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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 49

I. The Public Library

I. The Public Library.

There is the Public Library reading-room. On Sundays there it wasn't till three or four years ago, thanks to some of the clerk's good friends! In Boston it took ten separate struggles, during a seventeen years' campaign, beginning with a hardly listened to proposal in 1856, and embracing long discussions in the city council and the papers, repeat page 85 ed hearings of petitioners and remonstrants, two mayors' vetoes and two appeals to the Legislature,—to open the doors to him. Feb. 9, 1873, saw him at last allowed to enter. He has scanty time for papers or magazines through the week, and there he finds a feast of them. If you go there, you will see him any Sunday afternoon or evening. According to the last report of the Boston Library, at its central reading-room, it takes on the average, that day, four hundred and seventy-six periodicals to feed him and his fellows,—the winter average, apart from the summer, much exceeding this,—and on full Sundays the congregation overflows into the next room. "A very considerable proportion are persons who do not, or cannot, visit the Library on weekdays,—reporters, mechanics, and those who work early and late." At the Christian Union reading-room, in Boston, they read books as well as papers. When that institution was reorganized, in 1868, without a word said to any one, it simply left the book-shelves free on Sun-day, and no one said a word against the liberty. "Probably three times as many readers there as on the weekdays; before the morning church, and through the afternoon and evening. I would rather close it any other day than Sunday," says the President. The Milwaukee Library ventured to do the same in 1869 or 1870. In Philadelphia the Mercantile Library also followed suit in 1870. Before the second year was out, the attendance averaged seven hundred, "nearly all young men," and it reports gradually increasing numbers ever since. The Cincinnati Public Library, opening its doors on a March Sunday of 1871, has, the past year, averaged over eleven hundred in its Sunday reading-rooms. "How many were genuine, how many are loafers in search of a warm place on Sunday, I know not," writes the friend I quote. But where might the loafers have been otherwise? In New page 86 York the Mercantile Library began with a Sunday of May, 1872. The St. Louis Public School Library was only a month later. "It is always as full as its generous accommodations permit." In even a small city like Worcester two hundred visitors find Sunday shelter in the Library, besides a librarian who makes it a part of his personal Sunday service to minister to their individual book-wants.

It is to be hoped that the experiment of opening the upper hall of Boston's central Library will soon be tried, for the winter Sundays at least, to see if our Boston clerk and mechanic will not read books as well as papers, should the chance be given him. In the great host of the unmarried workers, men and women, whose city "home" is a cell in a boarding-house, not a few have bookish tastes and wish for culture; on the one day on which they can freely indulge such tastes, offer them a noble library and its contents, and, probably, enough will find their way to it to fill the tables and the desks.

The Public Library is still but a new instrument of education. We are only learning how to handle it. It is to grow as the noble tools all grow. In our day it is what the steam-engine was as Watt left it. It will become one of the great working-engines of the people's after-school education. And this Sunday use begins one line of its development.

Yet not everywhere does the Sunday reading-room succeed. It furnishes a silent, solitary occupation, too unsocial to win very many. In Boston the success is not what the friends of the opening hoped, or the opponents of the opening feared. In one or two of the outlying branches of the library it hardly seems worthwhile to keep the room open, so few resort to it on Sundays. The trouble may be only a matter of locality. Perhaps, some winter, an earnest man or woman will petition the city govern- page 87 ment for leave to open a school-room or the ward-room of a crowded district as a free or a "penny" reading room, and test the effect of dropping a warm and quiet retreat, with a couple of hundred books and as many papers, right in the middle of a working population on their lounging-day.