Some scholarly writers tell us that very few books are essential to a good
education. James Russell Lowell named five, which in his view embraced all the
essentials; namely, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Goethe's Faust.
Prof. Charles E. Norton of Harvard remarked that this list might even be
abridged so as to embrace only Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. I can only
regard such exclusiveness as misleading, though conceding the many-sidedness
of these great writers. To extend the list is the function of all public libraries, as
well as of most of the private ones. Next after the really essential books, that
library will be doing its public good service which acquires all the important works
that record the history of man. This will include biography, travels and voyages,
science, and much besides, as well as history.
Special pains should be taken in every library to have every thing produced in its
own town, county, and State. Not only books, but all pamphlets, periodicals,
newspapers, and even broadsides or circulars, should be sought for and stored
up as memorials of the present age, tending in large part rapidly to disappear.
In selecting editions of standard authors, one should always discriminate, so as
to secure for the library, if not the best, at least good, clear type, sound, thick
paper, and durable binding. Cheap and poor editions wear out quickly, and have
to be thrown away for better ones, which wise economy should have selected in
the first place. For example, a widely circulated edition of Scott's novels, found in
most libraries, has the type so worn and battered by the many large editions
printed from the plates, that many letters and words are wanting, thus spoiling
not only the pleasure but abridging the profit of the reader in perusing the
novels. The same is true of one edition of Cooper. Then there are many cheap
reprints of English novels in the Seaside and other libraries which abound in
typographical errors. A close examination of a cheap edition of a leading English
novelist's works revealed more than 3,000 typographical errors in the one set of
books! It would be unpardonable carelessness to buy such books for general
reading because they are cheap.
Librarians should avoid what are known as subscription books, as a rule, though
some valid exceptions exist. Most of such books are profusely illustrated and in
gaudy bindings, gotten up to dazzle the eye. If works of merit, it is better to
wait for them, than to subscribe for an unfinished work, which perhaps may
never reach completion.
A librarian or book collector should be ever observant of what he may find to
enrich his collection. When in a book-store, or a private of public library, he
should make notes of such works seen as are new to him, with any
characteristics which their custodian may remark upon. Such personal
examination is more informing than any catalogue.
I think each public library should possess, besides a complete set of the English
translations of the Greek and Latin classics, a full set of the originals, for the
benefit of scholarly readers. These classic texts can be had complete in modern
editions for a very moderate price.
How far duplicate volumes should be bought should depend upon demand, and
the views of the purchasing powers. There is a real need of more than one copy
of almost every standard work, else it will be perpetually out, giving occasion for
numerous complaints from those who use the library. It would be a good rule to
keep one copy always in, and at the service of readers, of every leading history,
standard poet, or popular novel. Then the duplicate copies for circulation may be
one or more, as experience and ability to provide may determine: A library which
caters to the novel-reading habit as extensively as the New York Mercantile (a
subscription library) has to buy fifty to one hundred copies of "Trilby," for
example, to keep up with the demand. No such obligation exists for the free
public libraries. They, however, often buy half a dozen to a dozen copies of a
very popular story, when new, and sell them out after the demand has slackened
or died away.