This electronic transcription has been prepared by Wendy Plotkin, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, for the scholarly on-line forums of and on March 12, 1996. It was prepared in conjunction with the paper "Enoch Pratt Free Library and Its Service to Communities of Immigrant Residents in Baltimore in the Progressive Era, 1900-1914" by Amy Begg.

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Published in LIBRARY JOURNAL ("Chiefly Devoted to Library Economy and Bibliography"), October, 1913, Vol. 38, No. 10, New York: Publication Office, 141 East 25th Street/London: Sold By the American Book Agency of Arthur F. Bird, 22 Bedford Street., Strand.

What the Library Can Do For Our Foreign-Born*

By John Foster Carr

*Read at the last annual meeting of the Massachusetts Library Club, at Williamstown, Friday, May 23, 1913.

Fresh among my boyhood's memories--I am talking of the early eighties-- there stand pictures of two librarians, one a grave but genial scholar of remarkable erudition, the head of a great library, the other a young lady whose duties in a town library made no serious inroads upon her favorite work of knitting. I do not pretend to say how far these two were, for their primitive time, prevailing types of librarians, but types I believe, they were. To compass "all learning" was long the ideal of the library that the scholar-librarian followed. Now as it seems to me, with your new scientific organization, "all life" has become the library's province, and every library is doing new planning and new work for its conquest, developing greater educative force, greater attractive social power. And to the librarian's despair, with the coming of this new purpose, our life grows more and more complex, as it rapidly develops a new civilization.

The new duties, for instance, that immigration is putting upon the libraries vastly complicate the question of the library's development. It is a national problem that is largely for you to meet, unquestionably the greatest educational problem yet unattempted in this country. How shall I state its size and significance to you?

Define first the problem from the point of numbers. It will be the marvel of the future that we have sometimes received a million immigrants a year and yet that for so many years we have done nothing for their systematic Americanization and education. The Director of the Census made the announcement last October that there were among us 3,612,700 foreign-born males of voting age who were not naturalized, a fact that carries a consequence of probably 7,000,000 men, women and children more or less out of touch with American ideals and American ideas. In your own Massachusetts, where your 1,059,245 foreign-born amount to very nearly one-third of your total population, 264,475 or 58 per cent of your foreign-born white males of voting age are not naturalized. Of this million again, 141,541 are illiterates, 10 years of age and over. These larger figures state impressively your local problem.

The school, the great assimilator of our foreign children, has, it must frankly be admitted, accomplished little for the adult foreign-born. It has found it difficult to refashion its educational method to the immediate necessity of the case. Neither books nor system nor seats have been well adapted to instruction of the immigrant. Altogether surmounted by any but the most intelligent, persistent, and ambitious of our foreign-born.

The library has a far greater opportunity in this work than the school. For the Americanization of the adult foreign-born in its own way, it can render the same service that the school does for the foreign-born child. Its aid is more inviting and less formal. It makes less strenuous demands upon the attention of a man who is often exceedingly tired after a long day's work. It welcomes the man who thinks himself too old for school. And it is open throughout the year, where the night school at the most is open only seven months of the year. It can furnish papers and books in his own language and thus provide a homely air. It gives him a sense of joint right and ownership with us in the best things of our country, and that without a suggestion of patronizing interest. Best of all, I think it can put the immigrant in effective touch with American democracy. American ideals, and so, better than any other agency, destroy the impression of merciless commercialism that so many of our immigrants in their colonies continually assert is the main characteristics of our civilization.

In Mt. Vernon, N.Y.[1], we are trying to work out a practical plan that will be useful in this new field of education, the education and Americanization of our immigrants. We mean to give them, first of all, a cordial welcome to the new land, to bring them in touch with the best and most helpful things in American life; and then to give them such education, civic and other, as they know they need, and so often desire, and to help prepare them for citizenship. As a first step, with the active help of their leading men in Mount Vernon, we have been giving a series of very simple lectures to the foreign-born in their own languages. These lectures have been based on the "Guide to the United States for the immigrant" and have been in Italian, Yiddish, Swedish, and English.[2] They have been given in the public school, and all necessary expenses have been paid by the Board of Education.

We have now taken up the second and more important part of our plan, the use of the library in the work. The difficulties are that foreign-born working men and women either do not know of the library, or fear that they will be unwelcome. Once persuaded to enter, they need immediate personal attention. Index cards are impossible to them; the open shelf is often almost useless; they know little or nothing of the proper use of books. In short, they require much painstaking individual help from the librarian.

