Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: J. M. Tanner on Libraries

Joseph_M._TannerThe advent of ebooks and other digital media is making many of us rethink our personal libraries, just as it is making the various libraries around us  adjust acquisition policies and revise collections and procedures. While he didn’t face a similar technological change, in the following excerpt from a YMMIA conference talk J. M. Tanner gives his ideas about what should be in a library. He isn’t actually talking about personal libraries (something beyond the imagination of the average listener of his day), but instead the libraries established for each MIA–Mutual Improvement Association, the ward and stake-based groups of the time meant to improve the lives (religious and otherwise) of youth and young adults. Among the policies Tanner advocates is acquiring what he calls a “running library”–materials like periodicals acquired through ongoing subscriptions.

At the time this was written, Joseph M. Tanner had recently returned from an LDS mission to Europe and the Middle East, where he preached in Turkey and helped convert Mischa Markow (who organized the first branch in Palestine) and had recently been named President of the Church’s high school in Logan, Utah, Brigham Young College. He went on to attend Havard Law School and after returning served as President of Utah State University. In 1901 he became Commissioner of Church Education, serving until his retirement in 1906. He was the father of author, businessman and philanthropist Obert C. Tanner .

The Study and Lessons of History

By J. M. Tanner


How painful, and yet how illustrative it is to enter a friend’s home and have pointed out to you a library bought to be in the literary fashion. You are told that he has this or that author complete. They are books probably he himself has no patience to sit down and read, much less has his children that patience. It would be torture to them. Thus more than one-half our private libraries are selected, and public libraries are often obtained with much less discretion. This, however, bears but indirectly upon my subject, and yet I cannot suppress a wish that one of the subjects to be treated on this occasion had been: Books-how to get them and how to use them.

In opening my remarks I showed that the mental appetite which incites one to read must be voluntary, and that the brain food must bear some relationship to the already existing ingredients of the brain. If that which we read be not assimilated in the brain, it affords just about as much intellectual nourishment as scraps of paper would physical nourishment, if taken into the stomach. They would pass through the system, but that’s all. And the intellectual, like the physical appetite, is the best indicator of the food that can be assimilated. It remains therefore to be demonstrated how a healthy mental appetite can be awakened.

In the first place, our libraries are badly in need of reconstruction, and then the money to be expended in the future should be more judiciously distributed. There should be a running and reference library. The former should consist of at least one English weekly newspaper, one illustrated English journal-say the Illustrated London News or the Graphic-one home monthly-say Harper’sand Harper’s Weekly-one paper for wit and humor-say Puck; and may be two New York weeklies. This list might be modified or increased to suit the taste and financial capabilities of the several societies. At least one-half of the money usually expended annually should be devoted to the running library. Newspaper holders might be secured, or better still, pasteboard coverings in atlas form, with an elastic to keep them in their place, and keep them from being soiled. The illustrated weeklies and monthlies should be well bound at the close of each year. The newspapers might also be bound: but what would be still better, association scrap books could be kept, and a committee appointed to clip, select, and classify the most important articles. This would in a very few years provide a library of the most valuable illustrated works. The Territorial library committee could obtain all these periodicals at greatly reduced rates, if the associations were united in adopting a system of subscription. Librarians should be the most judiciously selected officers. On those evenings when the society convenes the house should be in order an hour before time to open the meeting. In one corner or at the side a suitable table or tables should be provided with lights and prepared by a distribution of association periodicals with one or two handsomely illustrated volumes belonging to the reference library.

It is rarely one meets a youth that is not fond of looking at pictures, and the pictures at first may furnish an hour’s pastime. The subject of the illustrations and the desire for an explanation of them will soon fasten the curious mind on the text. This curiosity awakens an appetite, and a taste for the first promiscuous reading has been created. This process of the mind soon suggests to the reader what he wants to know and he will follow the bent of his mind, whether in history, science, or art. The illustrations then become the subject of conversation, and the ear as well as the eye serves as a medium of communication to the brain.

The active librarian will have familiarized himself beforehand with the most interesting articles, and can with good effect arrange a bulletin from which the members may select the, to them, most instructive reading. An hour or an hour and a half will be devoted to the regular exercises, so that an hour may be profitably passed, especially during the winter season, after meeting hours, in a continuation of study at the tables. Young people who carelessly avoid the associations may be invited to go and look over the pictures and thus be led on to active participation in the exercises.

