Commencement Address to Library School, 1935

In slightly late commemoration of my brother Dave’s birthday, here’s the text of a commencement speech for new librarians given by our grandfather 75 years ago. The speech was delivered at Western Reserve University in Cleveland to the graduating class of the School of Library Science, on June 12, 1935 in The Chamber Music Hall of Severance Hall, with the title “The Library’s Future Place in Research”.1 There were three candidates for the master’s degree, 41 for the bachelor’s and three for the diploma.

The text has the feel of a first draft, being a bit more stream-of-consciousness than Binkley’s finished style. It was typed by Binkley, with some substantial changes made at the keyboard. It appears that Binkley lost the last page before he delivered the speech: the speech ends in mid-sentence at the bottom of p.10, and the final sentence is completed in pencil. The first paragraph is an insertion, typed on a slip of paper torn from a full sheet. Clipped to the speech is a page of preliminary notes, from which Binkley deviated fairly widely in the actual composition. The speech is in a folder labeled “June, 1935 / Speech to Library School Commencement”.

The content of the speech is a rehash of some of the ideas that Binkley had published in “New Tools for Men of Letters”, which had appeared in The Yale Review that spring. It deals with collection policies with respect to materials for research, the new technologies of micro-reproduction and near-print publication, and some of the cultural ramifications to be expected from them. This domain was the subject of Binkley’s work with the Joint Committee on Materials for Research, and would culminate in the publication of the Manual on methods of reproducing research materials a year later. As in “New Tools”, he tells the story of the publication of the National Recovery Administration and Agricultural Adjustment Administration transcripts on microfilm in 1934. To fit the ideas to his audience, he addresses the role of libraries in the new environment, which is so unfamiliar that he describes a microfilm reader as if his audience had never seen one. He further stresses the Cleveland setting: where “New Tools” says the new technologies “offer also to the small town a better chance to escape the cultural monopoly of the metropolis”, this speech makes a local argument: “If the poets of Cleveland, and not the poets only but the writers of stories, would be willing to accept near-print as a vehicle for the distribution of their product, and if the libraries of Cleveland would be willing to help with the distribution of these literary products, we might expect to see the beginning of the emancipation of Cleveland from the cultural dominance of New York.” This is typical of Binkley’s commitment to Cleveland’s local history, despite that fact that (as far as I know) he had never visited the city before being hired at Flora Mather College in 1930.

Commencement Address of Dr. Robert C. Binkley to Library School

We are called upon to manipulate a civilization based primarily upon the use of two substances–paper and metal. Our economic life has come to be based upon the use of metals, our intellectual life upon the use of paper. The place of the library is paramount in the organization of all that side of our culture which is based on the use of paper. It is this function of the library that I shall speak of today.

[p1] The world of paper in which librarians work is a world of vast dimensions. Primarily, although not exclusively, it is a world of printed books. Since the invention of printing, about twenty-four million different books have been printed. About one-quarter of a million new titles are now printed every year. The language in which the largest number of titles is printed is the Russian language, English follows as the second language of book publication. But books constitute only a small part of the printed reading matter that is laid before our eyes. A single copy of the New York Times contains more words than a full-length novel. Most of the printed material that is distributed to be read is distributed in newspaper form. But newspapers absorb only a fraction of the actual writing that is done. In the city of Cleveland there are three major newspapers and thousands of offices. In every office there are typewriters that clatter all day putting words on paper. That which is printed is only a fraction of that which is written, and that which is stored by the libraries in book form is only a very small fraction indeed of that which is printed. Of the tons of paper that are every day in this city converted into records, only a few pounds will ever be placed in libraries for permanent storage.

Libraries have many other things to do than to concern themselves with the maintenance of the record of our civilization. They must give readers the things that the readers happen to want. The desires of the readers have been defined by education or advertising so that they come to the library asking for a [p2] very small selection of reading matter. Any large library has on its shelves a great tonnage of books that are never read. It is evident that some kind of a highly selective process must be going on which distinguishes between those few documents that are to be placed in the custody of the libraries, and utilized by readers, and the great majority of documents which are to disappear.

