Public libraries play a very important part in promoting the progress of knowledge. They bring within our reach valuable books which we could not afford to purchase for ourselves.
They are particularly useful for poor students, whose education would be hampered with almost insuperable difficulties if they were confined to such books as they could buy for themselves or borrow from private individuals.
Even those who are better off cannot afford to buy all the books they require for their studies. For instance, such a work as the Encyclopedia Britannica is an invaluable book of reference; yet how few can afford the expense of adding it to their private store of books.
There are many other such compilations to which scholars have constantly to refer large dictionaries of the English language, biographical dictionaries, classical dictionaries, dictionaries of antiquities, dictionaries of bibliography which are scarcely to be found anywhere else but in the great public libraries, and are there open to poor and rich alike.
In addition to books of general reference, students in every branch of study have often to consult expensive books that are beyond the reach of their limited means.
In such cases they depend on the public library to supplement the deficiencies of their own bookshelves which only contain the necessary textbooks.
A well-managed library, besides supplying many valuable books not to be got elsewhere, is very conducive to educational progress in other ways. At his own home a student may be liable to continual interruptions and distractions which break the thread of his ideas and make it difficult for him to concentrate his attention on his books.
In a library he finds himself in a large apartment where silence reigns, and from which the noises and worries of the outer world are carefully excluded. The very air of the place and the spectacle of so many students silently absorbed in their books, inspires studious thoughts and a spirit of calm reflection.
The large circular reading-room of the British Museum, which contains seats for three hundred readers, is a model on a large scale of what such institutions ought to be. The commoner books of reference are arranged on the lower shelves round the room, and can be taken down by any one without asking permission from the librarian.
For more special books application is made on a written form by the reader, who quietly waits in his seat until the librarian brings them to him.
This combination of free consultation of common books of reference, with written application for special books, ought to be followed, as far as possible, in every public library.
A student often goes to the reading-room for the purpose of discovering or verifying a number of points, which he expects to find settled in some encyclopedia or biographical dictionary, although he does not know exactly in which encyclopedia or in which volume he will find them.
In such cases it is an irritating restriction to be compelled to apply in writing for each of the books that may help to settle the point.
To do so also gives much extra trouble to the librarian, trouble which is quite unnecessary, because there is no danger of dishonest persons slipping great volumes of encyclopedias into their pockets without immediate detection.
The librarian can soon determine the large reference books that are most commonly called for, put them on the table for general use, and issue all other books after receiving receipts for them from the applicants.
Libraries managed on some such principles should be opened for the use of the general public in the great cities of every civilized country.
A large public library is also the store-house of books that would in time be lost to the world if there were no such places to keep them long after they have ceased to be read by the general public.
Such libraries can claim by law a copy of every book that is published. Many old books thus preserved will be of the greatest value of future historians and literary critics.