The good effects of such a system I have observed abroad, and have strong faith in its efficacy among us.

Again, no provision has been made for geographical references, in connection with historical readings. No proper conception of history can be drawn, nor can interest be awakened as long as geographical knowledge is wanting. How many of our libraries contain maps as aids to history? And yet the map system is so complete, and references so full, and the maps of all countries, folding for library purposes, can be procured at little expense. Many of our young people are given to pass much of their spare time in reading; but baneful novel reading occupies their attention. Nor is this undesirable habit so much to be wondered at when consideration is taken of the class of books that fill both the family and association libraries. We must have the standard authors, but standard authors seldom furnish suitable juvenile reading. Besides, we labor under the misguiding principle of reading what is popular, instead of that which will increase the capacity of thinking for ourselves. One ounce of brain food properly assimilated is worth more than volumes of stimulants; hence it is we often meet men that never read a book through in their lives, and yet possess more intellectual force than persistent readers. Reading is but one way of gaining intelligence, and history is but one class of reading. History, however, may enter into every class of knowledge in an incidental way. I am not here setting forth a plan for professional history. That would in our present circumstances be somewhat premature.

If the impetus which has been given to Association work be followed up, it is not vain to hope that professional work in historic research will some day in the not distant future characterize these very important organizations.

A most excellent auxiliary I must not here forget to mention. History might become as familiar to us as our mother tongue if we combined properly the sense of hearing with that of sight, as we do in the acquisition of language. Loud reading in the home circle, I fear, has not been fully appreciated and practiced.

If we sold fifty per cent of our libraries for fifty per cent on the dollar, and invested fifty per cent of the proceeds in a running library, and the other fifty per cent in suitable juvenile works, I am sure much more good could be accomplished. Make the most efficient member of the Association, president, and the next best, librarian. In the way I have indicated, institute a free reading room in every organization. Let a lover of history be consulted in the recommendation of the libraries, and the subject which I am here to-day to represent, is certain to receive that attention which its position in the foremost ranks of a scholastic education entitles it to.

The Contributor, v9 n7, May 1888, pp. 269-273
First given as a lecture at the YMMIA Conference, June 2, 1888.


Tanner’s overall focus on periodicals seems stunningly different from what we do today. If few collected and bound the periodicals they received in the past, with the advent of the Internet even fewer keep periodicals in their personal collections, relying instead on libraries and the publication’s websites for access to older issues. And even the new issues of periodicals are increasingly accessed for free on the Internet, so physical copies of an issue, and even a large part of the digital version of the current issue, are never delivered or seen by readers or subscribers. With our use of periodicals so radically different, what should a personal library be? and what should it mean?

But perhaps even more fascinating is some of Tanner’s statements about the nature of reading. His thoughts lead me to wonder about how we view reading and books. He observes that our mental state when we approach reading has a lot to do with what we can get out of it:

the mental appetite which incites one to read must be voluntary

Indeed, school teachers and librarians have been pushing this viewpoint for decades now: let children chose what they will read lest they don’t get anything out of what they read. Tanner sees that we may, in such cases, fail to provide mental nutrition:

If that which we read be not assimilated in the brain, it affords just about as much intellectual nourishment as scraps of paper would physical nourishment, if taken into the stomach. They would pass through the system, but that’s all.

This strikes me as common today–if we aren’t interested, but have to read a text, we may have a hard time focusing on it, and could even adopt the collegiate “binge and purge” method, retaining the text only as long as is necessary.

I was pleased to see Tanner’s views of the importance of illustration as a way of drawing readers into the text (popular at that time due to the advent just decades earlier of “illustrated” periodicals) and loved his promotion of “loud reading in the home circle,” which I assume to mean reading out loud.

Perhaps his most important statement, however, is his recognition that the medium isn’t nearly as important as the content we get:

One ounce of brain food properly assimilated is worth more than volumes of stimulants; hence it is we often meet men that never read a book through in their lives, and yet possess more intellectual force than persistent readers. Reading is but one way of gaining intelligence “¦

Even authors and publishers should remember this, I think. A little humility is good for everyone.

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