A Page from the History of the American Library Association

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

Earlier this week, I returned home by train from the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in Boston.  Many of the train riders carried publishers’ bags full of books. As the train rolled through a number of cities, small towns and villages, I began to think about how libraries were conceived, funded, and promoted in rural areas. I was searching Frank Leslie’s Weekly on my laptop and found an article on the American Library Association and their mission to promote reading education by bringing books to rural communities. Initially, small collections of books were installed in general stores and of course school houses. Then came the bookmobiles. I have not seen a bookmobile in decades, but I wonder if they are still traveling the back roads and rural areas of America.

Researchers interested in local and regional history and popular culture will find Frank Leslie’s Weekly full of unique information covering many phases of America’s educational history.

Books for Everybody

How the American Library Association Is Educating the Nation by Furnishing Out-of-the-way Villages and Isolated Farming Districts with Worth-While Literature

Associate Editor of LESLIE’S

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

On a bleak and blustery day in February I was journeying down the Hudson River from Albany. The weather was bad, so bad that it furnished the chief topic of conversation throughout the car. Our train was hours late, everyone seemed weary, and the dreary chill outside found reflection in the minds of the travelers. I fell to thinking of the affairs of the nation and the world as illustrated by conditions which seemed to depress the minds of my fellow travelers everywhere. Life had become strangely difficult and uncertain. Progress was slowing down. The minds of the people were distressed and dissatisfied. I began to wonder if there were any ameliorating circumstances, any light to relieve the dismal shadows. As my mind turned in this direction, I was almost surprised to find many hopeful things to think about, and, yielding to a journalistic instinct, I began to map out a series of what might be called “Cheer-up Articles.”

My cogitations at that point were interrupted pleasantly. A sweet-faced little woman came down the car aisle and, after a moment’s hesitation, stopped and spoke to me. She had listened the night before to an address which I had delivered in Albany and she wished to express her appreciation. It was certainly a welcome relief from the universal chorus of disapproval as to the weather and other human ills which had been sounding in my ears during our journey. Besides, the lady with her sweet, intellectual face, crowned by a wealth of white hair, looked like the fine old-fashioned New England women whom I had learned to reverence in my youth. And I was glad for the privilege of speaking with one of her type.

Soon we were deep in talk and I found that I had been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of one of the nation builders, Miss Mary L. Titcomb, Librarian of the Washington County Free Library at Hagerstown, Maryland.

What One Community Is Doing

Here was my first “cheer-up” article, for from Miss Titcomb I learned of the great constructive work being done by the American Library Association and of its plans for still greater things in the near future. I was almost ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of the County Library work until Miss Titcomb placed in my hands the facts.

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

In 1900 the Washington County Library was organized at Hagerstown, the county seat, in western Maryland. The original Board of Trustees were a German Reformed minister, two lawyers, a banker, a paper-maker, a farmer and a merchant. They had in mind the diffusion of information and culture by cultivation of the reading habit, especially among the rural sections of Washington County which has a population, including the county seat, of some fifty thousand people, almost exclusively engaged in agriculture.

At the beginning some 75 deposit stations were scattered over the territory, being placed in country stores, post offices, creameries, at the toll gates and in private houses. These boxes contained about fifty books each and were returned every sixty or ninety days for a fresh supply. Reading-rooms were opened. Country schools were visited and books distributed among the students. As an illustration of the evolution of the reading habit as cultivated by this County Library, the records of a little country school, by name “Sweet Spring,” are presented. This school opened in September with eighteen pupils and ten books. During the first term the books were read twenty-four times, but no pupil read more than four books, and seven of the eighteen pupils did not read any. During the second term there were fifteen pupils and ten books. These books were read fifty-nine times, and there was no pupil who did not borrow at least one book. The third term the attendance was nineteen and the supply of books the same. During this term the circulation rose to one hundred and thirty-five, and twelve of the children read every book that was sent. The fourth and last term of the year opened with twenty pupils, four of whom had to leave to work in the fields. From sixteen to eighteen children during this last term read ten books a hundred and seventy-one times. Sixteen of them read every book. The first term each book was read twice, while during the last term each book was read seventeen times.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

The Book Automobile

Under the system obtaining in Washington County, every four hundred people among the thirty thousand, outside of Hagerstown, have access to at least a hundred and fifty fresh books every year. With a trifle over nineteen thousand volumes in the Central Library the circulation reaches well over a hundred thousand a year.

