Frederic Vinton


First published in The Princeton Review, [1874], vol. 3, issue 12, pp. 714-723
The text reprinted as a separate pamphlet with the title:
American College Libraries.
By Rev. Frederick Vinton, A. M.
Librarian of the College of New Jersey
Princeton, N. J. [1874]
[Princeton University Library call number: P94.8812.04]
[Pagination: page 1, titlepage; page 2, blank; pages 3 to 12, text]


Since the venerable clergy of Connecticut assembled, in 1700, to found Yale College, laid their forty folios upon a table, each saying "I give these books for the founding of a college in this colony," the shelves of American college libraries have been stored with theology and sacred learning in far larger proportion than with other literature and science. An examination of the catalogue of Harvard College library, printed in 1830, when it contained at least fifty thousand volumes, shows that more than a tenth of the titles described theological works. Judging from the systematic index, one would think the proportion to be a fifth. Few other colleges have been able to print their library catalogues; but those of Brown University, and Bowdoin College, exhibit the same general truth. At Princeton the proportion is one-sixth. Such facts are explained by the original design of our early colleges, to rear a Christian ministry for the country; and they indicate, of course, the larger ratio which theological studies once bore to the whole culture of mankind. We who live in the new world of thought and acquisition, have need of other nutriment; and he who should feed on this alone, would be as unfit for the intercourse of present life, as the geologic fauna for the present condition of the earth. College libraries remind us too strongly yet of that ancient time; they have not a due proportion of the new learning, literature and science. In the Bowdoin catalogue, (1873), the titles of books written by authors whose names begin with A, fill 35 pages, and are in number say 525. Of these, only 116 are on subjects not theological, or were printed within this century. The whole catalogue has 742 pages, and about 11,200 titles. If the proportion throughout be the same, the whole number of books not antiquated, and not religious, is only 2,436; a small supply for the actual wants of a college. A similar examination of the Providence catalogue, indicates that about a quarter of the whole is theological or ancient. Old books are charming to the bibliophile; but college students need something else than curiosities, or even profound erudition. Learining flourished before our time, but science is mainly of

[End of page 3]

recent growth. It is in scientific books of a high character that the destitution is greatest, and it is probably because of this high character, and the attendant cost. Often, the best are in French or German, and of commensurate price. These would often be shunned by the student, from the difficulty of reading them; but this should not deter the professors. Such books are the means by which the instructor gains and keeps his fitness for his place; and the supply of such should be equal to his wants. The reputation of the college, and the interest of the student, demand it. But in the existing state of American college libraries, the difficulty of procuring them amounts almost to a prohibition, and often imposes on the ill-appointed professor the cruel necessity of paying with his own money for the instruments with which he is to effect his pupils' good. Teachers and students are thus threatened with atrophy, and the generations which pass through college during the period of poverty, may always retain the dwarf proportions which naturally proceed from insufficient aliment in youth.

In the public library of the city of Boston are preserved the manuscripts of Nathaniel Bowditch, whose name was the pride of mathematical science in youthful America. Among these, in twenty-one volumes, quarto and folio, is his Common-place book, consisting in great part of whole mathematical treatises, which he was too poor to buy, and therefore copied out with his own hand. But this was at the end of the last century and at the beginning of this. Is not America now too rich to let "' penury repress the noble rage" of her scientific sons?

College libraries are often rich in books which students do not want, and poor in books which students need. The library of the College of New Jersey has the first three polyglots of the Scriptures, twenty-four volumes folio, glorious monuments of learning; but college students have no occasion for them. It possesses the Annales Eccelesiastici of Baronius, in thirteen volumes folio; and the publications of the Record Commission of Great Britain, eighty-four folios of crabbed, abbreviated, barbarous Latinity, coming down from the middle ages. In a century, probably they would not be consulted a hundred times. Fifty years ago, in setting up an academy in Maine, Martin Chemnitz' Examen concili tridentini, was given to help educate frontier children. Oftentimes also, the literary and scientific

