New York Public Library: Ottendorfer Branch Dedication

From Carl Schurz's papers in the Library of Congress. The New York Times of December 7, 1884, reports the date of the dedication ceremony as December 6, 1884. An article of January 31, 1999, from the same paper and discussing planned rennovations for the branch, gives its location as 135 Second Avenue between St. Marks Place and Ninth Street. The item in Carl Shurz's papers is a printed proof with scattered hand-written edits by Schurz.

by Carl Schurz

Ladies and Gentlemen. — It is not at all remarkable that an institution like the Free Circulating Library should have existed, and should have a rapid growth in the City of New York. It is rather remarkable that it did not exist long before. Its very origin proved how much it was wanted. Six years ago a few benevolent ladies collected a small number of books from their friends to lend them to poor children connected with the industrial school of Grace Chapel in East 14th St. No sooner did it become known among the acquaintances of those children that books could be borrowed somewhere, than applicants came forth in unexpected numbers. More books had to be begged from friends and a librarian had to be employed. That was the beginning of the Free Circulating Library. Those who started it thought at first of nothing but to give a few children something to read. The library, so to speak, then forced itself into existence by a demand not artificially created, but spontaneously, and irresistibly asserting itself. There was no public advertisement of books waiting for readers, but there were evidently a good many people who had been waiting for books to read.

The ladies who began the enterprise have earned the thanks of the community, not perhaps for having organized a library on a pre-determined, systematic plan, but on having quickly discerned, and promptly provided, for a public want as far as their means would go. The first year the little library had a circulation of 3,000. On Nov. 1st, 1880, there were 3,674 volumes in the library, with a circulation of 22,557 during the preceding year. And now, taking the figures of the past year, the circulation has grown to 95,305, on a stock of volumes amounting to 10,424. And all this time there has been no public advertisement, no solicitation to attract and entice readers; there has been nothing but the knowledge of some people that books could be borrowed somewhere, free of charge, and following their own impulse they came and borrowed them. Thus an urgent demand demonstrated itself, a demand which is sure to become manifest on a much larger scale as the supply appears within reach.

There is nothing new to be said on this subject in its general aspect. The popular library — that is, a library easily accessible to all classes of the people, the poorest and humblest, as well as those in better circumstances — is simply a necessary complement of our system of public instruction. Children of parents of small means ordinarily leave their schools when they are about fourteen years old. The stock of positive knowledge they have accumulated at that age is necessarily but small. In fact, it is better that they should have learned only a few things thoroughly than to have their heads artificially crammed with a multitude of subjects, producing a state of mental dyspepsia, preventing a healthy digestion of the things received, and spoiling the appetite for more. It is, therefore, not the object of elementary instruction to teach children a great variety of things, but it should be recognized as the most important aim of early education to inspire children with the desire to learn and go on learning, and to teach them how to learn, and how to go on learning when they shall have left school, by giving them a certain impulse and mental equipment. It is to be hoped that the introduction of rational methods of teaching will gradually accomplish that object, so that our common school education may become in the best sense of the term the basis of progressive self improvement.

Of that progressive self improvement the free library is one of the principal aids. That it will serve that purpose is no mere theory, but it has become a matter of experience wherever such libraries exist. It is true the statistics show that by far the largest number of books read, are works of fiction and “juveniles” so called. The proportion varies from something like 65 to 75 per cent. Books of this kind are undoubtedly in most cases read for amusement rather than instruction. It might be said that to this extent the principal object of the free public library fails of accomplishment. But this would be a hasty conclusion. Human nature craves relaxation and amusement of some kind and will have it. If a harmless and wholesome kind is not within reach, other kinds that are dangerous, degrading and hurtful, will prove all the more seductive. He is, therefore, a promoter of public morals and a public benefactor, who diminishes the seductive power of dangerous and demoralizing amusements by making those of an innocent, and, if possible, of an improving and elevating kind, easily obtainable.

It is true that a novel is not always improving and elevating. It may be hurtful. Foolish boys have been made more foolish, sometimes criminally so, by dime novels, and foolish girls have been drawn into bad ways by certain kinds of love stories. But such cases are, after all, not very frequent, and they can be made still scarcer by the Free Public Library, offering without charge, good stories instead of bad ones. Many of the boys and girls disposed to foolishness are likely to read a good story they can have for nothing in preference to a bad one they would have to pay for. It must, of course, be assumed that, as has so far been the case, free public libraries will always use careful discrimination in the selection of the reading matter for their public. In this way they will serve to keep people away from bad literature, and thus prevent much mischief. As a general thing, I take it that persons who spend the time they have for amusement in novel reading, will not do themselves much harm. And if the Free Public Library did nothing else than furnish to a large number of people, young and old, a harmless enjoyment to fill their leisure hours pleasantly, and thus keep them out of the reach of worse things, it would accomplish a very useful and laudable object.

But under any circumstances its ultimate effect will go beyond that. It cultivates among the people the habit of reading, which almost always in the long run, is followed by an improvement in the character of the reading. Even reading for mere amusement will be apt to enlarge the mental horizon, to incite curiosity, the desire to know more, and develop taste; and, besides, an intelligent person scarcely ever read a book without learning something from it, however little it may be.

