Originally published, anonymously, in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Issue 17: Saturday, May 26, 1832.
I have much pleasure in bringing under the notice of the people of Great Britain generally, an institution calculated to be of the greatest service in the diffusion of knowledge, but which is as yet little known beyond the limits of a particular district in Scotland. About forty years ago, or shortly after the impulse given to the public mind by the revolution in France, an urgent demand began to be manifested over most parts of Scotland for the perusal of instructive publications, less limited in their range in literature than had prevailed throughout the preceding age. Reading associations sprung into existence, frequently under the fostering care of the landed gentry and clergy; and it will be recollected by my readers, that our national poet, Burns, whose active genius appreciated this scheme of widening the scope of human intelligence, was instrumental in forming one of those book societies in a country part of Dumfries-shire. Since that epoch, libraries in the proprietary of a body of subscribers, chiefly in the middle and lower ranks of life, have, with much advantage, been set on foot in every town and populous village in the kingdom. Scotland has therefore for at least a quarter of a century been in the enjoyment of a very beneficial system or [sic] mental cultivation by local libraries, and this alone has formed a most interesting feature in its intellectual statistics.
But no human institution is perfect. The country libraries labour under a natural defect, for which no ingenuity can offer a remedy, unless by a total alteration in the character of the institution. It has been found that in almost every instance the desire for knowledge, through such means, has been quenched in the limited amount of the volumes; or, in other words, that the subscribers have read the library out, and that more speedily than new books can be added for their gratification. Thus, stationary country libraries cease to excite much interest after a few years, and the objects of so valuable an institution are, in a certain sense, as completely frustrated as if the library were altogether removed. A remedy has, however, been found, most effectual in its design and tendency. Arrangements have in some places been made to establish libraries in a series, moveable from place to place, so that as soon as the inhabitants of a village have read one library, it moves off, and another supplies its place. These are called itinerating libraries, and I now purpose to say a few words regarding them. To whom the merit is due of inventing this almost magical mode of circulating books, I have never heard; but whoever he was, his name deserves to take its place alongside of the inventors of paper and printing. With an obscurity hanging over the origin of the practice, it can be stated with precision, that it was first made known in East Lothian, and very greatly improved by the indefatigable and philanthropic exertions of Mr Samuel Brown, merchant in Haddington, son of the late Dr John Brown of that place. According to Mr Brown’s mode, there is a head station (which seems absolutely necessary), where the books lie for some time, after which they are sorted and put in operation, always coming back to the head station at the end of every two years before they pass on to another district. This appears to be necessary, for the purpose of repairing the damaged volumes, and infusing new books into the stock. The system pursued by Mr Brown, I give by an extract from a communication with him on the subject. “The plan of itinerating libraries (says he) was introduced in 1817, and it has been attended with a degree of success unexampled in the history of reading associations. It commenced with five divisions (or libraries) of fifty volumes each; and there are now, in 1830, upwards of 2000 volumes belonging to the institution. The new books are kept for a few years at the head library of Haddington for the use of subscribers, and afterwards they are arranged into divisions of fifty volumes, and stationed in the towns and villages of the country for two years, when they are removed and exchanged. The regular removal and supply of new divisions has excited and kept up such a disposition to read, that in several stations there is frequently not a volume left in the library box. To persons acquainted with the issues from the usual settled libraries of 2000 volumes, or even of a much smaller number, and of thirteen years’ standing, the following statement will appear almost incredible:—The issues of books at Haddington to the subscribers have been nearly eight and a half times per annum for every volume kept in them. The gratuitous issues at Haddington have been seven and a half times every volume; at Gifford, Salton, Aberlady, North Berwick, Belhaven, and Spot, they have been seven times every volume; and the issues of the whole establishment, so far as reported, have been on an average five times for every volume, or 10,000 issues of 2000 volumes.” It may be explained, that the divisions of books are all kept in boxes, or presses, and deposited with careful individuals. In all cases these librarians have acted gratuitously. The books are all purchased chiefly from the accumulation of voluntary subscriptions, or small annual charges. I believe it is now proposed to issue the books the first year that a division is in the place, at the rate of a penny a volume; but as a subscription, however small, might essentially impede the success of the scheme, and it is of immense consequence to bring the books within the reach of the whole populations, particularly of the young, they will continue to be issued gratuitously the second year. It is mentioned in a memoir relative to these itinerating libraries, that a single library of fifty volumes, with book-case, may be procured at from L.10 to L.12. A series of fifty divisions for one of the Scottish counties might perhaps be formed for L.500. Hitherto these East Lothian libraries have been in some measure made up by donations of books; and I am confident that when gentlemen who have large libraries, containing many books they do not often require, are aware of the prodigious benefit which may result to the country by assisting the institution in this manner, they will hasten to present the head establishments which may be formed with liberal donations. A single volume lying unnoticed in a corner of their bookshelf may be thus made to diffuse its concentrated knowledge over the peasantry of a whole country. Mr Brown has published a number of reports relative to the libraries under his charge, from which it appears he possesses very sanguine notions as to the extensions of his scheme over the whole United Kingdom, nay, even over the West India and American colonies, if not the whole world. Now, it is quite evident that the progress of the beneficial establishments can only follow in the tread of the schoolmaster, and be successful where a certain degree of mental cultivation has been already effected. He speaks of the great head institution in London, something like the Central Bible Societies, as being necessary in the development of his plan. I would admonish him and all others to drop so crude and preposterous a project. Great head institutions are in general great jobs, for they are conducted by men who serve merely for pecuniary emolument, and care little for the morale of their establishments. Let the plan of the East Lothian itinerating libraries be copied from county to county; let local excitement only be put in force; let a few spirited and liberal minded men, belonging to different classes of the community, but club their intelligence to set the libraries agoing in their vicinities, and there can be no question that the whole country will, in a brief space of time, be covered with the desired establishments. In the success which has attended Brown’s itinerating libraries in Haddingtonshire, another useful lesson is read to mankind. We find that in this, as in almost every other great good bestowed on the species, the benefit has been conferred by a single individual, and not by a society, the drivelling formalities of which, in rare instances, prevent everything like an efficiency of action, and retard fully more than they quicken the genius of human improvement.