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The Philosopher's Public Library

Suppose a philosopher had a great deal of money to spend--though this is
not in accordance with experience, it is not inherently impossible--and
suppose he thought, as any philosopher does think, that the British
public ought to read much more and better books than they do, and that
founding public libraries was the way to induce them to do so, what sort
of public libraries would he found? That, I submit, is a suitable topic
for a disinterested speculator.

He would, I suppose, being a philosopher, begin by asking himself what a
library essentially was, and he would probably come to the eccentric
conclusion that it was essentially a collection of books. He would, in
his unworldliness, entirely overlook the fact that it might be a job for
a municipally influential builder, a costly but conspicuous monument to
opulent generosity, a news-room, an employment bureau, or a
meeting-place for the glowing young; he would never think for a moment
of a library as a thing one might build, it would present itself to him
with astonishing simplicity as a thing one would collect. Bricks ceased
to be literature after Babylon.

His first proceeding would be, I suppose, to make a list of that
collection. What books, he would say, have all my libraries to possess
anyhow? And he would begin to jot down--with the assistance of a few
friends, perhaps--this essential list.

He would, being a philosopher, insist on good editions, and he would
also take great pains with the selection. It would not be a limited or
an exclusive list--when in doubt he would include. He would disregard
modern fiction very largely, because any book that has any success can
always be bought for sixpence, and modern poetry, because, with an
exception or so, it does not signify at all. He would set almost all the
Greek and Roman literature in well-printed translations and with
luminous introductions--and if there were no good translations he would
give some good man £500 or so to make one--translations of all that is
good in modern European literatures, and, last but largest portion of
his list, editions of all that is worthy of our own. He would make a
very careful list of thoroughly modern encyclopaedias, atlases, and
volumes of information, and a particularly complete catalogue of all
literature that is still copyright; and then--with perhaps a secretary
or so--he would revise all his lists and mark against every book whether
he would have two, five or ten or twenty copies, or whatever number of
copies of it he thought proper in each library.

Then next, being a philosopher, he would decide that if he was going to
buy a great number of libraries in this way, he was going to make an
absolutely new sort of demand for these books, and that he was entitled
to a special sort of supply.

He would not expect the machinery of retail book-selling to meet the
needs of wholesale buying. So he would go either to wholesale
booksellers, or directly to the various publishers of the books and
editions he had chosen, and ask for reasonable special prices for the
two thousand or seven thousand or fifty thousand of each book he
required. And the publishers would, of course, give him very special
prices, more especially in the case of the out-of-copyright books. He
would probably find it best to buy whole editions in sheets and bind
them himself in strong bindings. And he would emerge from these
negotiations in possession of a number of complete libraries each
of--how many books? Less than twenty thousand ought to do it, I think,
though that is a matter for separate discussion, and that should cost
him, buying in this wholesale way, under rather than over £2,000 a
library.

And next he would bethink himself of the readers of these books. "These
people," he would say, "do not know very much about books, which,
indeed, is why I am giving them this library."

Accordingly, he would get a number of able and learned people to write
him guides to his twenty thousand books, and, in fact, to the whole
world of reading, a guide, for example, to the books on history in
general, a special guide to books on English history, or French or
German history, a guide to the books on geology, a guide to poetry and
poetical criticisms, and so forth.

Some such books our philosopher would find already done--the
"Bibliography of American History," of the American Libraries'
Association, for example, and Mr. Nield's "Guide to Historical
Fiction"--and what are not done he would commission good men to do for
him. Suppose he had to commission forty such guides altogether and that
they cost him on the average £500 each, for he would take care not to
sweat their makers, then that would add another £20,000 to his
expenditure. But if he was going to found 400 libraries, let us say,
that would only be £50 a library--a very trivial addition to his
expenditure.

The rarer books mentioned in these various guides would remind him,
however, of the many even his ample limit of twenty thousand forced him
to exclude, and he would, perhaps, consider the need of having two or
three libraries each for the storage of a hundred thousand books or so
not kept at the local libraries, but which could be sent to them at a
day's notice at the request of any reader. And then, and only then,
would he give his attention to the housing and staffing that this
reality of books would demand.

Being a philosopher and no fool, he would draw a very clear, hard
distinction between the reckless endowment of the building trade and the
dissemination of books. He would distinguish, too, between a library and
a news-room, and would find no great attraction in the prospect of
supplying the national youth with free but thumby copies of the sixpenny
magazines. He would consider that all that was needed for his library
was, first, easily accessible fireproof shelving for his collection,
with ample space for his additions, an efficient distributing office, a
cloak-room, and so forth, and eight or nine not too large, well lit,
well carpeted, well warmed and well ventilated rooms radiating from that
office, in which the guides and so forth could be consulted, and where
those who had no convenient, quiet room at home could read.

He would find that, by avoiding architectural vulgarities, a simple,
well proportioned building satisfying all these requirements and
containing housing for the librarian, assistant, custodian and staff
could be built for between £4,000 and £5,000, excluding the cost of
site, and his sites, which he would not choose for their
conspicuousness, might average something under another £1,000.

He would try to make a bargain with the local people for their
co-operation in his enterprise, though he would, as a philosopher,
understand that where a public library is least wanted it is generally
most needed. But in most cases he would succeed in stipulating for a
certain standard of maintenance by the local authority. Since moderately
prosperous illiterate men undervalue education and most town councillors
are moderately illiterate men, he would do his best to keep the salary
and appointment of the librarian out of such hands. He would stipulate
for a salary of at least £400, in addition to housing, light and heat,
and he would probably find it advisable to appoint a little committee of
visitors who would have the power to examine qualifications, endorse the
appointment, and recommend the dismissal of all his four hundred
librarians. He would probably try to make the assistantship at £100 a
year or thereabout a sort of local scholarship to be won by competition,
and only the cleaner and caretaker's place would be left to the local
politician. And, of course, our philosopher would stipulate that, apart
from all other expenditure, a sum of at least £200 a year should be set
aside for buying new books.

So our rich philosopher would secure at the minimum cost a number of
efficiently equipped libraries throughout the country. Eight thousand
pounds down and £900 a year is about as cheap as a public library can
be. Below that level, it would be cheaper to have no public library.
Above that level, a public library that is not efficient is either
dishonestly or incapably organised or managed, or it is serving too
large a district and needs duplication, or it is trying to do too much.

H.G. Wells