« AnteriorContinuar »
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
ASTOR LENOX AND TILDEN FOUNDATIONS
Published monthly by The New York Public Library at 476 Fifth Avenue, New York City. President, George L. Rives, 476 Fifth Avenue; Secretary, Charles Howland Russell, 476 Fifth Avenue; Treasurer, Edward W. Sheldon, 45 Wall Street; Director, Edwin H. Anderson, 476 Fifth Avenue.
Subscription One Dollar a year, current single numbers Ten Cents.
Entered at the Post Office at New York, N. Y., as second-class matter, January 30, 1897, under Act of July 16, 1894. Printed at The New York Public Library, 476 Fifth Avenue. Edmund L. Pearson, Editor.
THE BACKS OF BOOKS
BY WILLIAM WARNER BISHOP
Superintendent of the Reading Room, Library of Congress
Address delivered at the Commencement Exercises
EW men who are called upon to address graduating classes in colleges and schools can refrain from the temptation to usurp the functions of the preacher. Here is an opportunity too tempting to be missed. The familiar surroundings so soon to be abandoned, the eager students facing their life-work, the parting of teachers and pupils, combine to set the commencement speaker in the way of moralizing on the situation, so well-worn by manifold predecessors, so painfully familiar to every audience of this sort. Try as I may to avoid preaching to you, I too shall probably be found pointing morals, if not adorning tales, for the occasion inevitably lends itself to the giving of gratuitous advice.
There are, however, some differences between the graduation of a class of prospective librarians and the ordinary school or college commencement. There is the obvious fact, which this class shares with all similar classes in professional schools,
that you have been prepared for a specific line of work and are about to enter on the actual practice of your profession. The impending change from theory to practice faces likewise the graduates of schools of law, medicine. theology, and engineering. But your situation differs in at least one respect from theirs. For years they (and you) have been hearing lectures, working in laboratories, studying text-books. From books they have chiefly gathered the theory and training they are about to exercise on a more or less unwilling world. But you are to abandon the formal study of individual books as vehicles of knowledge for the practical handling of books in masses for the benefit of other people. In other words, you are to take what you have learned in a few books and apply it to the marshalling and serving of many books in libraries in aid of readers. What you have gained in theory is to be applied in practice to the very material from which the theory has been
evolved, only the application is no longer for your own benefit, but for another's.
Your work therefore will necessarily involve a collection of books as a fundamental basis. Without books there are no libraries or librarians. It is occasionally necessary for some of us to speak up and say this plainly, for the library press and the discussion at conventions teem with so much talk about methods, about ways and means, about library extension, about librarians, that one sometimes wonders what it is all about, and where the books come in. So you will, perhaps, pardon an older librarian for speaking, not about his favorite methods in library work, not about the nobility of our calling, nor even the mission of the librarian, but just a bit about our books and the extent to which we know them. "Die Hauptsache," said a German scholar to me years ago in discussing libraries, "Die Hauptsache ist die Bücher zu besitzen." Absolutely fundamental, but too often neglected, is this cardinal principle of library economy. Without books, many, many books, there is no need for this school, or for this graduating class. The chief defect of our American libraries is, perhaps, the exaltation of method over content. To say this in the very home and citadel of training in method -a library school-may seem strange, even presumptuous; but to say it in the building which houses the noble collections of The New York Public Library is both safe, and, I trust, acceptable.
I wish, then, to speak very briefly on the librarian's knowledge of the books entrusted to his care (particularly in libraries of some size), on his familiarity with his collections. How far may he actually recall even the titles of books, much less know their contents? Is it possible for a truly competent person to remember the names of practically all the authors and titles in a good-sized library? Of course definite answers to these questions are obviously difficult. But I call to mind many a librarian who certainly holds in his head many thousand separate titles, who can with an extraordinary quickness name different editions and publishers of books he has consulted but a few times. I once asked my honored friend Mr. Anderson H. Hopkins, then assistant librarian of the John Crerar Library, how far he was personally familiar with the books in that institution I knew they had all passed through his hands (for the library was then new), and that he had a very
retentive memory, but I was hardly prepared to hear him say that up to the first sixty thousand volumes purchased he could recall practically every title, but that above that number he began to lose track of the accessions. I am convinced that this was no over-statement, for in my own experience I have met not a few librarians whose knowledge of titles equalled his. Such men as Dr. Spofford and Mr. David Hutcheson of the Library of Congress doubtless knew intimately several times that number. And it is the familiar experience of reference librarians that at least appropriate titles, if not always the one best book, seem often to leap into memory to answer a reader's demand. The older choice libraries of about one hundred thousand volumes were probably pretty well held in mind by their directors, particularly when these were men of unusual ability.
