enlarging of outlook and opportunity.
It is encouraging sometimes to look at our possessions through other people's spectacles, and perhaps I may help some worker in a small field to see in what she calls her limitations, not a hedging in but an opening, by drawing the contrast from another point of view--from that of one who is regretfully forced to give up almost all personal, individual work with the children and delegate to others that most delightful of tasks, because her library is so large and she has so much money to spend that her services are more needed in other directions. With a keen appreciation of the privilege it is to have charge of a small library, I am going to enumerate some of my reasons for having this feeling.
I should explain, in this connection, that my thoughts have centered about the small town library, the library whose citizen supporters do not yet aggregate a population large enough to admit to dignifying their place of residence with the name of a city, a place, therefore, where the librarian may really be able to know every citizen of prominence, every school principal and teacher, the officers of the women's clubs, many of the mothers of the children she hopes to reach, and a very large number of the children themselves.
What are the attractions in a spot like this, the compensations which make up even for the lack of a large amount of money to spend? Let me begin first with the less apparent advantages, the "blessings in disguise," I should call them.
The first is the necessity for economy in spending one's appropriation. I imagine your astonishment and disapproval of the judgment of a person who can count the need of economy as any cause for congratulation. But let us look for a moment at some of the things you are saved by being forced to be "saving." The greatest good to your public and to yourself is that you must think of the ESSENTIALS, the "worth while" things first, last and always. You cannot afford to buy carelessly. Every dollar you spend must bring the best return possible and to the greatest number of people. Every foolish purchase means disappointment to your borrowers and wear on your own nerves. So, instead of being able to order in an off-hand way many things which may be desirable but which are really not essential, one gets a most valuable training in judgment by this constant weighing of good, indifferent and indispensable. To apply this to the principle of the selection of children's books--and nothing in work with children, except the personality of the worker with them is so important as this, we cannot buy everything, we must buy the best, and we therefore have an argument that must have a show of reasonableness to those borrowers who advocate large purchases of books you tell them your income will not cover.
What are the essentials in children's books if your selection must be small? Our children can grow up without Henty. They must not grow up without the classics in myth and fable and legend, the books which have delighted grown people and adults for generations, and upon the child's early acquaintance with which depends his keen enjoyment of much of his later reading, because of the wealth of allusion which will be lost to him if he has not read aesop and King Arthur and the Wonder Book, Gulliver, Crusoe, Siegfried and many others of like company, in childhood. Then the librarian cannot afford to leave out collections of poetry. Her children must have poetry in no niggardly quantity, from Mother Goose and the Nonsense Book to our latest, most beautiful acquisitions, "Golden numbers" and the "Posy ring." And American history and biography must be looked after among the first things and constantly replenished. So must fairy tales, the best fairy tales--Andersen, Grimm, the Jungle books, MacDonald, Pyle, "The rose and the ring." Much more discrimination must be exercised in selecting the nature and science books than is usually the case.
But, of course, most of the problems come when we are adding the story books. Here, most of all, the necessity for economy ought to be a help. It is a question of deciding on essentials, and having nerve enough to leave out those books whose only merits are harmlessness, and putting in nothing that is not positively good for something. The threadbare argument that we must buy of the mediocre and worse for the children who like such literature (principally because they know little about any other kind) will look very thin when we squarely face the fact that by such purchases we shut out books we admit to be really better, and when we honestly reflect upon the purpose of the public library. The sanest piece of advice that I ever heard given to those librarians who argue in favor of buying all the bootblack stories the boys want, was that of Miss Haines at a recent institute for town libraries. She asked that those men and women who enjoyed Alger and "Elsie" in childhood and who are arguing in their favor on the strength of the memory of a childish pleasure, take some of their old favorites and re-read them now, read them aloud to their young people at home, and then see if they care to risk the possibility of their own children being influenced by such ideals, forming such literary tastes as these books illustrate. Most of us desire better things for our children than we had ourselves. If a man was allowed to nibble on pickles and doughnuts and mince pie and similar kinds of nourishment before he cut all his teeth, miraculously escaping chronic dyspepsia as he grew older, he does not for that reason care to risk his boy's health and safety by allowing him to repeat the process. A child's taste, left to itself, is no more a safe guide in his choice of reading than is his choice of food. What human boy would refuse ice cream and peanuts and green pears and piously ask for whole-wheat bread and beefsteak instead? Or choose to go to bed at eight o'clock for his health's sake, rather than enjoy the fun with the family till a later hour? It seems such a senseless thing for us to feel it our duty to decide for the children on matters relating to their temporary welfare, but to consider them fit to decide for themselves on what may affect their moral and spiritual nature.
