Never stoop to pander to a depraved taste, no matter what specious pleas you may hear for tolerating the low in order to lead to the high, or for making your library contribute to the survival of the unfittest. Is it asked, how can the librarian find out, among the world of novels from which he is to select, what is pure and what is not, what is wholesome and what unhealthy, what is improving and what is trash? The answer is—there are some lists which will be most useful in this discrimination, while there is no list which is infallible.
Leypoldt's little catalogue of "Books for all Time" has nothing that any library need do without. Another compendious list is published by the American Library Association. And the more extensive catalogue prepared for the World's Fair in , and embracing about 5, volumes, entitled "Catalogue of A. Library: 5, vols. I may [ 26 ] note that the list of novels in this large catalogue put forth by the American Library Association has the names of five only out of the twenty-eight writers of fiction heretofore pronounced objectionable, and names a select few only of the books of these five.
As for the later issues of the press, and especially the new novels, let him skim them for himself, unless in cases where trustworthy critical judgments are found in journals. Running through a book to test its style and moral drift is no difficult task for the practiced eye. Let us suppose that you are cursorily perusing a novel which has made a great sensation, and you come upon the following sentence: "Eighteen millions of years would level all in one huge, common, shapeless ruin. Perish the microcosm in the limitless macrocosm!
Evans Wilson's story "Macaria", and many equally extraordinary examples of "prose run mad" are found in the novels of this once noted writer. What kind of a model is that to form the style of the youthful neophyte, to whom one book is as good as another, since it was found on the shelves of the public library? I am not insisting that all books admitted should be models of style; even a purist must admit that one of the greatest charms of literature is its infinite variety. But when book after book is filled with such specimens of literary lunacy as this, one is tempted to believe that Homer and Shakespeare, to say nothing of Thackeray and Hawthorne, have lived in vain.
Never fear criticism of those who find fault with the absence from your library of books that you know to be nearly worthless; their absence will be a silent but eloquent protest against them, sure to be vindicated by the utter ob [ 27 ] livion into which they will fall. Many a flaming reputation has been extinguished after dazzling callow admirers for six months, or even less. Do not dread the empty sarcasm, that may grow out of the exclusion of freshly printed trash, that your library is a "back number.
It is no part of your business as a librarian to cater to the tastes of those who act as if the reading of endless novels of sensation were the chief end of man. As one fed on highly spiced viands and stimulating drinks surely loses the appetite for wholesome and nourishing food, so one who reads only exciting and highly wrought fictions loses the taste for the master-pieces of prose and poetry. Let not the fear of making many mistakes be a bug-bear in your path. If you are told that your library is too exclusive, reply that it has not means enough to buy all the good books that are wanted, and cannot afford to spend money on bad or even on doubtful ones.
If you have excluded any highly-sought-for book on insufficient evidence, never fail to revise the judgment. All that can be expected of any library is approximately just and wise selection, having regard to merit, interest, and moral tone, more than to novelty or popularity. In the matter of choice, individual opinions are of small value.
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Never buy a book simply because some reader extols it as very fine, or "splendid," or "perfectly lovely. A good lesson to libraries is furnished in the experience of the Cleveland Ohio Public Library.
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In , out of 16, volumes in that library, no less than 6, were [ 28 ] novels. The governing board, on the plea of giving people what they wanted, bought nearly all new books of fiction, and went so far, even, as to buy of Pinkerton's Detective stories, fifteen copies each, fifteen of all Mrs. Southworth's novels, etc. But a change took place in the board, and the librarian was permitted to stop the growing flood of worthless fiction, and as fast as the books were worn out, they were replaced by useful reading.
It resulted that four years later, with 40, volumes in the library, only 7, were novels, or less than one-fifth, instead of more than one-third of the whole collection, as formerly. In the same time, the percentage of fiction drawn out was reduced from 69 per cent.
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Libraries are always complaining that they cannot buy many valuable books from lack of funds. Yet some of them buy a great many that are valueless in spite of this lack. Can any thing be conceived more valueless than a set of Sylvanus Cobb's novels, reprinted to the number of thirty-five to forty, from the New York Ledger?
Yet these have been bought for scores of libraries, which could not afford the latest books in science and art, or biography, history, or travel. There are libraries in which the latest books on electricity, or sewerage, or sanitary plumbing, might have saved many lives, but which must go without them, because the money has been squandered on vapid and pernicious literature.
In almost every library, while some branches of knowledge are fairly represented, others are not represented at all. Nearly all present glaring deficiencies, and these are often caused by want of systematic plan in building up the collection. Boards of managers are frequently changed, and the policy of the library with them. All the more important is it that the librarian should be so well equipped [ 29 ] with a definite aim, and with knowledge and skill competent to urge that aim consistently, as to preserve some unity of plan. I need not add that a librarian should be always wide awake to the needs of his library in every direction.
It should be taken for granted that its general aim is to include the best books in the whole range of human knowledge. With the vast area of book production before him, he should strengthen every year some department, taking them in order of importance. Some scholarly writers tell us that very few books are essential to a good education. 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.
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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 [ 30 ] 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, 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.
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When in a book-store, or a private or 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. 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.
The methods of selection and purchase in public libraries are very various. In the Worcester Mass. Public Library, the librarian makes a list of desiderata, has it manifolded, and sends a copy to each of the thirteen members of the Board of directors. This list is reported on by the members at the next monthly meeting of the Board, and generally, in the main, approved.
Novels and stories are not bought until time has shown of what value they may be. The aim is mainly educational at the Worcester library, very special pains being taken to aid all the pupils and teachers in the public schools, by careful selection, and providing duplicate or more copies of important works. In the Public Library of Cleveland, Ohio, there is appointed out of the governing Board a book-committee of three. To one of these are referred English books wanted, to another French, and to the third German books.
This sub-committee approves or amends the Librarian's recom [ 32 ] mendations, at its discretion; but expensive works are referred to the whole board for determination. In the New York Mercantile Library, which must keep continually up to date in its supply of new books, the announcements in all the morning papers are daily scanned, and books just out secured by immediate order. Many publishers send in books on approval, which are frequently bought. An agent in London is required to send on the day of publication all new books on certain subjects.
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The library boards of management meet weekly in New York and Philadelphia, but monthly in most country libraries. The selection of books made by committees introduces often an element of chance, not quite favorable to the unity of plan in developing the resources of the library. But with a librarian of large information, discretion, and skill, there need seldom be any difficulty in securing approval of his selections, or of most of them.
In some libraries the librarian is authorized to buy at discretion additions of books in certain lines, to be reported at the next meeting of the board; and to fill up all deficiencies in periodicals that are taken. This is an important concession to his judgment, made in the interest of completeness in the library, saving a delay of days and sometimes weeks in waiting for the board of directors.
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All orders sent out for accessions should previously be compared with the alphabeted order-card list, as well as with the general catalogue of the library, to avoid duplication. After this the titles are to be incorporated in the alphabet of all outstanding orders, to be withdrawn only on receipt of the books. The library should invite suggestions from all frequenting it, of books recommended and not found in the collection.