And this is what we have done. In March, one of these school meetings for Italians was adjourned at 9 o'clock, and became a personally conducted tour to the Public Library. The Verdi Club welcomed us there with "Santa Lucia," "Bella Napoli," and selections from Verdi and Mascagni on mandolin and guitar. And there was a first simple talk on libraries and their privileges. The Verdi Club, as always, eagerly volunteered its services for entertainment. Selections, vocal as well as instrumental, were very successfully given; and an accomplished young actress recited Pascarella's grotesquely humorous "Discovery of America" to the enthusiastic plaudits of the crowd.[3]

Fulfilling our promise, a new list of Italian books has been purchased. This includes a few Italian classics not in the library, and a certain number of English, French and Russian novels in Italian translation, all world classics. A particular point was made of adding books that are either translations of famous American works, or books about the United States and American life.

A second list of books already approved and next to be ordered of similar character, including, besides a liberal supply of fiction, volumes of travel with a further sprinkling of American authors.

There has also been conditionally promised by a friend of the library a set of books already selected, devoted chiefly to works describing the new Italy and its aspirations, simple books of biography, science, mechanics, hygiene, with further additions of Italian classics.

The individual attention of the librarian is proving the biggest factor in the success of the work. She explains the mysteries of procedure from open shelf and selection of books to their registration and care. Beginning with the "immigrant's guide," which she calls "the foundation on which the librarian must build" in this work, she helpfully learns what are the new member's needs and tastes. Here the "Guide" is of special service and becomes a useful interpreter between them, for it is accessible in English to the librarian, and can be read in his own Italian or Polish or Yiddish by the newcomer. By gentle hint and open advice, through other books in his own language, he is given the chance of learning something of American life, its ideals and opportunities. He learns of "books that will serve not only for his amusement and pleasure, but for the best education of which he is capable, and so help him to earn more money and more fully enjoy life."

One question that has been taken up has been the abuse of books. It was found that many Italian working men who had few advantages of education in their own country occasionally brought their books back either badly soiled, or torn. To provide a remedy for this in a friendly but effective way, making a direct appeal to the reader, the following notice in Italian, with its familiar appealing "thou's," was prepared and is now being pasted on the covers of all Italian books in the library: "Friend Reader!

This book is full of wise advice and useful information for thee. Treat it well as thou would'st a good friend. Do not rumple it. Do not soil it. Do not tear it. Think that after having been useful to thee, it must be of service to a great number of thy compatriots. To damage it, to tear it, to soil it, would give a bad impression of thee and prevent other Italians getting the benefit from this book. Respect this volume for the good name and for the advantage of Italians.

This book much be returned to the Public Library of Mount Vernon, New York, within two weeks."

And for those who abuse books, the plan has been formed of showing when necessary, a copy of the "immigrants guide" that had been borrowed only once, and then returned to the library in so bad a condition that it could not be sent out again; comparing with this a copy of Dante that was printed in Venice in 1529, whose pages are as clean and in many cases almost as white, as when it left the press, nearly 400 years ago.

In these meetings it is intended for the future to have always some spoken English. At one of them, there was an Italian speech by an American. We are trying to cultivate intimate and friendly relations with our foreign-born friends, and to do this on so simple and democratic a basis, that there can be no suspicion of a patronizing interest on our part.

It is noteworthy that success of these Italian meetings has been made possible by the very hearty co-operation of two Italians locally prominent, both contractors, the most important contractors of the town, and of the Italian Catholic priest.

The first book needed, and the first prepared was a guide, if you please, to American life, a kind of immigrant's Baedeker, telling the man those things that he knows he needs to know about our country: How to find work; How to travel in this strange land, where everything, they say, seems to be upside down; How to learn English; The claims of agriculture--the story of the 92 Italian colonies, of the 30,000 Jews on farms; The geography, climate, government of this country; How immigrants can become citizens; The laws they are liable to break innocently, and other laws; Health; Chapters on savings banks, on notaries and other abuses, and private advice. The "Guide" has now been published in four languages especially adapting it in every detail to the men of different nationalities. Demands are now being made for similar books written in the same manner and style, for a United States history, for simple biographies, a simple book of civics, a simple book on learning English.

