« PreviousContinue »
THE TRUSTEESHIP OF LITERATURE
DELIVERED BEFORE THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION,
IX months ago the curtain descended upon what is likely to be accounted the most memorable century in the annals of mankind. So salient are three of its characteristics that they challenge the eye of the most casual retrospection.
First of all, we see that knowledge was increased at a pace beyond precedent, to be diffused throughout the world with a new thoroughness and fidelity. Next we must observe how republican government passed from the slender ties spun in the times of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, to the intimate and pervasive cords of to-day, when, as never before, the good of the bee is bound up with the welfare of the hive. Parallel with this political union of each and all there was a growth of free organization which, in every phase of life, has secured uncounted benefits which only joined hands may receive. Fresh torches of light fraternally borne from the centers of civilization to its circumference have tended to bring the arts and ideals of life everywhere to the level of the best. These distinctive features of the nineteenth century were in little evidence at its dawn, but they became more and more manifest with each succeeding decade. In American librarianship, as in many another sphere of labor, more was accomplished in the last quarter of the century than in the seventy-five preceding years.
It is as recently as 1852 that Boston opened the doors of the first free public library established in an American city.
Its founders were convinced that what was good for the stu dents at Harvard, the subscribers to the Athenæum, was good for everybody else. Literature, they felt, was a trust to be administered not for a few, but for the many, to be, indeed, hospitably proffered to all. To this hour, by a wise and generous responsiveness to its ever growing duties, the Boston foundation remains a model of what a metropolitan library should be.
As with the capital, so with the State; to-day Massachusetts is better provided with free public libraries than any other commonwealth on the globe; only one in two hundred of her people are unserved by them, while within her borders the civic piety of her sons and daughters has reared more than six score library buildings. The Library Commission of the State is another model in its kind; its powers are in the main advisory, but when a struggling community desires to establish a library, and contributes to that end, the Commission tenders judicious aid. The population of Massachusetts is chiefly urban, an exceptional case, for, taking the Union as a whole, notwithstanding the constant drift to the cities, much more than half the people are still to be found in the country. For their behoof village libraries have appeared in the thousands.
Still more effective, because linked with one another, are the travelling libraries, inaugurated by Mr. Melvil Dewey in New York in 1893, and since adopted in many other States of the Union, and several Provinces of Canada. All this registers how the democracy of letters has come to its own. Schools public and free ensure to the American child its birthright of instruction; libraries, also public and free, are rising to supplement that instruction, to yield the light and lift, the entertainment and stimulus that literature stands ready
to bestow. The old-time librarian, who was content to be a mere custodian of books, has passed from the stage forever; in his stead we find an officer anxious that his store shall do all the people the utmost possible good.
To that end he combines the zeal of the missionary with the address of a consummate man of business. Little children are invited to cheery rooms with kind and intelligent hospitality; teachers and pupils from the public schools are welcomed to class-rooms where everything is gathered that the library can offer for their use; helpful bulletins and consecutive reading-lists are issued for the home circle; every book, magazine, and newspaper is bought, as far as feasible, with an eye to the special wants and interests of the community; information desks are set up; and partnerships are formed with expositors of acknowledged merit, with museums of industry, of natural history, of the fine arts. Not the borrowers only, but the buyers of books are remembered. The Standard Library, brought together by Mr. W. E. Foster in Providence, is a shining example in this regard.
The sense of trusteeship thus variously displayed has had a good many sources; let us confine our attention to one of them. During the past hundred years the treasure committed to the keeping of librarians has undergone enrichment without parallel in any preceding age. We have more and better books than ever before; they mean more than in any former time for right living and sound thinking. A rough and ready classification of literature, true enough in substance, divides it into books of power, of information, and of entertainment. Let us look at these three departments a little in detail. Restricting our purview to the English tongue, we find the honor roll of its literature lengthened by the names of Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold, Carlyle and Ruskin,
Emerson and Lowell. And not only to authors such as these must our debt be acknowledged.
We owe scholarly editors nearly as much. In Spedding's Bacon, the Shakespearian studies of Mr. Furniss, and the Chaucer of Professor Skeat, we have typical examples of services not enjoyed by any former age. To-day the supreme poets, seers, and sages of all time are set before us in the clearest sunshine; their gold, refined from all admixture, is minted for a currency impossible before. In their original, unedited forms, the masterpieces of our language are now cheap enough to find their way to the lowliest cottage of the cross-roads.
It is not, however, in the field of literature pure and simple that the manna fell most abundantly during the past hundred years. Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the last of the great students who took all natural history for their province, declares that the advances in discovery, invention and generalization during the nineteenth century outweigh those of all preceding time. Admit this judgment, and at once is explained why the records and the spirit of science dominate the literature of the last ten decades.
And let us note that while books of knowledge have increased beyond measure, they have appeared with a helpfulness and with merits wholly new. For the first time in the history of letters, men and women of successful experience, of practised and skilful pens, write books which, placed in the hands of the people, enlighten their toil, diminish their drudgery, and sweeten their lives. Cross the threshold of the home and there is not a task, from choosing a carpet to rearing a baby, that has not been illuminated by at least one good woman of authority in her theme.
On the heights of the literature of science we have
quality and distinction unknown before these later days. The modern war on evil and pain displays weapons of an edge and force of which our forefathers never dared to dream; its armies march forward not in ignorant hope, but with the assured expectation of victory. All this inspires leaders like Huxley, Spencer, and Fiske with an eloquence, a power to convince and persuade, new in the annuals of human expression and as characteristic of the nineteenth century as the English poetry of the sixteenth, in the glorious era of Elizabeth. The literature of knowledge is not only fuller and better than of old, it is more wisely employed. In the classroom, and when school days are done, we now understand how the printed page may best direct and piece out the work of the hand, the eye, and the ear; not for a moment deluding ourselves with the notion that we have grasped truth merely because we can spell the word.
To-day we first consider the lilies of the field, not the lilies of the printer; that done it is time enough to take up a formal treatise which will clarify and frame our knowledge. If a boy is by nature a mechanic, a book of the right sort shows him how to construct a simple steam engine or an electric motor. Is he an amateur photographer, other books, excellently illustrated, give him capital hints for work with his camera. It is in thus rounding out the circle which springs from the school desk that the public library justifies its equal claim to support from the public treasury.
In the third and last domain of letters, that of fiction, there is a veritable embarrassment of riches. During the three generations past the art of story-telling culminated in works of all but Shakespearian depth and charm. We have only to recall Scott and Thackeray, Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, to be reminded that an age of science