September 12, 1903
Saturday Evening Post
Penny Dredfuls for All
Is the free library, as it is now conducted, an unmixed blessing to any community?
Most of our readers will be ready to send up a howl of derision in answer to such a question. We Americans usually are like Chinamen—any printed book is a kind of holy fetich to us. We hold that our first duty is to teach every American child to read, and the second to open his way to countless books—all kinds of books—to let him take what he will from them, without money and without price. Mr. Carnegie’s recent enormous gifts help to gratify this national hunger for unlimited knowledge, and hence are hailed as an unmitigated good.
Free libraries, as at first instituted in England for the benefit of the laboring classes, were founded on a totally different plan. A hundred or half a hundred volumes were carefully chosen by competent judges, placed in a case and sent to a village. When they had been read in that community they were sent to another and a fresh case was brought. But the gist of the matter lay in the fact that they were selected by responsible purveyors as the brain food suited to the needs of the especial people who read them.
Mr. Churton Collins in a recent magazine article described the free library as it now exists in English towns. The taste of the ignorant, uneducated readers had been consulted in the choice of books and the shelves are filled with “shilling shockers,” comic newspapers and immoral fiction. “Our boasted work among the masses,” he says, has resulted in little more than the exchange of form of dissipation for another, of intellectual dram-drinking for physical.”
Grant that our own free libraries cannot be charged with any such excess of vicious folly, it is a fact that they contain all kinds of knowledge with a large preponderance of the frivolous, trashy books of the day—the department-story literature of this new century, in which needy writers have come down many steps to suit the requirements of the public that has but lately begun to read.
Now, if free libraries are only intended to amuse their beneficiaries without regard to any permanent effect upon them, this is all right.
But we are told they are intended to educate the generations, to influence their lives.
Our grandfathers had few books. They studied them. They influenced their lives. The man who knew Plutarch and Bunyan and the Bible by heart shaped his ideas and his acts on them. But the man who gorges on a dozen paltry books a week comes out of the feast with a blurred brain and dazed conscience.
What kind of education is the young man or woman to gain from undirected, ignorant browsing on all kinds of books?
You do not choose for any practical work in life the man who is stuffed with scraps of knowledge. You don’t employ a Jack-of-all-trades to build your house or make your coat or cure your fever, but a skilled architect or tailor or physician. You don’t feed your child’s body on mixed bits of food and poison. Why turn his mind and soul loose, unguarded, into a field where wholesome herbs grow side by side with deadly nightshade and mandragora?
Before we can hope for an uplifting and strengthening influence from the great masses of books now opened to the public, they must be chosen and controlled by wise and broad-minded men.
Such surveillance has already been demanded in England, where free libraries have been on trial longer than here.
1. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), American industrial magnate and philanthropist, established a system of free libraries in the US and other countries at the turn of the century.
2. J. Churton Collins (1848-1908), British literary critic. The article RHD quotes is “Are Free Libraries an Influence for Evil?” in Nineteenth Century (June 1903).3. Plutarch (45-127), Greek biographer and essayist; John Bunyan (1628-1688), Puritan minister best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
4. Nightshade, a flowering plant that contains poisonous alkaloids; mandragora or mandrakes are plants that contain hallucinogenic alkaloids.