Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: James A. Langton in praise of Libraries

3.24.13 | | 3 comments

James A. LangtonWhatever your impressions of Mormon attitudes toward education, books and libraries, it is hard to find stronger praise than that in the following excerpt, part of an address given at the YMMIA conference in June 1888. While I haven’t included the final call of the discourse, by the end its author, James A. Langton, has called for an ambitious system of libraries established by the YMMIA, funded by “philanthropic men” and designed to benefit the public by providing quality literature.

If the proposal sounds a little brash, it might be because of Langton’s youth. Born 16 November 1861 in Smithfield, Utah, Langton had graduated from the University of Utah in 1884 and was a teacher in the Cache county schools at the time he gave this address. But his references in this address to literary figures like Robert Southey and Washington Irving and his research into historical libraries show that Langton was already well-read and academically inclined. He graduated from Cornell with an M.A. in 1893 and returned to Logan to join the faculty of Brigham Young College, the Church’s high school there. He married Edna Cardon in 1897. By 1909 Langton moved to Rexburg, Idaho to become principal of Central School, where he also taught English, History and Arithmetic. By 1923 Langton had moved back to Utah and joined the Deseret News. He was named to the Utah Board of Education in 1933, serving for six years, and in 1934 he was named editor of the Deseret News, serving until just before his death in 1943.

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Libraries and Reading Rooms

By James A. Langton

The value of books as a means of culture is at this day recognized by all men. It is self-evident that more knowledge is derivable from reading and reflection upon what is read, than from any other source. A literary taste is at once the most efficient instrument of self-education and the purest source of enjoyment. “If the riches of both Indies,” said Fenelon, “if the crowns of all the kingdoms of Europe were laid at my feet, in exchange for my love of reading, I would spurn them all.” Next to a good college, a good library may well be chosen as a means of education. A book, in reality, is a “voiceless teacher,” and a great library is a virtual university. Its benefits extend to all classes; for by promoting universal education a people are rendered more competent to secure their own welfare and the welfare of those dependent upon them. Literary biography is crowded with instance upon instance of the great men who attribute much of their success in life to the public library of their native town or city. Lord Macauley having asked an eminent soldier and diplomatist, who enjoyed the confidence of the first generals and statesmen of the age, to what he owed his accomplishments, was informed that he ascribed it to the fact that he was quartered in his young days, in the neighborhood of an excellent library, to which he had access.

The late Belgian Minister, M. Van de Weyer, in his evidence before the select committee of the House of Commons on Public Libraries, said respecting their advantages in the cause of education, “We have found in our young men a great change in their habits, and a progress in the development of their minds, since the increase of our libraries.”

Without libraries it would be impossible to attain more than a moderate amount of knowledge on any great branch of art, literature or science. Take the young man of our Territory to-day, who has tasted, to some extent, the sweets of literature. He has a keen, vigorous appetite for knowledge; an earnest desire to be abreast with his age. Such a young man is not content to feed upon a few choice authors even though each be a library. The means with which to purchase books he has not, and is thus left without the tools, so necessary at this period-the threshold of life-for his development and happiness. Place now a good library at his disposal and what a wholesome effect it would have upon him, and through him upon those with whom he mingled.

There are many individuals who desire valuable information regarding their chosen vocations. After a person has chosen a profession, he desires to educate himself in that particular branch thoroughly, and if need be, to the exclusion of all other reading. In order to do this he must read not only the text of his profession; but the notes and commentaries; he must read the history and the philosophy, the fact and the fiction; inshort, everything that has even a remote bearing upon his subject should be read; but where the public library does not exist such running-down of literature would be to many a matter of impossibility. Again, how precious are the minute fragments of time, which are wasted by the young, especially by those who are toiling in the mints of knowledge. If the cosy, cheerful reading room connected with the library answered no purpose other than the gathering from the streets and by-ways of those who squander time-”the stuff of which life is made,” it would be a sufficient argument in its favor. We cannot doubt but what the library is a nucleus around which all that is good, intellectual, refining and progressive will rally. Every town, city and village should have one, and every family should have the germ of one. A home without books or music-think of it-a house without furniture, a valley without rivers or babbling brooks; a forest without birds or sunshine! Let me here advise all young men to begin making a collection of books. …

The Contributor, v9 n7, May 1888, p. 265-269
The text of an address given at the YMMIA Conference, 2 June 1888

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I’m not sure that I need to say much about this. But let me point out a couple of good quotes:

A book, in reality, is a “voiceless teacher,” and a great library is a virtual university.

and

Without libraries it would be impossible to attain more than a moderate amount of knowledge on any great branch of art, literature or science.

and

We cannot doubt but what the library is a nucleus around which all that is good, intellectual, refining and progressive will rally. Every town, city and village should have one, and every family should have the germ of one. A home without books or music—think of it—a house without furniture, a valley without rivers or babbling brooks; a forest without birds or sunshine! Let me here advise all young men to begin making a collection of books.

Amen, Brother Langton, Amen.

3 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: James A. Langton in praise of Libraries

  1. Kent Larsen Post author

    Thanks, Moriah. Often I can’t find much to say about them, either.

    I mean really, someone like me is NOT going to disagree with Langton on this!!

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