Now it may be that our institutions are so linked up with each other, that appraisals are so neatly made that all the documents that ought to be saved in libraries and utilized by readers are actually so saved and utilized, and all that ought to be destroyed are actually destroyed, but I doubt it. I think it very probable that we may be saving some things that need not be saved, and destroying some things that ought to be preserved.

More than this, I am willing to suggest that despite the almost infinite amount of writing and printing that takes place, a great many facts go unrecorded when they ought to be made into records and preserved. Let me illustrate this point by asking this question: how many of us possess in documentary form a record of the lives of our four grandparents? It would be interesting to each of us to possess such a record, but only in a rare and exceptional case is such a record made.

Two years ago business men throught the country were called upon to face an entirely new situation when the N.R.A. set out to codify business practice in America. If a hundred Cleveland business men should write down frankly and fully an account of what they thought and what they did at the time, the record would be priceless.

[p3] In library administration we have been accustomed to accept a very limited responsibility. We wait first for publishers to act. When publishers have put something into print, we decide whether that particular item that has been published ought to be acquired by the library.

It would be quite reasonable to conceive of the library as having a much wider responsibility. The librarian might take it upon himself to select for preservation records that do not reach the form of published books, or to cause to be written down and preserved accounts that would otherwise never be put in written form.

The larger libraries, historical museums, and certain classes of special libraries are already making very extensive collections of material not in book form. Almost any papers that are one hundred years old will be of interest in historical libraries. This means simply that we let chance take care of the selection of the documents that will be preserved; and when accident has allowed any documents to escape destruction long enough, they are seized upon and regarded as treasures. This is indeed a very haphazard way of making the selection of records that are not in book form, and of course, it breaks down absolutely if we think of the writing down of experiences, for this can be done only while those who have had the experiences are still alive.

Let me suggest two things that might come to be a part of the task of a public library. One of them would be the collection and storage of all kinds of records not in book form that originate in the community–the printed programs of amateur and professional theatrical performances, handbills distributed or posters used in [p4] political campaigns, advertising material, mimeographed material utilized in the schools. Then as opportunity afforded, old family papers of residents of the community or old business records of firms established there. To collect all of these things indiscriminately would swamp any library very quickly, but to collect and preserve samples and wisely-chosen portions of such documentation would be a matter of great and permanent value and not impractical.

Then too, the librarian would inevitably have an opportunity to present to a large number of people the suggestion that they write their autobiographies, or their account of some episode of interest to the community, and leave them in typescript form with the library. Sometimes the authors of such memoirs would wish to have them sealed for a period of years. Few people would regard it as an impertinence to ask them to contribute in this way to the record of which the library was a custodian, and many would take it as a subtle flattery. American life is highly organized, everyone belongs to two or three clubs and societies. All of these organizations might be brought to look upon the local library as the residual depository of the records of all their activities. From the interest that the librarian might create in the maintenance of a complete record of community life, there might spring a certain amount of serious and important activity in local history and local social study.

A tremendous amount of energy, an enormous amount of money, goes into making of collections of records remote from their origins in place and in time. Collections of theatre programs, collections of political handbills, collections of old manuscript materials are [p5] brought together with great zeal when it has ceased to be easy to make them.

The Baker Library at Cambridge is gathering business records from all over the country; old account books, old correspondence files have been shipped from Cleveland to Cambridge to form a part of this collection. In New York City, there is a famous Schomberg collection of material on the American negro, which has been brought together from all parts of the country and consists partly of manuscript, partly of printed matter. There are collections of play-bills and theatre programs, some in public some in private hands, that have a high monetary value. Yet even at best, such collections are only fragmentary, only the accidental result of chance survival of documents. The rational rather than the accidental control of the preservation of the records of our culture cannot result from the kind of collecting that is going on at the present time. And there is no institution rich enough, no organization extensive enough to reach out and gather all the records that ought to be preserved. But if the different units of our vast public library system should each within its own community accept responsibility for the full preservation of significant record material, we could be confident that the job was being done as well as our resources permitted it to be done.