Those who have acquired the habit of reading, will mostly go on reading, not, if somewhat intelligently directed from bad to worse, but from good to better. It certainly needs no argument to show why. In the present state of society, much-reading communities are more intelligent, and on the whole more virtuous than communities in which reading is a comparatively rare occupation. The transition from reading for mere amusement, to serious inquiry, is in many cases a very natural and easy one. In this respect it is a significant sign that as the number of readers using the free libraries increases, the proportion of readers of serious books holds its own as against the readers of fiction in that if there is any change, it is usually in favor of serious reading. This is the case in this library. It shows that the absolute number of readers of serious and useful works, of the prosecutors of serious inquiry, is constantly growing. In the year ending October 31st, 1882, the number of books on history, biography, travel, philosophical and religious subjects, arts and sciences, circulated by this library, was 14,600. In the year ending October 31st, 1884, it was 17,540. It will undoubtedly increase at a greater rate as works of the kind named are brought within the reach of a larger number of people.

This tendency is capable of being strengthened in various ways. I find in the last report of the chairman of your Library Committee, Mrs. Appleton, a suggestion bearing on this point which may become fruitful of valuable results. It is that much more might be done “to enhance the usefulness of the library by the preparation of new and special means for the information and guidance of readers, and perhaps occasional lectures by competent authorities, on the best reading, and special topics.” A good reliable guide to the reader is unquestionably an inestimable adjunct to the library, especially a library instituted for the benefit of the people, who have enjoyed only to a very limited degree the advantages of education and are therefore, comparatively speaking, strangers in the world of books. Catalogues, however good, will not be sufficient. Much more may be accomplished by lectures, as suggested, although they will not reach as large a number of people as might be desired. The principal task will fall to the lot of the librarians.

How much in this respect a thoroughly competent librarian may accomplish is shown by the conspicuous example of the librarian of Congress, Mr. Spofford. It is a fact well known in Washington that when a member of Congress becomes aware that there are things which he does not know, but which it would be useful for him to learn — a thing which happens sometimes — his older and more experienced colleagues will tell him “Go and ask Spofford.” And Mr. Spofford is never asked in vain. It seems he not only knows of the existence of every work in that vast and somewhat promiscuous collection of books, called the Congressional Library, and not only can name at his finger's ends every book on any given subject, but that he can also tell with remarkable accuracy with regard to almost very volume, what it contains, and whether it is worth studying or not. Of this, I have myself witnessed some astonishing instances, for when I was in the Senate I found occasion to “ask Spofford” many a time. He has thus become a real benefactor to the American people, for it may be said of many acts of Congress, that they are the offspring of the legislator's ignorance tempered by the knowledge of the Congressional librarian.

Librarians so valuable, however, cannot be made to order. They must grow up, and pre-supposing the necessary intelligence, equipment and industry, they will grow up, to the highest usefulness, especially in a case like the present one, together with the libraries over which they preside, and in which they take a kind of paternal interest. But evidently the growing up of such librarians is above all things desirable in the libraries instituted for the very purpose of first opening the gates of literature to persons who had not been favored by early opportunity. To these persons the librarian should be a guide and a friend, ever attentive and kind, and well informed too, seeing to it that wants of the reading public be well supplied by additions to the stock of books, and that the advice and direction given to individual searchers for wholesome reading be intelligent and always ready.

The present occasion, the opening of a branch library, which we owe to the public-spirited munificence of Mr. Ottendorfer, is of especially good augury; for it marks the recognition of the fact that the measure of usefulness of a free public library depends largely upon the local facilities afforded to the public. The library will become the more improving in its influence, the more it spreads itself over the town by means of branch establishments. The opening of this branch, which we are celebrating to-day, should, therefore, be looked upon as a mere beginning. And it is to be hoped that Mr. Ottendorfer's generous example prove beneficently contagious among our wealthy men, the worthiest of whom will never forget that they owe their success in the accumulation of riches not to their ability and industry alone, but, in a very great measure, also, to the progressive spirit of the community in which they enjoyed fortunate opportunities, and to which, therefore, they merely discharge an honorable obligation, by devoting some of their wealth to the promotion of intelligence and virtue among their less favored fellow citizens.

At the opening of my remarks, I said that it was rather astonishing that the City of New York had not had its free circulating library long ago; for if there is a town in the United States in which the need preŽminently exists, that town is New York. Nowhere do we find such a mixing of unsettled elements of population; nowhere are the temptations to immoral practices for gain and to vicious pleasures as many and as seductive as here; nowhere, therefore, should every agency for intellectual and moral improvement be more active than in this great beehive. It seems to me that in this respect not only the benevolence and foresight, but also the humanity of New York has been fast asleep. New Yorkers sometimes affect to speak somewhat contemptuously of the size and provincialism of Boston. But when they look, among other things, at the Boston Public Library, with its 440,000 volumes, and its 1,057,000 circulation, and its great “Bates Hall,” and “Lower Hall,” and its ten branches, they have to admit that, in point of enlightened and active public spirit, and intelligently designed and well directed public institutions, Boston can teach them some exceedingly valuable lessons. It is true, the Boston Public Library is partly supported by the municipality, but in great part also by the constant stream of gifts in the shape of books and of money. The library was in fact started by a money donation of $50,000.00, which has been followed up by others, reaching the total amount of $168,000.00 last April. Instead of looking down at Boston our rich New Yorkers would perhaps do well to try to live up to the example of her public-spirited citizens in this important point, and if they do, then in the course of time our proud metropolis may succeed in building up a free public library equal to that possessed by her smaller, less wealthy, but more provident sister.

The first originators of this library, and Mr. Ottendorfer, have made a generous beginning, which, it is to be hoped, will stir up an equally generous and spirited emulation. Public benevolence can scarcely find a worthier and more important object. We never grow tired of repeating that this Republic, being governed by the people, our honor and greatness, the safety of our institutions, our whole social order, depend upon the intelligence and virtue with which the people govern themselves. We should remember equally well that the free public library is a most important contribution to that popular intelligence and virtue. No wise man will, therefore, fail to recognize the interest he has in an enterprise like this, as he must know the stake he has in the public welfare.