A unique feature of the Washington County Library is the book automobile. Throughout the summer this traveling library traverses the entire rural section of the county at regular intervals, stopping at each house, exchanging books, giving advice, carrying the local news and serving as a bond of unity for all the people. It brings one back to old days when country lads read beside the open fireplace in order to fit themselves for the future service of the nation. Miss Titcomb tells of an eighteen-year-old lad leaving his loaded wagon as the automobile drives up to inquire if they have anything of Shakespeare’s with them. He confided to the Librarian who was with the driver that he had read one book of Shakespeare’s and thought he was a “real good writer.” Another lad of fourteen when asked if he were fond of reading replied, “Yes, if it is important.” In order to test his judgment as to the relative importance of a book, he was permitted to choose for himself. And he picked out the following volumes: Rhymes of Our Planet; Siam and Java Hero Tales of American History; Starland; Siegfried; Saints and Heroes.

In the fall the book automobile on its last trip leaves a supply of reading in the various homes for the winter months. Here is a typical selection made by one family with which to fill the long hours of the winter evenings: About Paris; Java; Life of Napoleon; Through Darkest Africa; Tenants of an Old Farm; Vanity Fair; The Sky Pilot; In Old School Days; Broadway; Battle of the Strong; A Roman Holiday; Italian Life in Town and Country; When America Was New.

It is interesting to remember that while these country folk are giving themselves to the delights of this strong, intellectual meat, city audiences are often enjoying themselves contemplating the crude stage antics in theaters and moving picture shows of alleged country people, familiarly known as “rubes,” which goes to show that one-half the world does not know very much about how the other half lives and thinks.

One of the hopeful signs of the times is the kind of reading which the American people both in town and country are seeking nowadays. The American Library Association in its splendid service for seafaring men found that out of a hundred books chosen by the officers of a ship before putting to sea, hardly any would be fiction. The prime favorites in every case were vocational books, followed by travel, history, economics, philosophy, politics, biography and poetry. It may surprise good land dwellers to learn that the seamen in choosing their library followed closely the example set by their officers.

70,000,000 Need Libraries

In the great bookstores of the city, there is an ever-increasing demand for books dealing with the realities of life as compared with the old-time passion for “thrillers.”

Turning to the general work of the American Library Association, one need only read its published program to see that it constitutes a most important factor in the education of the nation. Seventy million people in this country are still without public library facilities. The American Library Association is a strong leader in promoting library legislation and in rendering assistance and advice in the establishing of libraries. In business and industry, employers and employees alike are finding common ground in their common studies. Vocational books and books upon social problems bring both classes in industry into an intellectual contact and understanding much to be desired.

The Association makes surveys of communities; determines the kind of library service needed; and it carries on a continuous nation-wide campaign of publicity for the purpose of increasing the use of books and libraries.

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

A Page from the History of the American Library Association

In public health service, among the blind, among soldiers and sailors, and citizens of alien birth, the men of the coast guards and lighthouses, and in many other ways and places the Association carries on its uplifting ministry.

The libraries of our country receive an annual income of only sixteen and a half million dollars. Rather a small investment in nation-building as compared, let us say, with what we spend for fur coats, or chewing-gum.

The American Library Association is one of our most valuable public services. It is asking for a fund of two million dollars for the enlargement of its work during the next three years. This appeal will meet with immediate and generous response. Men are what they are in their minds and souls, and in these days every agency which has as its object the strengthening of the moral sense, and the informing of the mind, must receive generous and enthusiastic support from all who love their country and desire the progress and prosperity of their fellow men.

Text and Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Weekly, April 3, 1920, “Books for Everybody, How the American Library Association Is Educating the Nation by Furnishing Out-of-the-way Villages and Isolated Farming Districts with Worth-While Literature” by Charles Aubrey Eaton.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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