[End of page 4]

possessions of a library have become antiquated, and therefore useless or unattractive. This is manifested by the slender attendance of borrowers when the library is open, by the proportion of those who enter and take nothing away, and by the small ratio of the loans in a year, or even in a college generation, to the whole mass of the library. By all these indications it appears that our college libraries are of little use to the students, much as they need and wish for help. It is a misnomer to call such a collection a library. The disappointment it produces is suited to discourage and disgust the inquirer. It is a mockery of curiosity and research. Students are entitled to complain that the books they find in such libraries are inferior to the very text-books they are using, instead of conducting to higher levels of science. They find themselves everywhere met by walls and ditches, forbidding advance in the directions indicated in the lecture-room, or the manual of the class. In justice it must be said of those who resort to college libraries, that they are truly in earnest; the books they borrow are of a superior sort, intended for study, and not for recreation. Oftentimes all the scanty stock of good books pertaining to a subject prescribed to a class, or a society, will be seized by the first corners; the rest can only appeal to the courtesy of the fortunate, or wait till perhaps the hour of interest, or of distinction, has gone by. Considering the procession to alert and ambitious minds yearly passing through our colleges, and that the necessities arising from occasion and from character are continually changing, the supply of books should be large, varied, and often recruited. Properly regarded, a library is a dictionary, in which all words should be inserted, certainly the newest, that each may be found as occasion requires. We know what to think of him who has no dictionary, or who never opens it, or who is content with a scanty manual. He is, and must remain, in a rank like that of the barbarous tribes or stolid peasants, whose whole dialect consists of a few hundred words. How differently we think of him who owns and continually consults lexicons of all languages, dictionaries of all sciences, encyclopedias of the largest capacity. Such is the apparatus found in the reading-room of the British Museum; found also in part in every great newspaper office ---one of the best universities in the world. It may not be wise indeed, for a young man to "take all knowledge for his province," since

[End of page 5]

no mind can contain all that is known by all. But any person may at some time have occasion for any variety of knowledge; and, for a great body of students the supply should be varied and ample.

Aside from the study of text-books prescribed by authority, one of the most precious parts of a man's education in college, is that which he gives himself, by following the bent of his own nature in a course of reading. A judicious parent may well hesitate at restricting the reading of his children (except in the case of frivolous or mischievous books), or at prescribing a course of reading for them. The natural appetite of a healthy mind, like those of the inferior animals, may be relied on to produce good results, if left to its normal impulse. College requisitions therefore, in the form of tasks imposed, ought not to be multiplied so far that the student shall have no time to gratify the passion he may feel for voluntary acquisition. It may well be questioned whether the knowledge to which a man of himself inclines, is not worth more than the that he acquires because he is bidden. In the latter he may have to row against wind and tide; in the former, the force of his nature seconds his exertions; the difference in progress, therefore, will be measured by twice the force of the stream. Books which suit him, and time to read them, are the demand of his nature. For want of liberty of choice in childhood and in college life, early tastes are often blighted, or kept in check, till the hard necessity of working for bread, and a removal from the neighborhood of books, have made it impossible to develop them.

The choice of books for libraries should therefore be guided by consummate discretion, ever keeping in mind the various tastes of men. The personal preference of the librarian should be restrained by the severest conscientiousness. Most libraries have grown to be what they are, under the control of capricious causes. In great measure, they are the bequest of professional men, unloading their shelves when they die.. But law, medicine, and theology are not suitable studies for college students. A systematic regard to what constitutes a good education, ought to guide every selection. What a young man needs first to know, is more of that which he has already acquired in part. His earliest reading in college should supplement his previous knowledge. Some men have a passion for books of travel, acquainting them with all parts of the planet. They would follow

[End of page 6]

Ulysses to the cities of many people, and know their mind. It is argonautism without peril or fatigue. It is a foundation for liberalism of thought and feeling. The "Description of the Earth," as learned in books of travel, especially in European countries, is a necessary preparation for a creditable reception in society. Not to know Europe is not to understand the papers, or be able to judge of what they say. So many persons born abroad are among our adopted citizens, and so many of our own people now go abroad every year, that he who cannot follow must read books of travel, or stand at a mortifying disadvantage. Such books, well chosen, on every important country of Europe, the library should provide, and the student will gladly read.

