I was doing some historical research on Caroline Garland (1854—1933), the 2nd librarian of the Dover Public Library. Caroline led the public library for nearly 50 years, from its establishment in 1884 until her death.
I ran across a speech that Miss Garland gave to the “Conference of Librarians” at Lake Placid in September 1894.
Apparently the sticky issue of the day was whether public libraries should house just edifying literature (pronounced lit-ra-tur, of course) or cater to the teeming masses who, God forbid, might want to read some entertaining fiction! Here’s the question from that day: “Is a public library justified in supplying books which are neither for instruction nor for the cultivation of taste; which are not books of knowledge nor of ideas, nor of good literature; which are books of entertainment only—such, for example, as the ruck of common novels.”
Here are some excerpts (with my editorial comments) from her impassioned argument. Remember this was 121 years ago:
This question refers not to books that are positively degrading, like Laura Jean Libbey and her ilk, nor even to the mawkish sentimentalities of Mrs. Southworth, Mrs. Stephens, and Bertha Clay; nor, of course, to works with any taint of uncleanness. I take it to refer to those moral commonplace productions, represented by Amanda Douglas, Rosa Carey, and Mrs. Holmes, possibly, but first and always by poor old Roe.**
The taste that, uncultivated, desires Roe, is the taste that, cultivated, desires Henry James. Neither author writes novels of ideas, nor of instruction, nor of knowledge. One, however, is called a writer of good literature, by reason of artistic merit, and the other is not. Yet as regards the presence of the two in our libraries, I do not think the arguments are all in favor of James. Take, for example, two types familiar in all public libraries:
One is the woman who married young, lives in a small house in a crowded street, has a family of children, and expends her mental energy and taste chiefly in making the most of life for her family on her husband’s small income. She comes to the library in a home-made gown, waits patiently her turn in the line, and asks for a volume of Roe, from whose perusal she derives a commonplace but solid pleasure.
The other is a woman who has not married so young, having waited for a husband who has money; and she lives in a house so excellent in its sanitary arrangements that a microbe would not have a fighting chance of life in it. She has no children and she comes to the library in a tailor-made gown, wants to be served at once, no matter how many are waiting, and asks for the latest volume of Henry James, from the perusal of which she acquires an added analytical and critical self-consciousness.
I boldly avow that the welfare of the individual, and the interests of the community, are as highly served by the circulation of that volume of Roe as by that volume of Henry James. (Yay Caroline!)
If it be a problem why so many people in the world desire commonplace books, I suspect the answer is found in the fact that so many persons are merely commonplace people. This would be an appalling fact, were it not that librarians are often quite gloriously commonplace themselves, without feeling grieved about it. Otherwise. I think we would be insufferable prigs. (Oh yes, Caroline, you’re right! We love trashy fiction too!)
Personally, I would not deprive readers of novels for entertainment only, provided, always, that they shall be clean and free from immoral taint; although my observation would testify that the commonplace reader does not desire and will not tolerate so much immorality as will the person of highly-cultivated literary taste. (Ooooh! Upper-crust-shaming!)
In conclusion then, it seems to me, a public library is justified in supplying its readers, along with books of ideas, knowledge, and instruction, some books that are for entertainment only; just as I would say that a public library is justified in paying the expenses of its librarian to a meeting of the A. L. A., even though at that meeting the librarians not only consider questions of ideas, and of instruction, and of knowledge, but also indulge themselves in a few excursions and a little general hilarity that must be conceded to be for entertainment only. (You go, girl!)
I am proud to be the successor to such a forward-thinking woman!
**Curious about “poor old Roe”, I researched further and found “the most popular American novelist of his time”: Edward Payson Roe (1838—1888). I’d never heard of him, but his 12 “sensational, but to a degree that is not unhealthy” novels outsold Mark Twain! “A Young Girl’s Wooing”, “He Fell in Love With His Wife”, and “Miss Lou” were among Poe’s bestsellers and critics called his fiction “unhackneyed, lively and fascinating”, “vigorous, but rarely melodramatic”, and “full of wit and even frolic”. Has anyone got an E.P. Roe novel they’d like to lend me?