It is a curious sort of knowledge, this acquaintance with a library. It is the backs of books that we know; those solemn rows that are seldom disturbed, those less stately ones whose battered appearance and unsteady carriage testify to their popularity. The familiar anecdote of the Kansas legislator who objected to an appropriation for more books for the university library touches peculiarly the librarian. "Mr. Speaker," said he, "I object to spending this money. Why, they've got forty thousand books there at Lawrence now, and I don't believe any one of them professors has read 'em all yet!" Neither have we read ours, and yet we know them, and sometimes know them well.
At least we know them well enough to help other folk to get what they want out of them. In every library in the world persons are constantly seeking material on topics which the librarian has never studied, and which he never will study. Unmoved and undismayed by his ignorance of, let us say, ballistics, or ceramics, or Egyptian tombs, he is somehow able to introduce the reader to the books on these or countless other subjects. And somehow, particularly if the librarian does not pretend to undue knowledge, the reader is often helped materially. even feels grateful, and occasionally says so in print. (I pass over the times when he doesn't). One knows the backs of his books so well, and somehow has imbibed such a sense of their relative values, that the competent reference librarian becomes one of the most useful folk imaginable.
It should not be forgotten, however, that this knowledge is one of method fully as much as of the books or their appearance. The reader is generally unfamiliar with the order in which the books have been arranged and the means employed to list them. It is the librarian's intimate acquaintance with classification and cataloguing which give him such an advantage over the reader in arriving quickly at desired books or information. You know the order in which your books fall. You know the ins and outs of your own catalogue. You have at hand all manner of indexes and of catalogues of other libraries. So you give a man at once something to keep him occupied, while you hastily look up the things he really wants. And before he has time to thank you, you begin on the same process for half a dozen others. So it goes, day in and day out. Of course the backs of the books become familiar - you live with them. Of course it is easy to run down "aggravating ladies," and others who have frequently changed their names in print. You do it all the time. Of course you know that the British Museum Catalogue enters biographies under the name of the subject. That fact has helped you out of many a tight place. It is this intimate acquaintance with the tools of the trade which makes for speed and accuracy. And precisely those librarians whose memory for the actual volumes on their shelves is most retentive are likely to know best both their tools and the proper method of using them. If we can perform what seem to the uninitiated sleight of hand tricks with cards and books, it is because we know well catalogues, classification, indexes. In fact, a knowledge of the classification in force in the library in which you are working almost takes the place (for practical purposes) of knowledge of the contents of the books themselves.
Let me illustrate this: A friend brought me what appeared to be a genuine manuscript letter of the German poet Schiller. It was addressed to his sister, and all in his handwriting. And yet it looked a trifle suspicious. Despite the appearance of age it had a little the air of a facsimile. But my friend thought it might be an original letter—it had been given to him as a valued possession. Now I am no Schiller scholar. I painfully waded through Wilhelm Tell in college, and once, even more painfully, conducted a class through Die Jungfrau von Orleans. I had never heard of Fritz-Jonas's celebrated edition
of Schiller's correspondence. But I did know where the Schiller books were, and that there was among them a set of volumes of letters. In three minutes I went to the place, found the authoritativelooking set, picked out the year and day of the letter, and discovered a footnote to the effect that some one had caused an admirable facsimile of this letter to be lithographed and that efforts were constantly being made to sell it as an original.
Now, this incident will bear analysis. It is typical of much that goes on in our service. The query was not simple. But the means of answering it to the entire satisfaction of the inquirer were really primitive. They consisted merely in a knowledge that there was once a German poet named Schiller, that he had a place in our classification, that his books were shelved in a certain part of our stacks, and that, as a rule, editors arranged correspondence in chronological order. I knew no more about German poetry, or Schiller, or Schiller's letters, when the transaction was over than when it began. But my friend who is a man of much learning and I may be pardoned for saying it one of our foremost scientists, seems firmly convinced that I can find him anything in German literature which he wishes to know. You see on how slight a foundation of real knowledge one can and does perform his daily duties. The backs of books! How they help us! How well do little matters of shape, size, color, location, impress themselves indelibly upon us and aid us to earn our living!
