National Library Week Reprint: Some Economic Features of Libraries

by Arthur Bostwick

Of the three great divisions of economics production, distribution and consumption the library has to do chiefly with the second, and it is as a distributor of literature that I desire to speak of it, although it has its share both in the production and consumption of books more briefly, in the writing and reading of them. Much writing of books is done wholly in libraries and by their aid, and much reading is done therein. These functions I pass by with this brief notice.

A library distributes books. So does a bookseller. The functions of these two distributors, however, should differ somewhat as do those of the two producers of books the author and the publisher. The author creates the soul of the book and the publisher gives it a body. The former produces the immaterial, possibly the eternal, part and the latter merely the material part. Likewise, in our distribution we librarians should lay stress upon what is in the book, upon the production of the author rather than on that of the publisher, though we may not neglect the latter. We are, however, eminently distributors of ideas rather than of mere merchandise, and in so far as we lay stress on the material side of the book important as this is and neglect what is in it, we are but traders in books and not librarians.

Among many of the great distributors of ideas the magazine, the newspaper, the school it is becoming increasingly difficult to find any that do not feel what I may call an anti-civic tendency. They have come to be supported largely by other agencies than the public, and they are naturally controlled by those agencies. As for the public, it has become accustomed to paying less than cost for what it gets along these lines, and is thus becoming intellectually pauperized. It is no more possible to distribute ideas at a profit, as a commercial venture, nowadays, than it would have been to run a circus, with an admission fee, in Imperial Rome. Thus a literary magazine is possible only because it is owned by some publisher who uses it as an advertising medium. He can afford to sell it to the public for less than cost; the public would leave a publication sold at a fair profit severely alone, hence such a venture is impossible.

A scientific magazine in like manner must have some one to back it a firm of patent-office brokers or a scientific society. The daily papers depend almost wholly on their advertisements; the public would not buy a simple compilation of the days news at a fair profit. Even our great institutions of higher education give their students more than the latter pay for; the student is getting part of his tuition for nothing. A college that depends wholly on tuition fees for its support is soon left without students. Thus all these disseminators of ideas are not dependent on the persons to whom they distribute those ideas, for whose interest it is that the ideas shall be good and true and selected with discrimination. They depend rather for support on outside bodies of various kinds and so tend to be controlled by them bodies whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the public. This is not true of material things. Their distributors still strive to please the public, for it is by the public that they are supported. If the public wants raspberry jam, raspberry jam it gets; and if, being aroused, it demands that this shall be made out of raspberries instead of apples, dock-seeds and aniline, it ultimately has its way. But if the department store were controlled by some outside agency, benevolent or otherwise, which partly supported it and enabled it to sell its wares below cost, then if this controlling agency willed that we should eat dock-seeds and aniline, dock-seeds and aniline we should doubtless eat.

Not that the controlling powers in all these in stances are necessarily malevolent. The publisher who owns a literary magazine may honestly desire that it shall be fearlessly impartial. The learned body that runs a scientific periodical may be willing to admit to its pages a defense of a thesis that it has condemned in one of its meetings; the page-advertiser in a great daily may be able to see his pet policy attacked in its editorial columns without yielding to the temptation to bring pressure to bear; the creator of an endowed university may view with equanimity an attack by one of its professors on the methods by which he amassed his wealth. All these things may be; we know in fact that they have been and that they are. But unfortunately we all know of cases where the effect of outside control has been quite the contrary. The government of a benevolent despot, we are told, would be ideal; but alas! rules for making a despot benevolent and for ensuring that he and his successors shall remain so, are not yet formulated. We have fallen back on the plan of fighting off the despot good though he may possibly be; would that we could also abolish the non-civic control of the disseminators of ideas!