Not only in the selection of books as to their contents, but in the study of the editions the most serviceable for her purposes, will the town librarian gain valuable training from the necessity of being economical. The point is worth enlarging upon, but the time is not here.
It will perhaps be harder to look upon the impossibility of having a separate room for the children as a blessing which enforced economy confers. It will doubtless seem heresy for a children's librarian to suggest the thought. Yet while we recognize the great desirability, the absolute necessity in fact, for the separate room in order to get the best results in a busy city library, we can see the many advantages to the children of their mingling with the grown people in the town library. It is good for them, in the public as in the home library, to browse among books that are above their understanding. It is better for the small boy curiously picking up the Review of Reviews to stretch up to its undiluted world news than to shut into his Little Chronicle or Great Round World. It is good for the American child to learn just a little of the old fashioned "children should be seen and not heard" advice, to learn at least a trifle of consideration for his elders by restraining his voice and his heels and his motions within the library, saving his muscles for the wildest exercise he pleases out of doors. The separate children's room is too apt to become a place for so persistently "tending" the child that he loses the idea of a library atmosphere which is one of the lessons of the place he should NOT miss. I am of the opinion that, while we want to do everything in the world to attract the children to the library and the love of good reading, they should have impressed upon them so constantly the feeling that the children's room is a reading and study room that when a child is wandering around aimlessly, not behaving badly but simply killing time, he should be, not crossly nor resentfully, but pleasantly advised to go out into the park to play, as he doesn't feel like reading and this is a LIBRARY. I know that this has an excellent effect in developing the right idea of the purpose of the place.
Sometimes the town library has a building large enough to admit of a separate room for the children, and books and readers in such numbers as would make the use of this room desirable, but there is not money enough to pay the salary of an attendant to watch the room. Here indeed is a blessing in disguise. This idea that the children must be watched all the time, that they cannot be left alone a minute, is fatal to all teaching of honor and self-restraint and self-help. It will take time and determination and tact, but I know that it is possible to train the children--not the untrained city slum children perhaps, but the average town children--to behave like ladies and gentlemen left almost entirely to themselves through a whole evening.
I must hardly allude to further blessings which to my mind the need of economy insures. It all comes under the head, of course, of forming the habit of asking "What is most worth while?" before rushing headlong into thoughtless imitation of the larger library's methods, regardless of their wisdom for the small one. The town librarian will thus be apt to use some far simpler but equally effective style of bulletin than the one that means hours of time spent in cutting around the petals of an intricate flower picture, or printing painstakingly on a difficult cardboard surface what her local newspaper would be glad to print for her, thus making a slip to thumb tack on her board without a minute's waste of time.
The question of having insufficient help gives an excuse for getting a personal hold on some of the bright older boys and girls who can be made to think it a privilege to have a club night at the library once in a while, when they will cut the leaves of new books and magazines, paste and label and be useful in many ways. Of course they have to be managed, but you can get a lot of fine work out of assistants of this sort, and do them a great amount of good at the same time.
