Life in the public library

Despite violent opposition of critics, columnist Faith Fenton finds virtue even in the “trashy novels” of Toronto’s controversial public library, which shelters loafers, tramps, the unemployed, business men, and omnivorous readers. Photo: Toronto Public Library Ref, #TRL,X71.


Toronto’s Mechanics’ Institute, with its lecture, study and library facilities, became the Toronto Public Library in March 1884. It immediately met with “violent opposition manifested against it by an influential section of the city authorities, and the lamentable dissensions among the Library Board,” as reported by contemporary historian C. Pelham Mulvany. It was still controversial six years later, when columnist Faith Fenton defended it from critics, “chiefly of the well-to-do classes, [who] are altogether opposed to the institution,” because they say it is a burden on taxpayers and encourages reading trashy novels. But Fenton finds virtue in fiction, and in a reading room that shelters loafers, tramps, and out-of-work men, as well as omnivorous readers. From The Empire, Toronto, January 18, 1890. Abridged.

That there is a strong basis for the assertion of these anti-novelists is undoubted; for of the 310,000 books that the report shows to have been issued during the past year, over eighty per cent were works of fiction, and, official information assures me, the lightest kind of fiction.

The Toronto Public Library is not unique in this respect. In American cities a similar high percentage of demand for fiction prevails. The people’s taste is plainly declared, while the wisdom of gratifying it remains an open  discussion.

Those who object to the free library and the taxation it entails do so upon the grounds that it is chiefly a disseminator of a light literature that is in no way beneficial, and with some show of reason assert that readers of trashy fiction should pay for their amusement, and not be provided out of the public purse.

But if it can be shown that light literature, such at least as is found upon the shelves of the Toronto library, is not altogether harmful, and infinitely better than no literature at all; if we decide that it has educational influence,  however weak; if we agree with Dr. Holmes that “the foolish book is a leaky boat upon a sea of wisdom—some of the wisdom will get in anyhow,” then these grave guardians of the public weal may safely withdraw their objections and grant the public’s right to unlimited fiction if they so desire.

Little complaints, not unreasonable, find their way occasionally into the daily papers concerning the conduct of the reading-room.

“It is a place for loafers and tramps, a respectable man has no comfort there,” says the indignant citizen. True enough and sad enough it is—the loafers being in many cases men out of work; the tramps, men miserable and destitute, who find within the library precincts quietness, warmth and some degree of comfort. Where the men are cleanly, which is not always the case; quiet and inoffensive in manner, occupying themselves with gazing at the journals or magazines, if not reading them; what cause of complaint can be lodged, and where is the line to be drawn?

When it was discovered that the chairs were being occupied by an undesirable class of citizen they were taken away and reading stands substituted, so that there should be less inducement to the loafer. This is hard upon a tired man who has worked all day and would like to sit down and consult the papers; but he has the comfort of knowing that he can buy his paper and read it where he will.

As long as the library is a public one, free to all classes of citizens, the tough, the tramp, the loafer have a right to the privileges, provided always that they conform to its regulations. And, indeed, who shall discriminate between one man and another in this respect? If the Toronto Library is for all classes of citizens, then all are equally privileged, and none can be aggrieved if the class who need it worst use it most frequently.

Passing through the building it seems a quiet, orderly place, filled with busy readers; yet strange revelations await the keen-eyed, and pathetic bits of character study repay the interested observer.

At a far reading desk a man stands motionless before a paper—a German paper it is— his eyes down-dropped, expressionless; for an hour he will stand thus nor ever scan a column nor turn a page. Reading? No. Thinking? His face is hardly intelligent enough to warrant the supposition—just passing away the idle hours.

Among a group of readers, another frequenter attracts our notice; a man of heavy, homely countenance, whose jaws are incessantly in motion as he scans the many columns. Hour after hour, day after day, he haunts the paper-filled desks, and the iron underjaw keeps up its ceaseless movement, till wearied with its monotony we withdraw our gaze.

A figure sits at a magazine table with a number of the Century lying open before him. He is not reading, for the magazine is upside down. His keen, shifty eyes move restlessly about till they encounter those of an official, when they are instantly bent upon the inverted volume.

A nicely dressed, dark-eyed young man sits listlessly at a far table. It is a busy, bright morning and all the world is working, but the young, weary face shows that there at least is one who has no place in it.

Then there are the omnivorous readers, chiefly elderly men who have retired from business; the compiler who, with note book and pencil, searches volumes of reference; the business man who consults the world’s stock markets; to all these the reading room is a place of convenience. But to men out of work it is more than this; it is the one place outside of a bar-room, where they can find warmth and a degree of comfort and opportunity to peruse the news of the day without payment of fee or proffer of password.

— Canada @ 150 —

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