Other men have an equal appetite for history. They are ashamed not to know who lived on this planet before them, and what they did. By every means should these inborn passions be fostered. It is the duty of every college to provide largely for a knowledge especially of American history. Our nation is to the full as unique in modern times as Israel was in ancient. God's providence has made use of each as a lighthouse for the world. Perpetuating the knowledge of that providence is one means of perpetuating the blessings which distinguish us above all other people. On the back of his colossal statue of Washington, standing before the American capitol, Greenough chiseled these words: "Simulachrum istud, in magnum libertatis exemplum, nec sine ipsa duraturum, faciebat Horatius Greenough." Whatever the truth of the inscription as it stands, it is certainly true that American institutions endure on condition of the continued knowledge of American history and principles among us. If the robust and comely hero of this western Israel forgets his parentage and his history, "then shall he become weak, and be as another man." It is the imperative duty of American colleges to make known the history of our republic and of our fathers. But, it is not enough to know it in the gross, and in manuals; it must be known also in particulars, and in original sources. How shall we be sure that Bancroft has given us the true history of our revolution, unless we have the contemporary narratives? Our history is the history of principles discovered, defended and maintained; we learn the principles, in learning what it cost to establish them. Within the present

[End of page 7]

century, every considerable nation of Europe has been reprinting its old historians, and bringing to light its medieval records. Our government leaves such enterprises to local historical societies. American colleges should help to cultivate, diffuse and impress this knowledge. Yet there is no college library except that of Harvard, which has a satisfactory collection of such books; nor probably any in which maybe found the original authors quoted by Irving, Prescott, and Parkman for their histories of French and Spanish America. Original editions, indeed, of contemporary narratives are now too costly for purchase by any but the wealthy. But the reprints of colonial and state histories and other local narratives, ought to be secured; for without these we miss the true position and original coloring employed to represent the career and institutions of our fathers. Our own history thus examined, becomes, moreover, "the fore-school" to all historical research; and in it the student may learn to weigh evidence, and believe none but contemporaries. If this were the sole result of such inquiries, it would be an ample reward.

A form of history peculiarly attractive to the young, and very effective in its influence over them, is biography. When the excellence which they have admired from afar is brought near in the record of its daily life, and when the steps by which it was attained are made visible, the hope of imitating if not of equaling it is awakened, and a mighty stimulus applied. How great the influence of Edwards' Biographies of self-taught men, and Craik's "Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties."
          "Lives of great men all remind us
          We may make our lives sublime."
This is the most nutritious fertilizer we can lay on the hot-bed of student life.

A still larger class have a natural bent toward the sciences of observation in respect to organic forms. College libraries are commonly ill-provided with books of natural science. The successful investigation of nature made within this century is prodigious. The whole mass of books in the world has received a sudden increase, like that which followed the invention of printing. The scientific press is prolific as nature herself. The sub division of topics, the number of monograms, and the amount of discovery, are enormous. The new disclosure of powers in nature, or of infinite variety in her forms, has roused man to un-

[End of page 8]

wonted exertion, and seemed to endow him with penetration above his own. But, on the shelves of some colleges, a mere twilight of information, proceeding from a few elementary books, is all that answers to this broad illumination. Students of such colleges must remain children in science, incapable of independent views or of original inquiry. Every department of natural science deserves an alcove of books, and a museum of specimens.

It is not necessary to plead here that American colleges be supplied with the means of classical instruction, or of linguistic inquiry; for these claims have been always allowed; and in these departments, college shelves are most likely to be creditably furnished. What may be most needed is the addition of the new to the old.