But precisely this facility in helping people to find things has too often a most unwholesome influence on the librarian's attitude toward the world of knowledge. It can not but tend to render him neglectful of that real and sound study which alone gives fibre and substance to his mind. The numbing force of inertia must be reckoned with. We are all busy
too busy. We move along the lines of least resistance. We content ourselves with knowing the backs of our books, with a familiarity with labels and groupings in lieu of ideas. Too soon you are likely to discover that executive work absorbs the greater part of your powers. Too soon the habit of doing pretty well in your work without much reading and study becomes fixed. If you can recall titles easily, can locate desired information quickly, can send a reader to this or that place where his books are to be found, and meantime keep an eye on the
needs of half a score of others, you begin unconsciously to think well of yourself and to ignore the fact that man does not live by bread alone.
The wisest man I have ever been priviledged to know once said to me: “You can be very useful. You can help a great many people. You can perhaps do a great work. But, if you stay in library work, your mind will be an intellectual rag-bag after ten years."
What is the remedy? Are we to be content with this "bowing acquaintance," as Emerson called it, with the books on our shelves? Are we to be satisfied with bright and parti-colored scraps of information, mental confetti? Are we as librarians, whatever our own special branch of library work, to incur the just reproach of real ignorance of our wares? Is there any way we may escape the consequences of our calling, our undue outward familiarity with masses of books?
It is, of course, impossible, even if it were wise, in this day of large libraries to recommend an effort to know the insides of all the books, or even of the better books, in our collections. They are too many even for the most indefatigable reader, to say nothing of the busy librarian. It is equally unwise to urge you to neglect the knowledge of titles and of classification, of the backs of your books. Cultivate that by all means. It means bread and butter, whatever your particular function in a library. But by all means keep yourselves "sweet," as our fathers used to say, by some intensive work which involves study. I have the greatest respect for the man with a hobby even if he proves a nuisance at times. Without a hobby life is not worth living. You should have one- a real hobby which becomes vastly more important to you than any mere business can be. I would not prescribe the kind of hobby a librarian should ride. My advice, or any one's else for that matter, would be unavailing. A hobby cometh not with understanding, any more than falling in love. But it is sometimes as happy a possession as a true help-meet, and occasionally as disastrous as an unfortunate marriage. A hobby which will refresh in your hours of weariness, attract when you are lazy, and inspire when you are worn, is precious beyond words.
But a hobby, whether golf, or gardening, or bird-study, or collecting china,_or any other like expensive and joyous pastime, is not enough to pull a busy libra
rian from the slough of inertia as regards books. Indeed, it may tend to keep him there, the more if he wisely takes to some sane supreme interest- out of doors. A line of study which is peculiarly your own will do more for you than you can possibly know at this stage of your careers. A small specialty which you have cultivated to the point where you know with almost complete fullness the literature of the topic is worth vastly more to you than the mere knowledge you acquire in it. The very fact of intensive study of a small topic keeps you in touch with methods and men, and is an admirable corrective to the scattering tendencies of our calling. I know a librarian who started in years ago reading everything he could on our Civil War. He kept it up amid purely executive duties until even specialists in military history now come to him for aid, and the government itself seeks his advice in matters of historical accuracy. He is concerned with the purely business side of a great library, but his extensive knowledge produced by steady reading has kept him in touch with the world of letters in a very vital way. The best man I know in matters economic and statistical knows also (purely as a side issue) more about English poetry, particularly the minor poets, than any professor of English I ever knew. And he is an active librarian, a graduate of a library school, and an "alumnus" of The New York Public Library.
No librarian need despair, if only he sets inflexibly this goal before him, of attaining to productive scholarship. We recall Justin Winsor, who administered in able fashion two great libraries, and yet edited the Narrative and Critical History, to say nothing of other books; Dr. J. K. Hosmer whose array of volumes in English and American History is more than the product of mere industry, and whose Color Guard and Thinking Bayonet pulsate with the great struggle of the sixties; Reuben Gold Thwaites whose monument will be the Jesuit Relations rather than the Wisconsin Historical Society's library; Dr. Poole who will live in his Index long after his other library labors at Yale, Cincinnati and Chicago are forgotten; and last, and greatest of all, Dr. John Shaw Billings, soldier, physician, author, director of great enterprises, yet a librarian who built up by incessant labor the greatest specialized library in the world, and then at an age when most men seek retirement, with unmatched patience, wisdom and zeal