Are there, then, no disseminators of ideas free from interference? Yes, thank heaven, there are at least two the public school and the public library. Of these, the value of academic freedom to the public school is slight, because the training of the very young is of its nature subject little to the influences of which we have spoken. There is little opportunity, during a grammar school or high school course, to influence the mind in favor of particular government policies and particular theories in science or literature or art. This opportunity comes later. And it is later that the public library does its best work. Supported by the public it has no impulse and no desire to please anyone else. No suspicion of outside control hangs over it. It receives gifts; but they are gifts to the public, held by the public, not by outsiders. It is tax-supported, and the public pays cost price for what it gets no more and no less. The community has the power of abolishing the whole system in the twinkling of an eye. The library’s power in an American municipality lies in the affections of those who use and profit by it. It holds its position by love. No publisher may say to it : “Buy my books, not those of my rival” ; no scientist may forbid it to give his opponent a hearing; no religious body may dictate to it; no commercial influence may throw a blight over it. It is untrammeled.

How long is it to remain thus? That is for its owners, the public, to say. I confess that I feel uneasy when I realize how little the influence of the public library is understood by those who might try to wield that influence, either for good or for evil. Occasionally an individual tries to use it sporadically the poet who tries to secure undying fame by distributing free copies of his verses to the libraries, the manufacturer who gives us an advertisement of his product in the guise of a book, the enthusiast who runs over our shelf list to see whether the library is well stocked with works on his fad socialism or Swedenborgianism, or the “new thought.” But, so far, there has been no concerted, systematic effort on the part of classes or bodies of men to capture the public library, to dictate its policy, to utilize its great opportunities for influencing the public mind.

When this ever comes, as it may, we must look out! So far as my observation goes, the situation even the faintest glimmering of it is far from dawning on most of these bodies. Most individuals, when the policy of the library suits them not, exhaust their efforts in an angry kick or an epistolary curse ; they never even think of trying to change that policy, even by argument. Most of them would rather write a letter to a newspaper, complaining of a books absence, than to ask the librarian to buy it. Organizations civil, religious, scientific, political, artistic have usually let us severely alone, where their influence, if they should come into touch with the library, would surely be for good would be exerted along the line of morality, of more careful book selection, of judicial mindedness instead of one-sidedness.

Let us trust that influences along this line if we are to have influences at all may gain a foot hold before the opposite forces those of sordid commercialism, of absurdities, of falsities, of all kinds of self-seeking find out that we are worth their exploitation.

When it comes, as I expect it will some day, this general realization of what only a few now understand that the public library is worth trying to influence and to exploit, our trouble will be that we shall be without any machinery at all to receive it, to take care of it, to direct the good into proper channels and to withstand the evil. We are occasionally annoyed and disconcerted now by the infinitesimal amount of it that we see; we wish people would mind their own business; we detest meddlers; we should be able to do more work if it were not for the bores and so on. But what what in heaven’s name shall we do with the deluge when it comes? With what dam shall we withstand it; through what sluices shall we lead it; into what useful turbines shall we direct it? These things are worth pondering.

For the present then, this independence of the library as a distributor may be regarded as one of its chief economic advantages. Another is its power as a leveler, and hence as an adjunct of democracy. Democracy is a result, not a cause, of equality. It is natural in a community whose members resemble each other in ability, modes of thought and mental development, just as it is unthinkable where great natural differences racial or otherwise, exist. If we wish to preserve democracy, therefore, we must first maintain our community on something like a level. Arid we must level it up, not down; for although a form of democracy may exist temporarily among individuals equally ignorant or degraded, the advent of a single person more advanced in the scale of ability, quickly transforms it into absolutism. Similar in equalities may result in an aristocratic regime. The reason why England, with its ancient aristocracy, on the whole, is so democratic, is that its commoners are constantly recruited by the younger sons of its nobility, so that the whole body politic is continually stirred and kept more homogeneous than on the continent, where all of a nobles sons and daughter’s are themselves noble.