Money is often wasted in libraries in the purchase of inferior literature. Why should any be bought or read, except the best? Considered as a means of education the perusal of inferior authors is worse than waste. Those who fixed the curriculum of classical study, chose the noblest models. They set us to reading Virgil and Cicero, Livy and Tacitus. They selected for us extracts from Homer, Herodotus, Xenophon and Thucydides; from the greatest tragedians and orators, critics and philosophers. They have not given us the Augustan history because it is interesting; Callimachus, or the Greek novelists, because they are attractive. Nothing but the best, was the principle of their selection. And why should we read a hundred volumes of British poets, many of them insipid as lymph, instead of fixing our attention on the ten who deserve it? The misfortune of youthful indiscriminate reading is not only that it wastes time, but enfeebles the taste. Until there are professorships of poetry and history, of criticism and oratory, let librarians keep the door against all but the highest and strongest writers.

But there ought to be these professorships of literature. Why not, as well as of science? What nobler lessons can be learned at college than those which history, for instance, is inspired to teach? History is a book of charts by which statesmen sail; he who does not study it may steer his country upon rocks. There ought to be lectures on the age of Lord Bacon, lighting up the twilight of Tudor misrule, and helping us better to know why our fathers came here. There ought to be professorships of Shakespearean literature, charged to set forth the grandeur

[End of page 9]

of his philosophy, the subtle gradations of his comparative psychology, and the strong simplicity of his phrase. There ought to be lectures on the prose works of Milton teaching from them the principles of political science, and bringing young men acquainted with his indignant eloquence. To most men, Milton is only a poet whom they must read once in their lives. Young men should be taught to know him as the prophet of freedom. By affixing their attention on such authors as these we should extinguish their wish for inferior reading, and we should raise the standard of all their own thought and expression. Every college library should have all the good editions of our highest writers, and all the best critics and historians of their works and period. It is no matter if it have little more. Let inferior authors and curiosities of literature be sought for in great public libraries, where, as in some stately necropolis, their lifeless remains are embalmed.

But, glorious as English literature is, we are not entitled to extol it unless we have studied what elsewhere exists. Its appropriate rank can be decided only by a comparison with the literatures of the continent. The masterpieces, therefore, of foreign literature, both originals and translations, should be provided for every college. The intimate knowledge of Dante and the high national writers of Europe is the common ground on which all scholars stand, and he who has it not finds no admission among them. Yet there are American colleges of no mean rank, in whose libraries Dante is not found; and how many of the three hundred editions of Petrarch are to be found? How much do most men know of Cervantes and Lope de Vega? How many understood Tyndall's recent allusion to Giordano Bruno? The languages of the south of Europe are besides so easy, so important, and so diffused, that he is not an educated man who is not acquainted with them. To know English literature alone is to be a mere provincial in all the capitals of Europe; and to read and speak English alone, is to be neglected and undervalued wherever one goes. Every ambitious young man will learn these languages and literatures as a means of culture, and of access to opportunities. Considering the amount of foreign history, literature and science, which has not been and will not be translated into English, perhaps the fifth part of a college library should be in continental tongues.

[End of page 10]

If now, we compare these requisitions with the existing state of college libraries among us, we shall find reason enough for regret and for exertion. It is the constant experience, we have said, of students asking for books of a higher sort, or (when required to write essays) seeking stimulants for thought, to find that the books they want are not in the college library. Such famine is intolerable. Let it no more be said of American students,
          "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
          Rich with the stores of time, did ne'er unroll."

Where a great library exists, college advantages seem to be multiplied, as by the turning of a kaleidoscope. The most recondite allusion may be searched out and understood. Opportunities for instruction are not limited by the abilities or acquisitions of the local professors; for the great masters of thought in other lands, or who have ever lived among men, may be the daily associates of the student. Example is the great stimulant for young men; let them have the best. A man is never safe from provincialism and narrowness of mind but by free intercourse with books. In libraries we may hear the debates which go on in the high parliament of the world, and the discussion of opinions pronounced in the lecture rooms which we frequent. The best way to become an independent thinker is to hear all sides and judge for one's self. Very difficult is it not to follow too closely the guidance of a superior teacher, if we hear no other voice. It is true that universal reading may prove a drench to an undiscerning mind. But an instructor's province is to suggest caution, while pointing out the advantage of induction from a wide circle of opinions.