In considering that libraries step forward to assume these new responsibilities in the collection of material that has not been published in book form, we might take into account a number of changes in the graphic arts which promise to alter the status of the published book in the intellectual world. The published book since the invention of printing has achieved a monopoly position. So efficient was publication in print as a [p6] means of propagating words that we came to assume that everything published was likely to be valuable, and everything valuable was likely to be published sooner or later. Yet there is very good reason for believing that this generalization could not be true, for publishing in print is a process that does not become operative normally unless at least two thousand separate buyers wish to purchase the same document, and obviously there must be a great many things of great interest to a few people that could not by any stretch of the imagination interest two thousand purchasers. Let me refer again to the autobiographies of our grandparents which I suggested would interest us greatly. Yet we could hardly expect to find two thousand purchasers for each of them. The records that have a special pertinence to the history of a particular community may be of great value to that community, but not widely useful elsewhere. The printing press, and the commercial organization of publishing that goes with it, have been very serviceable to culture, but they have not done everything and cannot be expected to do everything that ought to be done in the preservation of records. Hence we can look with especial interest at certain new techniques supplementary to printing and publishing which are coming up in the graphic arts.

The first of these techniques is what we call “micro-copying”. We can copy a full page of a book on a bit of film half the size of a postage stamp. We can copy a series of pages on a thin strip of film one-half inch wide. These micro-copies can then be read by projection. A special projection machine has been manufactured, into which one loads the roll of two hundred feet of [p7] film. The film can then be read, page by page, as the projected image is thrown down upon a table. Micro-copying is a very cheap way of making copies of any document whether printed or unprinted. We recently made an interesting demonstration of its cheapness. About a dozen libraries in the country wanted to get copies of the records of the hearings that were held when the codes were set up under the NRA and AAA. The volume of material was enormous. In the various rooms in the big commercial buildings in Washington groups of business men gave their testimony on the codes for their industries. Stenographers took down the record of what they said. About one-quarter of a million pages of typescript resulted. The stenographers wrote up the hearings in typescript form. The file of hearings was in the offices in Washington. Anybody who wished to study them had to go to Washington to do it. But these research libraries wanted to lay this material before scholars in their several university centers. To publish in printed form this huge collection of material would have cost half a million dollars. It was obviously impractical to try to publish this material in book form. So we tried an experiment. We photographed the whole one-quarter million pages on small rolls of film and found that we could supply the dozen libraries that wanted copies at a cost to each library of about $400.00. This was at the rate of twelve cents per hundred pages. Now the normal price at which the average book is sold in America is $1.20 per one hundred pages, and before a book can be marketed at that price there must be two thousand prospective purchasers. We found that the NRA hearings could be distributed when only 12 [p8] libraries wanted copies at a cost of only one-tenth of the normal price per page of a printed book. We are now studying a plan by which we hope to copy in a similar way all books printed in the English language prior to 1640. There are about two million pages of these early books. Some of them exist only in unique copies in the British Museum and Bodleian Library. The average library in America posesses very few of these early books. We think we can make the whole array available to libraries throughout the world at a price within the purchasing power of the medium-sized library. Even if a copy of a certain series of books or manuscripts should be desired by one library only, this method of reproduction will make it possible to provide a copy for that library at a price per page much less than that which is usually paid for printed and published books.

The effect of this innovation is something I wish to dwell on for a moment. It means that the distinction between collecting material and publishing material is vanishing. If you have collected a certain number of manuscripts or typescript documents, and someone else wants copies of them, the copies can be furnished to whosoever desires them at a lower price than he would ordinarily pay if they were published in book form. If a library has collected the theatre programs, political broadsides, the memoirs of the leading citizens of the community, of a selection of business documents in the community, this material has not only been preserved from destruction, it has also been prepared for distribution.

