Odds are most librarians are not aware that library youth services extend back over 125 years. In the 1876 Report on PUBLIC LIBRARIES IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA to the Congress by the Bureau of Education, there is an entire chapter devoted to the subject.
PUBLIC LIBRARIES AND THE YOUNG
BY WILLIAM I. FLETCHER,
Assistant Librarian Watkinson Library of Reference
What shall the public library do for the young, and how? is a question of acknowledged importance. The remarkable development of “juvenile literature” testifies to the growing importance of this portion of the community in the eyes of book producers, while the character of much of this literature, which is now almost thrust into the hands of youth, is such as to excite grave doubts as to its being of any service, intellectual or moral. In this state of things the public library is looked to by some with hope, and by others with fear, according as its management is apparently such as to draw young readers away from merely frivolous reading, or to make such reading more accessible and encourage them in the use of it; hence the importance of a judicious administration of the library in this regard.
This introduction to the topic, as well as other sections, makes it clear that “juvenile literature” was nearly exploding and easily acquired. Sounds very familiar. The concern expressed in 1876 to addressing this issue also sounds familiar.
Only a few of the most recently established libraries have adopted what seems to be the right solution of this question, by making no restriction whatever as to age. This course recommends itself as the wisest and the most consistent with the idea of the public library on many grounds.
In the first place, age is no criterion of mental condition and capacity. So varying is the date of the awakening of intellectual life, and the rapidity of its progress, that height of stature might almost as well be taken for its measure as length of years.
No after efforts can accomplish what is done with ease early in life in the way of forming habits either mental or moral, and if there is any truth in the idea that the public library is not merely a storehouse for the supply of the wants of the reading public, but also and especially an educational institution which shall create wants where they do not exist, then the library ought to bring its influences to bear on the young as early as possible.
Complaints are often made that public libraries foster a taste for light reading, especially among the young. Those who make this complaint too often fail to perceive that the tastes indulged by those who are admitted to the use of the public library at the age of twelve or fourteen [prevailing policy of the time], are the tastes formed in the previous years of exclusion. A slight examination of facts, such as can be furnished by any librarian of experience in a circulating public library, will show how little force there is in this objection.
While there is no mention of “story time,” it appears that simple exposure to reading was considered adequate for the young. As we often see in terms of justification for youth services;
And to the thousand of young people, in whose homes there is none of the atmosphere of culture or of the appliances for it, the public library ought to furnish the means of keeping pace intellectually with the more favored children of homes where good [Page 415] books abound and their subtle influence extends even to those who are too young to read and understand them. If it fails to do this it is hardly a fit adjunct to our school system, whose aim it is to give every man a chance to be the equal of every other man, if he can.
Again, we see how the public library is assumed to be an adjunct to the public education system.
Another issue in public libraries has long been the right to read. How do parents’ rights influence what their children may and may not read? The issue was easily defined in 1876.
It is not claimed that the arguments used in support of an age limitation are of no force; but it is believed that they are founded on objections to the admission of the young to library privileges which are good only as against an indiscriminate and not properly regulated admission, and which are not applicable to the extension of the use of the library to the young under such conditions and restrictions as are required by their peculiar circumstances.
For example, the public library ought not to furnish young persons with a means of avoiding parental supervision of their reading. A regulation making the written consent of the parent a prerequisite to the registration of the name of a minor, and the continuance of such consent a condition of the continuance of the privilege, will take from parents all cause for complaint in this regard.
As much as life changes, it remains the same.
And, how long have public and school librarians been encouraged to collaborate? Apparently, since 1876.
Neither should the library be allowed to stand between pupils in school and their studies, as it is often complained that it does. To remove this difficulty, the relations of the library to the school system should be such that teachers should be able to regulate the use of the library by those pupils whose studies are evidently interfered with by their miscellaneous reading. The use of the library would thus be a stimulus to endeavor on the part of pupils who would regard its loss as the probable result of lack of diligence in their studies. [Page 415]
Of course, as was the tendency in 1876, managing societies behavior was considered normal. First regulate, then stimulate.
However, the role of the library was seen as much more regulatory and facilitating the “common good” more so than today.
CHOICE OF BOOKS.
But when the doors of the public library are thrown open to the young, and they are recognized as an important class of its patrons, the question comes up, What shall the library furnish to this class in order to meet its wants? If the object of the library is understood to be simply the supplying of the wants of the reading public, and the young are considered as a portion of that public, the question is very easily answered by [Page 416] saying, Give them what they call for that is not positively injurious in its tendency. But if we regard the public library as an educational means rather than a mere clubbing arrangement for the economical supply of reading, just as the gas company is for the supply of artificial light, it becomes of importance, especially with reference to the young, who are the most susceptible to educating influences, that they should receive from the library that which will do them good; and the managers of the library appear not as caterers to a master whose will is the rule as to what shall be furnished, but rather as the trainers of gymnasts who seek to provide that which will be of the greatest service to their men. No doubt both these elements enter into a true conception of the duty of library managers; but when we are regarding especially the young, the latter view comes nearer the truth than the other.
The next to the last sentence – although so run-on and convoluted as to be more confusing than informative – makes it evident that the attitude of the time was toward providing youth service so that youth “should receive from the library that which will do them good; and the managers of the library appear not as caterers to a master whose will is the rule as to what shall be furnished, but rather as the trainers of gymnasts who seek to provide that which will be of the greatest service to their men.” even though they try to demure the issue as one of a good coach rather than dictator.
The understanding of “the common good” was one less hotly debated in 1876, because there was a fairly common understanding of what literature was in the common good, and what youth should be shielded from. Today there is no such common understanding; therefore law regulates what youth will not have access to, at least via the Internet – i.e., CIPA.
While the public library was still struggling with its mission toward youth, it appears they were on the correct track.
In the first place, among the special requirements of the young is this, that the library shall interest and be attractive to them. The attitude of some public libraries toward the young and the uncultivated seems to say to them, “We cannot encourage you in your low state of culture; you must come up to the level of appreciating what is really high toned in literature, or we cannot help you.” The public library being, however, largely if not mainly for the benefit of the uncultivated, must, to a large extent, come down to the level of this class and meet them on common ground. Every library ought to have a large list of good juvenile books, …. [Emphasis added.]
How often have we read and discussed exactly the same issue – making the library interesting and attractive to youth? After over 125 years, we are still addressing the same challenge. Unlike the one nagging question – Why do we need libraries? – which was not a question in 1876.
[Probably more to follow – 1246 page report….]