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W. OLIPHANT AND SON, EDINBURGH; D. ROBERTSON, GLASGOW;
G. AND K. KING, ABERDEEN; AND J. ROBERTSON. DUBLIN.
Abt. I.—Report from the Select Committee on Public Libraries; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix. 1849.
During the last few months, startling statements, disclosing the dearth of public libraries in the United Kingdom, have appeared in most of our public journals. They do not, however, comprise a tithe of the curious and valuable information embedded in the bulky blue-book from which they were excerpted. This document is a rich mine of suggestive facts and data, which we should be glad to see assorted, and smelted into a compact and available form, for the use of the advocates of education and the apostles of popular enlightenment. It exhibits the most singular national anomalies, and develops phenomena at once humiliating and cheering. Its revelations are alternately streaked with lights and shadows, in strange and fitful contrast. "Whilst—judging from the scantiness of the provision made for our intellectual illumination and nurture—we are shown to be the most benighted of all civilized peoples, we are, perhaps, notwithstanding these serious disadvantages and drawbacks, eclipsing every other nation in the wide diffusion of knowledge, the inventiveness of genius, the mastership of mind, and the opulence and upward Vol. xxvm. B
tendency of our literature. Our object, in the present article, is to classify and condense, as far as possible, some of the information scattered through the work referred to;—information that has been gleaned from the most varied sources—from clergymen, librarians, literati, Members of Parliament, town clerks, exministers of Continental governments, popular lecturers, selfeducated working-men, and city missionaries. Yet, in spite of the great diversity existing in the character, position, and experience of these witnesses, there is found to be, on collating their evidence, a remarkable oneness of sentiment on the two more prominent topics of inquiry — namely, the disgraceful destitution of public depositories of books, freely accessible to the public; and the growing capacity of the humbler classes of society to appreciate and improve the privileges conferred by such institutions.
Not many years ago, the attention of Parliament and the public was directed to the formation of free galleries, museums of art, and schools of design, as a means of popular enlightenment and an incitement to intellectual pursuits. Many persons at the time displayed considerable opposition to this proposal, and libellously contended that, however successfully such institutions might be established among foreign nations, they would not be appreciated, and might be abused, by our own. The experiment, however, was made. The British Museum, the magnificent gallery at Hampton Court, the National Gallery, with various other metropolitan and provincial institutions, were thrown open gratuitously to the public. The boding vaticinations of the false prophets were utterly falsified. The decorum of the people speedily struck their jealous slanderers dumb. And it is now universally admitted that no abuse has attended the concession, whilst it is impossible to calculate the large measure of rational enjoyment and healthy mental stimulus that has resulted. Another, and a yet more beneficent improvement, still remains to be effected. The extensive establishment of public libraries throughout the entire country, and particularly in the large centres of population, is one of the greatest desiderata of the age. Such libraries have long existed on the Continent, and have enjoyed the fosterage of the governments of the various States. It can scarcely be doubted that the influences emanating from such stores of accumulated lore have been fraught with incalculable advantages to the literature and general character of the people among whom they have been amassed. And, by parity of reasoning, it may be inferred that the literature of England, and the mental stature and stamina of its sons, denied the benefits of such institutions, must have