Victorian London - Education - Libraries - free access to libraries 

Free Access in Free Libraries

The System at Work in a Dozen Public Libraries Throughout the Country. What it Really Means.

WHETHER free access has come to stay cannot yet be decided. It is still more or less in the experimental stage, though its adoption would seem to be growing. The system is in use at the public libraries of Clerkenwell, Kingston-upon-Thames, Worcester, Croydon, Hornsey, Huddersfield, Kettering, Widnes, Darwen, Rothwell, Brighouse, and Bournemouth.
    The librarians of these places have published a little pamphlet on the working of the system. They very properly claim fair consideration and fair play for the new movement. Five years' experience has not proved the principle to be unsound in their opinion, but has proved that where proper arrangements are made the right can be freely extended without danger and to the great benefit and convenience of the public. All the usual objections to the system are dealt with in a practical way, and having now the experience of five years the librarians are able to show the absurdity of some of them. They that "access to properly-classified libraries is an education in itself, not only improving the public knowledge of literature, but teaching readers the value of books as tools applicable to the every-day usages of life." Further that "not only does access train readers in the proper use of a library, but in a short time enables them to use the collection exactly as if it were their own."
    To help one understand the practical working of an open access library, they ask him to imagine himself a newly admitted borrower in such a library, paying his first visit. The following description applies to one particular library, but while it may differ from some other open access library in slight details, in principle it applies to all. On entering, he finds himself in a gangway, with a counter, surmounted by a brass rail and grille, between him and the bookshelves. Immediately in front of him is an opening in the grille, labelled "Inquiries, Tickets," &c. at which he receives his member's card, having previously made the requisite written application.
    He now passes on to a small wicket in the barrier, next which is an open portion of the counter. Here are seen the borrowers, handing in their books to an assistant on the other side, and receiving their cards or tickets in exchange, and passing into the library. Having no book to return, our borrower essays to do likewise, but finds the wicket locked and the assistant demanding to see his card. He shows this, and feeling the wicket give to his touch, he opens it, passes through, and hear it at once close and lock behind him. An ingenious but simple piece of mechanism, operated by the foot of the assistant, gives complete control of the wicket, and prevents any unauthorised person entering among the books. Our borrower now finds himself free among the shelves. These are arranged in parallel stacks, with wide gangways, along the length of the room, giving the assistants an easy supervision.
    Our borrower goes to the nearest shelf, picks out a book, not caring particularly what, glances at it, and puts it back. He now notices that the labels on the books are of various colours, and that these colours change with the shelves. The books on this shelf have red labels; on this, green; on this, orange, and so on. But what is that solitary green labelled book doing among a shelf of orange labels? Let us have a look at it. It is the book our borrower has just been handling and which he has misplaced. He returns it to its proper position among its green labelled fellow, and understands by what simple means the so-called "misplacement difficulty" is met, and reduced almost to vanishing point. But if our borrower does not notice his misplacement, what then? Well, if - as is quite likely, some other reader does not notice and remedy it, the assistants will do so, whose business it is to rectify misplacements at intervals.  

Municipal Journal and London, March 24, 1899