The library and the heart

The Bulletin of Abilene Christian College, June 1928, for the upcoming 1928-1929 academic year describes the campus facilities. It includes this description of the library:

Description of the library, Bulletin, Abilene Christian College, June 1928. p. 18.  See https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45915/m1/20/?q=bulletin%20abilene%20christian%20college%201928

About six months hence most of the library would be lost in a devastating fire.  Plans were already underway to relocate to a new campus northeast of downtown Abilene, but the 1929 fire hastened the exit from the First Street campus.  The library contained “nearly nine thousand volumes, about two thousand pamphlets and bulletins, and about fifty magazines and other periodicals on the essential fields of study and activities…”  The Bulletin hails “two distinctive features” of the collection: 1) the “unusually large Bible department” and 2) the “careful selection,” further stating “Many volumes are denied place on the shelves because [they are] not standard, not moral, or not true to scholarship and constructive Christianity.  Like the heart, a library is as valuable for what it keeps out as for what it has within.”

A collection of that size was reasonably adequate to support a “First Class” (see p. 17) four-year senior college curriculum.  To my knowledge no specific detail survives which outlined the criteria for inclusion, or exclusion, of books from the ACC library.  Therefore what I offer here is only a broad and suggestive first attempt.  I will be pleased to learn of–and i will keep looking for– details which might color and inform my hypothesis. 

I suppose the needs of the curricular offering were a major factor in collection development.  At least a major practical factor guiding the selection and acquisition.  At the same time and in a deeper way the stated purpose of the school undergirds a collection development policy such as the one outlined above.  The curriculum functioned as a basis upon which to offer credible and recognized four-year ars baccalaureus degrees.  And the library collection, as all libraries do, either served that end and facilitated that work to greater or lesser degrees.  But secular course offerings, along with the intellectual and moral development they represent, served a greater purpose in the mind of those who operated the school.  And the function of the library was at the conceptual core of the whole educational enterprise on North First Street, Abilene, Texas.  Compare the statement above in the context of the paragraph below, ‘Purpose of Abilene Christian College’:

Purpose of Abilene Christian College, Bulletin, Abilene Christian College, June 1928. p. 17.  See: https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45915/m1/19/?q=bulletin%20abilene%20christian%20college%201928

By 1932 the 5000 books lost in the fire were replaced.  With a few additions the collection grew 10, 147 books.  “By special purpose in 1929,” notes the 1933 Bulletin, “a group of very interesting old books was added to the Rare-Books collection which now contains some volumes dating from as early as 1522.  It has a collection of Bibles in seventeen languages.” (Bulletin, 1933, pp. 7-8).  Margaret Bishop was librarian at the time.  She graduated from ACC in 1924 (BA) and from Vanderbilt University in 1927 (MA), and later studied in the summer term at the Drexel Institute of Library Science in Philadelphia.

The library staff at the time, in ways consistent with the general academic outlook of the school at the time, was attuned to the currency of higher education and library science.  They were not uninformed.  Apparently among the take-aways from Drexel that Margaret brought back with her Abilene was an awareness of the value and utility of rare books in an academic library.  She also reclassified the entire collection when she replaced the fire-damaged books.   Appearances suggest Margaret ushered in a tangible commitment to modern library science, upgraded the collection and the way it was viewed and used by the school, in significant and enduring ways.  In fact, by 1931 she was offering formal credit-bearing instruction in library science.  She and her administration were wholly committed to the implications of operating an institution of higher education the aim of which was “the glory of God, through the Lord Jesus Christ and the ennobling of mankind.”  This commitment, in the most fundamental way, informed and shaped their work and they were not afraid to guard the library collection like one would guard their heart.

“I believe Mr. Schuster is right in this,…”

“… but I also believe that this cannot be accomplished without a complete revolution of our methods of education.”

[pause…Mr. Schuster is Lincoln Schuster who “wrote a paper for the Publisher’s Weekly not long ago” in which he opined that college graduates who do not know how to read are an indictment first of the universities that minted them and back of that the grammar schools that nursed them. Somehow along the way these children learned or observed or absorbed or intuited–who knows really– that ‘distinterested reading’ was frowned upon in favor of ‘burning the midnight oil and the drudgery of homework.’]

“I hold that all the discipline of a child should be confined to the primary grades and throughout the primary grades this discipline should be thorough. As things are, our discipline is lax in the primary grades and it begins to tighten up in the secondary schools. It is carried to an absurdity when adults, as boys and girls of college age actually are, are still treated as children, who must learn conjugations and declensions for “discipline of the mind” instead of being taught languages as the media of an ever-living literature and who must answer elaborate and irrelevant questionnaires on points of pedantic Shakespearean scholarship before reading Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra for pleasure as poetry and drama.

“For myself I must confess that, culturally, I got very little out of high school and almost nothing out of college; but out of the books I read in the [p. 34] public library when I was in high school and in the college library when I was in university I got a great deal. I have often said I quit college before taking my degree because I found that college was interfering too much with my education. That may sound facetious, but it is the solemn truth. Cut-and-dried class routine and ‘disciplinary’ homework cut seriously into the time I was able to put in at the library to satisfy my consuming desire for an education, my curiosity about life, men and emotions, the things of the heart and intellect that are expressed in the art of the written word.”

–Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading, Life’s Greatest Pleasure. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. 1937, pages 33-34.

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Interesting to hear this critique from 1937. Specifically: that he regarded college students as adults, that discipline was too lax, and that college interfered with his education. Sometimes it strikes me, based on observations alone, that college students are often somewhere between two years and fifteen minutes removed from middle school. Care to quibble? I present YikYak as exhibit A, then rest my case. Yes, it is extreme, but only as a variation of degree–not kind–from any number of other social media plagues. It is a symptom of larger problems the brightest of us probably will not more fully know about or understand for years to come. Would that all we had to contend with were the banalities of the disciplinary homework Burton Rascoe bemoaned.

Before any get in a twist, yes I understand a good many college students are just as eager and curious about the “things of the heart and intellect” as Burton Rascoe was. And a good many who teach engage their students as adults, not children, who in turn repay the investment with genuine development. Yes, yes, yes. I understand. All that aside, what drew me to this passage is Rascoe’s point that where more formal educational structures sometimes failed to nurture his spirited free inquiry, the library did not. Structures and conventions and pedagogies that result in “elaborate and irrelevant questionnaires” about this-that-and-the-other is one thing if the library has your back. Thank goodness for the librarians in Burton Rascoe’s life who ensured a good supply of reading material was readily available to him.

What would become of him if there was no library as a recourse to the dead-end he saw in the classroom?

We’d do well to spend more time in purposeful, recreational, curiosity-driven reading. We’d do well to lay off the social media, quit Yakking, and start reading. All well and good. But we librarians must, must, ensure that the resources necessary for spirited free inquiry are widely and freely and easily available. The time will come, I’m afraid, when that will be an uphill battle.

More from Rascoe in future posts.