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In Defense of Public Libraries

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In the spring of 2012, the New York Public Library (NYPL) unveiled a plan to renovate the flagship building at 42nd Street. Farewell to the miles of dusty stacks (which would be unceremoniously shipped to New Jersey). An array of critics and writers—Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie, Francine Prose—immediately protested. Some even dressed up as books and demonstrated on the library steps. This spring, the library abruptly reversed course and abandoned the much-despised proposal. The episode served as a reminder, just in case anyone needed it, that libraries are fiercely beloved places. In 1921, playwright and voluminous man of letters George Bernard Shaw penned this defense of libraries for The New Republic. Like so many writers before and after him, Shaw had a personal stake in the subject. As a young man, he had educated himself at the British Museum Library, where the man who would become his mentor spotted him alternating between Marx’s Kapital (in French) and the orchestral score for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It seems fair to say that Shaw, too, would have loathed the NYPL's renovation.

The importance of public libraries can hardly be exaggerated; yet it is seldom apparent to that most influential but most disastrous of public councillors, the practical man of business. He is revolted by the spectacle of a pretentious building, and a huge and costly collection of books, with seating accommodation for from fifty to two hundred people, and one solitary reader who is not even fashionably dressed. What wicked waste it seems! And yet to anyone who knows, that solitary man is a far more satisfactory spectacle than a crowd of young persons devouring the latest Tarzan. A crowded public library is an absurdity, like a crowded laboratory or observatory. The people who clamor for it are clamoring for something very different: to wit, a crowded popular reading-room. I have nothing to say against reading-rooms any more than against sleeping rooms (most reading-rooms contrive the double debt to pay); but I must insist that a reading-room is not in the classic sense a library...The purpose of a library is to enable poor scholars and men of letters, whose traditional lot is “toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol” to consult books which are storehouses of learning, books which they can no more afford to buy than a chemist can afford to buy a pound of radium. Such men form a very small percentage, or even a permillage, of the population; but the quality of the books in the reading-room, which means the quality of the taste of the readers, depends finally on the library and on the unfashionably dressed man who may often be its sole occupant. The debt of British literature, and indeed every department of British culture, to the British Museum Library is incalculable. I myself worked in its reading-room daily for about eight years at the beginning of my literary career; and oh (if I may quote Wordsworth) the difference to me! And that difference was a difference to all the readers of my books and of my contributions to journalism, as well as to all the spectators of my plays: say, to be excessively cautious, not less than a million people.

It is not necessary to go into the question of whether the effect on all these people has been for good or evil. It may be that it would have been better for myself and for them if I had never been born. But that is neither here nor there for the present point, which is, that the work done in the library cannot be measured by the number of people visibly seated in it. I will go so far as to say that if a public library did not attract even one reader from the outside, its existence would be justified by the presence of its librarian and his official staff. And it never comes quite to that. There are always two or three readers to keep the place in countenance. And if (to take actual cases) one of them is a Carlyle and another a Karl Marx, the results may range from the extension of the English Factory Code throughout the modern world, to a European world and half a dozen revolutions. This may seem a questionable recommendation; but as long as people are impressed only by sensational events like wars and revolutions, and take unmixed benefactions thanklessly as a matter of course, it would be useless to cite the many library workers on whose influence there is no stain of blood. From Plato and Pythagoras to Descartes and Einstein there have been single men who would have justified all that the British Museum costs by spending one week of their lives in it; but the public knows them only as unhappy wretches who never knew the joy of jazzing with ladies of the beauty chorus every night and the daring adventure of buying cocaine for them every day.

The moral is clear: let us have the libraries whether they are empty or full. And do not confuse their high function with that of the reading divan which polices our cities for us by enabling people to read about crimes and vices instead of going out into the streets and practicing them. Do not forget, either, that though this is a very desirable substitution, it is the reverse of desirable in the case of good deed and virtues. Just as reading about crimes does not make us criminals, but rather causes any propensities we have in that direction to waste themselves harmlessly through the imagination, so reading about virtues does not make us heroes and heroines; it wastes our heroic impulses in precisely the same manner. Therefore it is very questionable whether reading rooms should contain any good books. Rather should they be stocked with the Newgate Calendar, detective stories, lives of Cartouche, Lacenaire, Charles Peace, Moll Flanders, and all the most infamous characters in fact or fiction. And when the readers, in the disgust or satiety produced by a debauch of such literature go to the reading-room librarian and say, "For heaven's sake give me a book about a saint or a hero: I am sick to death of those stupid malefactors," it should the be duty of that librarian to say, "No my son (or my daughter, as the case may be): the proper sphere of virtue is the living world. Go out and do good until you feel wicked again. Then come back to me; and I will discharge you of all your evil impulses without hurting anyone by a batch of thoroughly bad books." Moral: do not wish the people who wish to purify public bookshelves: they are sitters on safety valves.