Another of the blessings for which the town librarian may be thankful is that her rules need not be cast iron, but may be made elastic to fit certain cases. Because the place is so small that she can get to know pretty well the character of its inhabitants, she need not be obliged to face the crestfallen countenance of a sorely disappointed little girl who, on applying for a library card, is told that she must bring her father or mother to sign an application, and who knows that that will be a task impossible of performance. The town librarian may dare to take the very slight risk of loss, and issue the card at once, enjoying the pleasure of making one small person radiantly happy.
Then there is the satisfaction of doing a little of everything about your library with your own hands and knowing instantly just where things are when you are asked. To illustrate from a recent experience of my own. At one of the small branches or stations rather, of the Brooklyn Public Library, a certain small boy used to appear at least two or three times a week and ask the librarian, "Have you got the 'Moral pirates' yet?" And over and over again the librarian was forced wearily to answer, "No, not yet, Sam." Now, although the library's purchases of children's books are very generous, running from 1,500 to 2,000 volumes a month for the 20 branches, of course with such large purchases it is necessary to systematize the buying by getting largely the same 50 titles for all branches, varying the number of copies per branch according to each one's need. The branch librarian of whom I am speaking did not feel like asking often for specials, realizing that she was only one of many having special wants, and knowing that we would in time reach the "Moral pirates" in the course of our large, regular monthly purchases. But one afternoon I went up to this station and helping at the charging desk, this small boy appeared asking me for the "Moral pirates." The librarian told me of the hopeful persistence of his request, and it did not take long after that to get the "Moral pirates" into the small boy's hands. I only hope the realization of a long anticipated wish did not prove to him like that of many another, and that his disappointment was not too unbearable in finding a pirate story minus cutlasses and black flags and decks slippery with gore.
The point of this tale is, that in a great system it is impossible often to get as close to an individual as in this case, while the town librarian, who does everything from unpacking her books to handing them out to her borrowers, can many a time have the personal pleasure of seeing a book into the right hands.
I have only indirectly alluded to the greatest joy of all, the possibility of personal, individual, first-hand contact with the children whom you can get to know so well and to influence so strongly, and another joy that grows out of it--seeing results yourself.
We are so ready to be deceived and discouraged by numbers! The town librarian reads of a tremendous circulation of children's books in a city library, and straightway gets the blues over her own small showing. But I beg such an one to think rather of what the QUALITY of her children's use of the library may be as compared with that of the busy city library. A great department must be so arranged for dispatching a large amount of work in a few minutes of time, that in spite of every effort, something of the mechanical must creep into its administration.
The town librarian may know by name each child who borrows her books. Not only that, but she may know much of his ancestry and environment and so be able to judge the needs of each one. She will not be so rushed with charging books by the hundred that she cannot USE that knowledge to help him in the wisest, most tactful manner. But the joy of watching her children develop, of seeing a boy or girl whom she helped bring up, grow into a manhood and womanhood of noble promise, of feeling that she had a large influence in forming the taste of this girl, in sending to college that lad who wouldn't have dreamed of such a thing had he not been stirred to the ambition through the reading taste she awakened in him--these are pleasures the city children's librarian is for the most part denied.
The latter can see that her selection of books is of the best, she can make her room as attractive as money will admit, she can choose her staff with great care. She knows that good must result in the lives of many and many a child from contact even in brief moments with people of strong magnetic personality, and from constantly taking into their minds the sort of reading she provides. But very rarely will she be permitted to see the results in individual cases that make work seem greatly worth while, and that compensate in a few brief minutes, for weeks and months and years of quiet, uninspiring, plodding effort.
And so I congratulate the worker with children in the small library. It would be a delight to me if I could feel that my appreciation of the blessings that are yours might help you to look upon your opportunity as a very great and worthy one. The parents of the small town need your help, the teachers cannot carry on their work well without you, the boys and girls would miss untold good if you were not their friend and counselor, the library profession needs the benefit of the practical judgment your all-round training gives. And so you may believe of your position that though in figures your annual report does not read large, in quality of work, in power of influence it reads in characters big with significance, radiant with encouragement.