Frederic Vinton


First published in 1877 in Library Journal, vol. 2, p. 53-7.
The following text is reprinted in The Library And Its Organization: Reprints Of Articles And Addresses Selected And Annotated By Gertrude Gilbert Drury Chief Instructor, St. Louis Library School. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1924. Pages 395 to 402.

The method of administration at Princeton University, as described below, is so typical of the college library of the time, and of later years as well, that it admirably supplements Mr. Robinson's more theoretical article, just preceding.

Mr. Frederic Vinton was born October 9, 1817 in Boston, graduated from Amherst College in 1839, prepared for the ministry at Andover Theological Seminary and then taught for a time on account of his health. His first library experience was in cataloging his brother's library of five thousand volumes. In 1856 he became assistant librarian in the Boston Public Library, 1865 first assistant in the Congressional library and 1873 librarian at Princeton. His special interest was in bibliographic work. He published a subject catalog of the Princeton library and at the time of his death in 1890 was preparing an analytic index of scientific periodical literature of all languages.

If a college library differs from others, it may be in permitting a simpler administration, because the resort to it will be by a less number of persons, and those of higher intelligence. To meet the probable wants of such a constituency, the library should consist of the higher and highest sort of books; and to assist such readers in the use of such books, the librarian needs every ability and every accomplishment. Such requisitions would be overwhelming, if the appropriate work of the librarian were not exactly suited to make him what he needs to be. That appropriate work, in such a sense as almost to exclude every other, we hold to be the making of the catalogue. This making does not consist in the mere copying of the titles, but in acquiring as complete an idea as possible
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of the books themselves. While each volume is passing through his hands, he must compel it to leave its image in his mind; not only that he may locate it among those most nearly resembling it, but that its idea may immediately recur to his thoughts when information is asked which it can supply. The supposed drudgery of cataloguing is therefore the indispensable means of making him a good librarian. We fear that the so much desiderated object of co-operative cataloguing (by which each librarian shall have the least possible writing to do) is unfavorable to good librarianship. For myself, I would on no account lose that familiarity with the subjects and even the places of my books which results from having catalogued and located every one.

Perhaps the first rule to be laid down in respect to a library is that it should be accessible in the highest possible degree. The ideal of a church is that, like the ear of God, it should be always open. The piety of Catholic countries and of monastic establishments has required that worship should never cease, and that the weary soul should always be able to enter the place of prayer. It is desirable, but not to be expected, that the student should be able to find at any hour the solution of his doubts. Libraries are closed during the night, though some are lighted in the evening. But it may be boldly said that libraries should be open every day and during most of the sunlight hours.

It follows, from such requisitions, that the library must have more than one attendant. A very moderate library exacts a number and variety of services too great for any one person. Equally necessary is it that its head should have nothing else to do than library work. It has been the custom of colleges and seminaries that some professor should also be librarian. No library can confer a tenth of the benefits legitimately to be expected from it unless it has a librarian wholly devoted to its service. The idea is intolerable that a librarian should have other work to do, whether that of another office or undertaken for his own interest. Authorship is a librarian's most probable temptation, but he should resist it with a priestly spirit. That is demanded of him which is required of the Christian: willingness to be last of all and servant of all. Not fame, but usefulness, must be 'his mark. A living index to the library must be his coveted praise. This will be partly secured by that
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diligence in cataloguing of which we have already spoken. But, if the acquisition of new books were suspended, he would find a yet larger usefulness in studying the classes into which his books are divided: to perfect these, to have a clear idea of them, and to write a coup d'oeil for each. Specifying and criticising the characteristics of each book is his highest and most useful function. Instead of a mere nomenclator, it makes of him a critic, a philosopher, and a friend to every one who borrows. Judiciously done, this is of the utmost value to a body of students, equalling the usefulness of any professor. Too extended to be posted in every alcove, this should be appended to every section in the catalogue.

This catalogue, as fast as it proceeds, should become accessible to the students, in printed form placed in every room, if possible; otherwise in manuscript. How this may be accomplished, it may perhaps be permitted to explain, by describing the surroundings of the present writer. He sits in a circular desk having two openings for a passage-way. Four circles of small drawers gird him about, one above the other. These drawers contain the card catalogue, authors on one side, subjects on the other, both alphabetical. As he catalogues each book, he drops the description into the proper drawers, right and left. These drawers stand loosely on shelves, and may be pulled either way—inside by the librarian, outside by the students. A wire, passing through all the cards in a drawer, near the bottom, prevents the loss or displacement of any. Any man, therefore, seeking information may satisfy himself whether the library is known to contain what he wishes, so far as the catalogue has advanced. This he may do silently and without confession of ignorance. But in the early stages of catalogue preparation, the librarian's own stock of information may be drawn on or his individual ingenuity and aptitude for research be appealed to. If worthy of his place, mortification will follow any case of fruitless inquiry.

