Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: James A. Langton on Library Funding

5.19.13 | | no comments

James A. LangtonI noticed this past week that my local library system, the New York Public Library, is again seeking donations and letters to city council members in order to address its budget woes. The move, of course, has everything to do with the time of the year, as the city works through its budget and, initially, cuts the library budget as part of the solution for the shortfall.

Given the habits of local governments, I imagine that your local public library is facing the same budget issues, or will fact those issues soon. And, unless your public library has a reputation of near that of my library, it is likely facing a much more difficult budget problem. Somehow the library seems like an easy place to make cuts. But the following excerpt helps explain why funding libraries is important.

This text is another portion of a talk by James A. Langton given in 1888, part of his proposal that the YMMIA should fill in the lack of public libraries in Utah by funding them. Unfortunately, the YMMIA never developed the proposal. Instead a separate group lobbied the state legislature, which funded the public libraries through the property tax, and the first public library opened in Utah a decade later, in 1898.

Born 16 November 1861 in Smithfield, Utah, Langton was a graduate of the University of Utah and was a teacher in the Cache county schools at the time he gave this address. He graduated from Cornell with an M.A. in 1893 and returned to Logan to join the faculty of Brigham Young College, beginning a career in education that took him to Rexburg, Idaho to become principal of Central School. 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 public libraries of our own and other countries derive their most substantial aid from donations. Men of wealth, recognizing the benefit which such institutions confer upon society, give freely to their founding and maintenance.

It often happens that college and university libraries are supported by those who were once students of the institution. They, on becoming “solid men” of business, become also benefactors of their alma mater by leaving handsome legacies. Now, it would appear to me, that among us earnest efforts should be made to create a more universal taste for the best literature. I do not say that we value books and reading less than the people of other countries. Ruskin in his lecture entitled “King’s Treasures,” enters his protest against the English people despising literature. Says he:

“What do we as a nation care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether on our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses? If a man spends lavishly on his library, you call him mad-a biblio-maniac. But you never call any one a horse-maniac, though men ruin themselves every day by their horses; and you do not hear of people ruining themselves by their books. Or, to go lower still, how much do you think the contents of the book-shelves of the United Kingdom, public and private, would fetch as compared with the contents of its wine cellars? We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body; now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us, yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it!”

These remarks are, to a certain extent, applicable to us as a community; but notwithstanding, I am ready to believe that there are many benevolently inclined persons in our Territory that would give liberally to the founding of libraries and reading-rooms, if proper steps were taken to secure such endowments and to make a judicious use of them. This work would be in direct keeping with the character of the Young Men’s Improvement Associations.

What organization is better qualified to take this responsibility? Then let a public meeting be called, and have those who are desirious of establishing a library, organize themselves into an association for that purpose. Call upon philanthropic men to donate liberally. Solicit donations privately and through the public press; prepare a series of entertainments, lectures, etc., and charge a small admittance fee, letting it be known for what purpose they are given. Give public amusements, musical concerts, dramatic representations, picnics, etc., and let the object to be attained be thoroughly advertised everywhere. Other ways and means of raising funds will suggest themselves when the work is properly in hand; and I trust that the time is not far distant when there shall exist in Salt Lake City a free circulating library, first-class in every particular, and under the management of the Improvement Associations. Connected with this I hope to see reading-rooms of a pleasant and attractive character, thoroughly supplied with wholesome literature and open to all clean and orderly persons at all times of the day and evening.

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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You might be tempted to assume today that libraries are irrelevant. We have Google Books now, and Amazon and its competitors. You can get almost every old book on the Internet somewhere and most new books in a relatively inexpensive form. The problem is that things like Google Books are built on, yep, libraries. And our digital future is still reliant on libraries—that is where those who can’t afford access otherwise get their access.

Langton assumes that libraries in Utah, perhaps modeled on the New York City experience, which began with a bequest by John Jacob Astor in 1848 and which still today benefits from the largess of Andrew Carneigie, who paid for the construction of many (more than half?) of the branches in the system. But like in Utah, private donations were not enough, and the system was built on tax dollars.

While I doubt that any public library could successfully be funded through private donations, I won’t be surprised if some reader disagrees with me. It doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that we recognize the importance of public libraries and get them funded. So if you disagree with me, then put your money where your mouth is. And if you agree with me, put your money AND your letters to your local government officials where your mouth is.

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