Supplements to the "Guide" have now been published for Massachusetts and there are hundreds of calls for the book in fifteen other languages. In the work we have had the cooperation of men of all religions, Catholic and Jew as heartily helpful as Protestant.

The most heartening success of all, next to our success with the immigrant, has been that with our own people. Newspapers all over the country talk of it as a "Guide to the immigrant for the American," a means, through understanding sympathy, of destroying the things that separate, working for broader democracy, a more generous human fellowship. The result of all this work by our friends is that people are beginning to see that it is more than a question of a book. It is an idea. For the propaganda we need the heart interest of men and women.


[1] Mount Vernon, New York, established in the 17th century, was the destination of a group of dissatisfied New Yorkers of the mid-19th century who moved to Mount Vernon and created the Industrial Homes Association, or the Industrial Home Owners Society Number One. In CRABGRASS FRONTIER: THE SUBURBANIZATION OF THE UNITED STATES (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), Kenneth Jackson describes Mount Vernon as follows:

         Led by John Stevens, the group was made up of
         New York City residents who were frustrated
         by high rents and overcrowding, and who
         sought a working-class community where people
         of moderate means could afford individual
         cottages with agreeable neighbors and a
         short commute.  In 1850 Stevens purchased 367
         acres from five farmers in Westchester County,
         divided the land into quarter-acre parcels on
         a regular grid pattern, and held a lottery
         to distribute the plots to the thousand-plus
         members of the association.  By 1854 the new
         residents had constructed more than three
         hundred homes, planted shade trees along the
         new streets, built a commercial section around
         the railroad station, and incorporated their
         community as Mount Vernon.  The village bustled
         with energy and commerce, and famed newspaper
         editor Horace Greeley suppored the experiment
         as an alterantive for those who were unwilling to
         "Go West."  But Industrial Home Owners Society
         Number One floundered when hard times in the 1850s
         forced individual members to sell their holdings
         to outsiders.  There was no clause in the manifesto
         to keep the settlement a closed one, and the
         newcomers were more affluent than the original
         workers.  By 1860 there was little to distinguish
         Mount Vernon from dozens of growing villages around
         New York. By 1880 it was a small city.  (84-85)

[2]Published by Carr "under the Auspices of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution" and by Doubleday, Page & Company (Garden City, New York) in 1911. An opening preface states

           Thousands of immigrants have found employment
           land homes in the state of Connecticut. Many of
           them come from distant lands and speak no
           English.  To help them become Americans and
           citizens of the Daughters of the American
           Revolution in Connecticut have opened night
           schools and classes in English, as well as free
           reading rooms, with books and papers in foreign
           languages.  They have provided lectures on American
           history in the Italian language.  And so, as a
           friend, this Society has prepared the present
           guide to help the immigrant adjust himself quickly
           to the living conditions and social customs of the
           United States of America.
           In the state of Connecticut alone the Society
           has more than 4350 members, divided into 47
           Chapters, in the different cities and towns.
           All these Chapters are ready to give help to the
           immigrant Italian.
                   (New York: Arno Press, 1975), which also
                   includes a reprint of Sarah G. Pomeroy's
                   DANTE, AND MICHAEL ANGELO, New York, 1914.
[3] Cesare Pascarella's THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA (or La Scoperta de l'America) was published in 1894 and read aloud to audiences throughout Italy. Part of its popularity was its being written not in Italian, the "national" language of Italy, but in "Romanesco," a language used by the people of Italy as an alternative to Latin in the years after the Roman Catholic church's ascendancy in Rome and Italy. The Italian language as used today evolved from "Florentine," the language used by Dante and Petrarch in the 14th Century, while Romanesco remained a "dialect of a people governed by outsiders." Romanesco, although increasingly an obscure language spoken only in a small region of Italy today, has been used in modern history as a means of expressing protest against threats to the Italian state. Specifically, it was used by Trilussa(1871-1950) to mock the Fascists. See "Introduction" in Cesare Pascarella, THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, Translated from the Romanesco by John DuVal (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991).
The epic poem consists of reflections on the travels and character of Christopher Columbus, as well as life in modern times and in America. An example is
             Right.  That's how the world goes: bad to worse.
             Here.  Have another drink.  Hey!  Go slow.
             Don't hog the whole damn bottle.  Leave us some.
             Instead of sitting and swilling like a horse,
             Why don't you tell us, since we know you know,
             Where, exactly, was Columbus from?
Source: Pascarella, XLVI, 93.