An approach to circular form seems most convenient for a library building. It has been adopted for several college libraries, and specially at Princeton. So great advantages seem to attend that a short description may be permitted here in addition to the illustrations engraved elsewhere. The circular desk already alluded to occupies the middle of an octagonal room, each side of the octagon having four windows, lofty but nar-
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row. Two are omitted on opposite sides of the lower floor, for the sake of entrances, but the upper story has two half-length windows over each doorway, making thirty-two in all. Between every two windows a bookcase, starting from the wall, advances toward the centre; but they all stop short of it, so as to leave an open space of thirty feet. Every alternate one, moreover, is shorter than its neighbors, to avoid immoderate clustering in the middle. The material of all is butternut-wood, in native color. Large cinque-foil windows fill the pediments over each of the eight sides, and a star window is immediately over the desk. By these arrangements abundant light is secured. Each shelf holds two sets of books, standing edge to edge, no partition being interposed. Thus free circulation of air is obtained, the eye ranging through the building, over the tops of the books, as through the meshes of a net. The greatest amount of shelf-room is also secured; for, though the outside diameter of the building is but sixty-four feet, more than a hundred thousand volumes can be shelved within it. This is the more surprising, since the great reading-room of the British Museum, 140 feet across, if shelved twenty feet high around the wall would hold but eighty thousand volumes. From his desk in the centre, the librarian can see no book, but he can see every person present, even the floors, being of perforated iron, presenting no great obstruction to the eye. It is a perfect panopticon.

The usage prevails in some American libraries of locating books as they are acquired, according to a running number recorded in a catalogue kept at the desk. By this arrangement, it is claimed, if the alphabetical place of the title is known, the book can always be found. This may be true; but it is also true that all research by subjects is impossible. Logical connection of parts is everything to the inquirer, and the total absence of it makes a library useless for independent study. At Princeton, the students are allowed free access to the shelves, and no privilege is so highly valued. The inquirer does not then depend on the title in deciding the fitness of a book to his purpose, but is able to reject one and take another, if examination shows it to be more suitable. Besides this, his knowledge of books and of the laws of classification continually increases. It will be said by many that the safety of the books is completely sacrificed by so doing. But in so small a community as a college, where every man may be known by every
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other, this may not be true. Ample experience has proved that in proportion as men are trusted it becomes safe to trust them. Each borrower is required to show his book at the desk before taking it from the room, leaving its title on a blank signed by himself. As a safeguard, however, against the dishonorable, a long colored book-mark, bearing the date and other memoranda, is laid in each book so as to appear at each end when it is shown at the desk. An attendant at the sole door of egress can see, as borrowers pass, whether any book has been illegitimately taken. The librarian always conducts the distribution of books, since this is almost his only opportunity of knowing the students, and of assisting their inquiries.

A skilful arrangement of books on the shelves is of the highest importance to inquirers pursuing research among them. During the absence of a complete catalogue, such an arrangement affords no mean substitute. A skilful arrangement is one which brings together things really alike, however entitled. It is well to divide the circle of knowledge into a few great sections conspicuously distinguished. The world and its parts may be one of these, literature and science two others. The advantage will follow from this that the inquirer decides at once to what part of the house he must direct his steps. If now, in the alcoves having geographical names, a similarity of internal arrangement obtains, still further assistance follows. Let the books occupying the first tier of shelves in a geographical alcove contain voyages and travels in the region indicated; then the history of it as a whole; then the history of sections; then the biography, and last the collected miscellaneous works of its citizens. When this uniformity of arrangement is understood, it will afford much assistance; and if something like it is attempted in every other alcove, the advantage, will be greatly extended. Every alcove at Princeton has its name plainly but not obtrusively printed within it, and a diagram of the whole floor, with all the subdivisions numbered, hangs in a conspicuous place. An alphabetical list of these subdivisions borders the diagram, making the way to find books very easy. The use of such expedients by applicants in finding their own books affords a useful discipline of mind to which intelligent persons are not averse. If unsuccessful in their search, the librarian may be applied to, who is then put on the defensive to vindicate his arrangement. It is
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understood in all cases that the continuation of any subject located on the first floor may be looked for immediately above. Provided with so many facilities, the student may fairly be expected to use his own ingenuity; and a few leading questions from the librarian may be better than that he should leave his place to bring a book. When twenty persons are waiting at once, it is impossible he should do so. Explanations must be asked before or after the hour for registration.