This stirring or levelling process may be effected in many ways and along many lines, but in no way better than by popular education, as we have well understood in this country. This is why our educational system is a bulwark of our form of government, and this is why the public library the only continuous feature of that system, exercising its influence from earliest childhood to most advanced age is worth to the community whatever it may cost in its most improved form. There are enough influences at work to segregate classes in our country, and they come to us ready-made from other countries; we may be thankful that the public library is helping to make Americans of our immigrants and to make uniformly cultivated and well-informed Americans of us all.


We frequently hear it said of some book whose tendency is bad: “Well, it can’t hurt me, anyway; I’m immune.” Are you quite sure? Have you gone quite to the bottom of those ancestral memories of yours, and are you certain that there are none that such a book may rouse, to your harm? On the other hand, does this not explain much that has always interested the librarian; for in stance, the vast popularity of fairy tales, especially those that date back to our racial infancy? I need dwell no further on the economic importance of the book as viewed from this standpoint.

But it has also a function almost diametrically opposed to that which we have just considered; be sides harking back to what is oldest it looks forward to what is newest. It may stir us by awakening dim racial recollections; but it may also thrill us by adding to the store of what is already in the mind. In fact, we like to assimilate new ideas, to think new thoughts, to do new acts; we like to read or hear something that we could not have produced our selves. When we are young and ignorant, therefore, we like music or art or literature that appears trivial to us as we grow older and have developed our own creative powers. A poem that is no better than one a man might dash off himself he likes no longer; he prefers to be confronted with something that is above and beyond his own powers, though not above his comprehension. Thus, as he grows, his zone of enjoyment shifts upward, and the library covers the whole moving field. When Solomon John Peterkin, pen in hand, sat down to write a book, he discovered that he hadn’t anything to say. Happy lad! He had before him all literature as a field of enjoyment, for all, apparently, was beyond his creative efforts.

Do those of you who are musicians remember when you first apprehended the relations between the ionic and the dominant chords? I have heard a small boy at a piano play these alternately for hours. Such a performance is torture to you and me; it is the sweetest harmony to him, because it is new and has just come into his sphere of creative power. When he is thoroughly satisfied that he can produce the effect at will, he abandons it for something newer and a little higher. The boy who discovers, with out being told, that the dominant chord, followed by the tonic, produces a certain musical effect, is doing something that for him is on a par with Wagner’s searching the piano for those marvellous effects of his that are often beyond technical explanation.

The child who reads what you think is a trivial book, re-reads it, and reads others like it, is doing this same thing in the domain of literature he is following the natural course that will bring him out at the top after a while.

When we distribute books, then, we distribute ideas, not only actual, but potential. A book has in it not only the ideas that lie on its surface, but mil lions of others that are tied to these by invisible chords, of which we have touched on but a few the invisible ancestral memories of centuries ago, the foretastes of future thoughts in our older selves and our posterity of centuries hence. When we think of it, it is hard to realize that a book has not a soul. Gerald Stanley Lee, in his latest book, a collection of essays on millionaires, sneers at the efforts of the rich mill owners to improve their employees by means of libraries. Life in a modern mill, he thinks, is so mechanical as to dull all the higher faculties. “Andrew Carnegie,” he says (and he apparently uses the name merely as that of a type), “has been taking men’s souls away and giving them pa per books.” Now the mills may be soul-deadening possibly they are, though it is hard to benumb a soul but I will venture to say that for every soul that Mr. Carnegie, or anyone else, has taken away, he has created, awakened and stimulated a thousand by contact with that almost soul that near-soul that resides in books. Mr. Lee’s books may be merely paper; mine have paper and ink only for their outer garb; their inner warp and woof is of the texture of spirit.

This is why I rejoice when a new library is opened. I thank God for its generous donor. I clasp hands with the far-reaching municipality that accepts and supports it. I wish good luck to the librarians who are to care for it and give it dynamic force; I congratulate the public whose privilege it is to use it and to profit by it.

Read at the opening 1 of the Chestnut Hill Branch, Philadelphia Free Library, January 22, 1909.

From the book A Librarian’s Open Shelf: Essays on Various Subjects (1920) reprinted in Library Journal, February 1909