On the other hand, if for some reason your library wishes to have copies of documents in the possession of some other library, [p9] or even of documents that remain in private hands, these copies can be made for your library at less cost than the purchase price if the material were published in book form. Your collection of documents, the other library’s collection of documents, and the documents that remain in private hands become part of a great reservoir of common documentation from which all users can draw.

Suppose for instance, that the Cleveland Public Library should wish to build up a documentary collection on the history of Cleveland enterprise. Now there is a certain village in Pennsylvania in which in private hands will be found a collection of letters relating to the origin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The owner of those old letters might not be willing to part with them, but it would be quite practical to bring to Cleveland copies of them in micro-copy form. When the distinction between published and unpublished material is thus broken down, the library that collects for itself and its community is also collecting for the world.

There is another innovation in the graphic arts, less radical perhaps but none-the-less significant. It has come upon us gradually and we have become accustomed to it. It is what we are beginning to call “near-print”. Mimeograph material, hectograph material, material multiplied from typescript by various processes other than printing have come increasingly into use, especially in business, education and government. Thirty-five percent of the public documents of the federal government are issued in mimeograph or some other near-print form. But we have been slow to utilize near-print as a substitute for print[p10]ing in the production of literature or the circulation of the products of research. Yet there are many written things that could very appropriately be circulated to a limited clientele of readers in near-print form. If the public library makes it one part of its program to foster reading of literature, might it not also do something to foster the writing of literature?

In Cleveland today a tremendous amount of poetry is being written; much of it is bad, but some of it is good. A little of it is printed–some in the newspapers, some in occasional pamphlets or booklets of poetry. If the poets of Cleveland, and not the poets only but the writers of stories, would be willing to accept near-print as a vehicle for the distribution of their product, and if the libraries of Cleveland would be willing to help with the distribution of these literary products, we might expect to see the beginning of the emancipation of Cleveland from the cultural dominance of New York. The contemporary author who wishes to see his product appear in book form must present it in such a way that it will interest the prospective two thousand purchasers. He cannot base his writing upon the local and intimate interests of his fellow citizens in his home town. The setting of his story is in Harlem, Paris, or the Great Plains, not in the Flats or Euclid Avenue or Newburgh. If, with the help of the library, and near-print methods of multiplying a text, the local writer could be assured of a small local reading public, we might expect that there would be more local writers and more local writing and a larger local tradition in literature. The contribution of the library to such a development would not need to be very costly. If it could provide mimeograph or hectograph service at cost, and facilitate through its branches the distribution of a local literary product to a local reading public, its mission in this respect fulfilled [sic].

Preliminary Notes

  • Plato’s allusion to writing and memory. We depend exclusively on writing.
  • 1. The librarian as a custodian of records. – his power – says of this one “you will be forgotten” of another “you will be remembered”
  • 2. The interests of scholarship:
    • Fame, military glory, etc.
    • Religious canon
    • Ancient learning
    • Social studies
  • 3. The materials for social studies
    • Books compared with other documentation
    • Family and business papers
    • The extent of record that should be preserved and organized.
  • 5. [sic] New tools: Printing and its effects
    • Micro-copying
    • Near-print
  • 6. The collapse of the distinction between publishing and collection
  • 7. The role of a library. Preserve the local newspaper
    • Collection of ephemeral material (Cf. Fisher Bodies now)
    • Preservation of samples of business documents
    • Presevation of family papers; writing up of memoirs.
    • Reporting of collections of material
    • Reproduction of collections when necessary
  • 8. Relation of libraries to adult education and intellectual life generally.

  1. Western Reserve University Commencement Convocation, 6/12/1935, p.[20].↩︎