The registration of books borrowed need not occupy much time in any library frequented, let us suppose, by two hundred a day. The labor may be thrown mainly upon the borrower, who finds blanks within his reach. These are somewhat oblong, having separate lines for "Author's name," "Title of the book," "Borrower's name," "Date." When a borrower presents his book and the receipt he would give for it, a careful comparison of the two requires but an instant. If the description be insufficient to identify the volume, because it is but one of a set, or because there may be more editions or more copies than one, the librarian adds these particulars to prevent subsequent dispute. While the book is abroad, the receipt should be kept with others, alphabetized according to borrower's names, in a box or drawer. If these were copied by the papyrograph and arranged in the order of authors' names, it might be known who has any absent book and when he ought to return it. When the book is returned, a colored pencil-stroke by the librarian, across the face of the receipt, frees the late holder from the obligation he contracted, and yet the receipt may be held by the librarian. These, being preserved in alphabetical order, form the literary history of the borrower, of his class, and of the institution. The statistics of progressive usefulness may be easily ascertained by means of them, at any distance of time. The receipts of literary men borrowing from the British Museum, early in this century, would have afforded a most attractive study if they had not been sold to paper-mills.

In a college library, oftener than elsewhere, it seems suitable to have several copies of standard works. Oftentimes, when a professor has commended a certain book in his lecture, a stream of students seek that book immediately after. It is not fair that only one copy should be found. Especially in respect to famous authors, every good edition should be in the library. It often happens that a whole shelf will be depopulated by
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the sudden incursion oŁ lovers of Milton or Shakespeare, students of Macaulay or Froude. Not seldom, after such a raid some belated inquirer will report his disappointment at the desk, and be delighted if told that the coveted poem is also included in a certain collection at hand, or the admired passage concealed in some volume of extracts.

A most responsible part of library work remains to be mentioned, the selecting of books for purchase. Of course each professor is best adviser in his own department, but the professorships do not cover the whole of knowledge. This duty may not always be entrusted to the librarian; but, if he is fit for his place, he is more likely to do it well than any ordinary board of trustees. Having located and often handled his books, he is better guarded than any other against the danger of buying again what he already has. By constant intercourse with his constituency, he knows their needs, their wishes, and their capacity. If he is familiar with what has been written already, if his eyes are open to what is daily produced, and if his mind has been widened to comprehend the relations of one department of knowledge to another, it will be wise to entrust him with the augmentation of the library. He will not go wrong if he follows the track of the Astor library and the Boston institutions, as indicated in their catalogues. Especially if he has been trained in one of the great libraries of the country, he not only knows, by inspection of their contents, the quality of many thousand volumes, but he has probably had the advantage of years of intercourse with the great and learned men whose wisdom has made them what they are.

In many colleges one or more periodicals are maintained, as vehicles of public opinion or as repositories of superior literary work. The librarian may easily avail himself of such an opportunity to keep the students informed of attractive or useful acquisitions. If his funds do not permit a constant succession of purchases, he may confer great pleasure by describing some remarkable book, or even detailing the history through which some volume on his shelves can be proved to have passed. Perhaps no college library in the land is without some relic of scholastic or historic ownership. The parchment cover of an old volume may possibly be part of a unique manuscript of the classics. By searching out such things, the
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librarian may awaken interest in his labors, attract public attention to his college, or at least promote good-will toward himself. Students respect a man whose eyes keenly interrogate every object within their vision; they may even be prompted to form habits for themselves of the greatest importance for their after-lives.

The librarian of a college holds a place of exceptional advantage in respect to opportunity for useful and happy relations. He sits in the centre of instrumentalities of which all wish to avail themselves, having facilities for knowing seasonably what all wish to know. It is often in his power to confer peculiar pleasure or render important services, at little expense to himself. He may thus connect himself by agreeable associations with the most influential persons. Young men may resort to him in mental perplexities, finding unexpected help or even deriving impetus for life. As a college officer, he has nothing to do with government, and therefore, in moments of irritation, he may serve as a pivot round which great excitements may revolve.

A college library, well furnished and well managed, becomes the workshop of the institution, the rendezvous of all the studious, the hearthstone, the heart and brain of the whole family. Many a man looks back to it as the place where he learned to think; where his conception was first widened of the infinity of knowledge, of the interdependence of all the departments of it, of the brotherhood of all who search for it. Its influence is in the highest degree suited to counteract that narrow selfishness which often results from the collisions of life. And thus, in regard to both heart and mind, it is the most important part of a literary institution, and should be cherished accordingly.


 Last modified 25-November-2005