Many American colleges possess a scanty library fund, sufficient to purchase a few volumes, or a few hundred volumes every year. Such gifts deserve grateful remembrance, and they may suffice to procure the best of what is annually produced. In time, it is thought, they will secure a good library. Impossible! They are inadequate to fill the chasm which divides these libraries as they are, from repositories containing the best which in former ages have produced. Nothing less than a great gift, made for this special end, can purchase that, and so ensure for all the future what the college needs for its highest

[End of page 11]

usefulness. Supposing it were true that present meagre funds would give in fifty years what is needed now, who could be willing to condemn twelve generations of students to low diet, and intellectual decrepitude resulting from it? How bitter is the thought that youth comes but once, and that if advantages nor instruction are not supplied at this period,
          "All the voyage of their life
          Is bound in shallows and in miseries."
How painful the idea that the past poverty of America has entailed on almost sixty thousand of her educated sons, intellectual inferiority to what they might have been. Once settled in life, the ordinary student cannot buy for himself a great library, nor in nine cases out of ten will he be located near one. His college is the alma mater, from whose breast, while he remains in her arms, he has a right to ask the supply of his intellectual thirst. Her heart may well break if she sees her children famish through her poverty. We live in a time when millions are freely given to foster the interests of learning in our land. Let us not lavish them all in buildings. Europe spends her wealth in libraries, museums, and galleries. Foreign universities are not conspicuous for their edifices, but for their vast collections of books. What a sinking of heart does a librarian feel on comparing their stores to ours! Or even in exploring many a city book-store! Books are the life-blood of a literary institution. They may be of more value than all the rest. They speak to successive generations while time endures. He who founds a library lays the surest claims to the gratitude of millions. Happy the millionaire who shall endow ten college libraries with a hundred thousand dollars each. Literature shall remember him and perpetuate his, name. When some greater Dante shall mark out the circles of the sky for the benefactors of mankind, he will marshal such men to their place, in the same quarter, but in far higher station, than those who erected fountains in fainting cities, or excavated reservoirs in torrid provinces of the East.

[End of page 12]

[Notes for this transcription:
Page 7 - "Greenough chiseled these words: "Simulachrum istud, in magnum libertatis exemplum, nec sine ipsa duraturum, faciebat Horatius Greenough." "Horatio Greenough made this effigy, for a great exemplar of freedom, and one destined only to endure with freedom itself."
Page 7 - "then shall he become weak, and be as another man." Cf. Judges 16. (Samson and Delilah)
Page 8 - Edwards' Biographies of self-taught men, and Craik's "Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties." Bela Bates Edwards, Biography of Self Taught Men ..., five editions published between 1832 and 1860. An edition of this work was published in 1846-47, with 44 biographical sketches; v. 1 was compiled by Bela Bates Edwards, v. 2. by S.G.B., who, according to Library of Congress card 16-3199, was Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, or, according to Halkett & Laing, v. 1, p. 204, was Sarah G. Bagley. George L. Craik, The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties. Illustrated by Anecdotes and Portraits, first published in London in 1830, and reprinted in the United States several times thereafter, down to 1874.
Page 8 - "Lives of great men all remind us / We may make our lives sublime." Stanza 7, "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine, in October 1838.
Page 10 - "Tyndall's recent allusion to Giordano Bruno" Vinton is referring to John Tyndall, the Irish self-taught physicist and naturalist, who had made a successful lecture tour in the United States during 1872-1873.
Page 11 - "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page / Rich with the stores of time, did ne'er unroll." Lines 50-51, Thomas Gray "Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard," first published London, 1750.
Page 12 - "There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune / Omitted, all the voyage of their life /Is bound in shallows and in miseries." William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3.218]


 Last modified 12-December-2005