Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

ghosts of libraries past

In Posts on December 24, 2013 at 7:45 am

Charles Dickens is with us at this time of year, his own ghostly visitation appearing via A Christmas Carol. But his spirit may have been addedly engaged last week when the news broke that scholars at Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf  had ranked the Vancouver Public Library (together with Montreal’s Bibliotheque) as the world’s best public library.

This evaluation of libraries came through focus upon “informational cities,” defined as “prototypical spaces of the knowledge society … where flows of information, capital, and power are as or more important than physical spaces (p.1).” Even more critical than the ranking, although as a Vancouverite I would not wish to renounce it entirely, the analysis makes plain that libraries form “an essential part of the city’s … knowledge and creative infrastructure… (p.313).” It is this sentiment that furthered the establishment of public libraries in England in the 19th century.

In 1850, the English House of Commons undertook an inquiry into the nature of their libraries with the conclusion that, in comparison to Europe, Britain was inferior in terms of libraries freely available to the public. As reported by the Spectator, 12 November 1853, this situation was “unworthy of the power, the liberality, and the literature of this country.”

From the inquiry came an act to enable Town Councils to establish public libraries and museums. The first such public library was the Manchester Free Library; it opened on 2 September 1852 with Charles Dickens among the speakers. As revealed by the Manchester Archives during the bicentennial celebrations of his birth, Dickens had accepted the invitation with alacrity. “… My engagements are very numerous but the occasion is too important and the example too noble to admit of hesitation.” Assigned the task of introducing the resolution, Dickens gave added thrust to the importance of public libraries:

“That as in this institution special provision has been made for the working classes, by means of a free lending library, this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will provide a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.” …  Ladies and gentleman, I have long been, in my sphere, a zealous advocate for the diffusion of knowledge among all class and conditions of men; because I do believe, with all the strength and might with which I am capable of believing anything, that the more a man knows, the more humbly, and with a more faithful spirit he comes back to the fountain of all knowledge, and takes to his heart the great sacred precept, “On earth peace, good will towards men.” Ladies and gentleman, I have great pleasure in moving the resolution which I have already read to you.*

The significance of the role played by public libraries was not lost on the colonies. Reporting on the opening ceremonies in Manchester, the Empire (Sydney) emphatically called upon its elite to step forward and give the City of Gold such an institution. Describing Manchester’s initiative:

They assembled to establish no Charity School, with a scrannel supply of innutritive knowledge for the workers, but a great and enduring institution filled with the light of genius from every age and every land, where the gifted sons of poverty may burst from their bonds … for the advancement of civilisation and the highest interests of the human race.

In Canada, Dr. Alphaeus Todd, Librarian of Parliament, in a plea to improve supply of reading material to residents, also pointed to English developments. Courtesy of Libraries Today, his report to the Royal Society of Canada (1882) is available here. Quoting from the first librarian of the Manchester Free Library, Todd wrote:

… Without exception, the working of all the free libraries so established and brought into active operation has proved eminently satisfactory to all classes of ratepayers.  It has largely promoted that industrial education which fits men for their specific callings in life, as well as that wider education that reaches farther and higher…. (p.16).

Closer to home, the British Columbia provincial legislature passed a Free Libraries Act in 1891. In Dave Obee’s The Library Book—A History of Service to British Columbia, former Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnola writes that the history of library services in British Columbia:

… is a testament to individual determination intended to overcome all challenges associated with B.C.’s difficult geography, complicated history, sparse population and ever-shifting economy…. Through their own love of books, men and women worked hard to enrich the unique culture of this precious province of ours. They knew the value of the gift of learning, education and knowledge that was to be found in libraries, and they knew the simple joy of being able to borrow literary works of history, fiction, poetry, drama and criticism, to experience a “really good read!”

After the Manchester event, Dickens would write to a friend: “I wish you could have seen the opening of the Free Library… Such a noble effort, so wisely and modestly made; so wonderfully calculated to keep one part of that awful machine, a great working town, in harmony with the other.”

History must always remain incomplete, but last week’s news gives hope that libraries may yet endure as “wise and modest” institutions facilitating harmony as much as knowledge.

* Charles Dickens, “Opening of the Free Library, Manchester.” The Speeches of Charles Dickens, ed. K.J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) p.151-154.  Note: The text varies slightly from the archived speech presented by the NY Times.

A Christmas Carol

In Posts on December 19, 2011 at 7:15 am

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843

On this day in 1843, Charles Dickens’ work, A Christmas Carol, was published.

Received with acclaim, unauthorized copies of the work appeared on the market within weeks. Although Dickens had ignored piracy before, he responded with legal action to the circulation of a “re-originated” version of his cherished Christmas tale.  Kate Sutherland, writer and associate professor of Osgoode Hall Law School, explains the business circumstances that prompted Dickens to take action and the emotional drive that propelled him to continue. Despite success in court, Dickens came away poorer for the experience.

Dickens is a noted figure in copyright lore — his efforts to have British copyrights recognized by American printers were famous, albeit largely unsuccessful. During an 1842 tour of the United States, he spoke frequently on the issue of copyright. Dickens, like many English authors and publishers, resented the practice whereby Americans reprinted English works without concern of recompense.  In Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes: “When Dickens’ account of his tour, American Notes,  came out in 1843, fifty thousand pirated copies sold in the United States in three days.” And when A Christmas Carol was published, “London readers … would have to pay the equivalent of $2.50 in 1843. An American Dickens’ fan would have to pay only six cents (p.50-51).”

However, American printing practices would not change quickly. Cheap literature served the United States well, both in terms of educating the public and developing a robust printing industry. Indeed, the U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 included what is best described as an invitation to piracy. Section Five stated:

That nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States.

Perhaps realizing that England had little leverage with their renegade colony, the Report of a Royal Commission on copyright (1876-1878)  described the American attitude in very generous terms:

The main difficulty undoubtedly arises from the fact that … original works published in America are, as yet, less numerous than those published in Britain. This naturally affords a temptation to the Americans to take advantage of the works of the older country….

The Commission was also well aware of the practice of private business arrangements between some English copyright holders and American publishers, whereby the Americans paid handsomely for advance sheets of the latest English works.

The Anglo-American disputes and negotiations, coupled with the strictures of Imperial copyright law, took its toll on Canada’s printing industry. Even when an Anglo-American copyright agreement was eventually established in 1891, the United States took care to ensure that the conditions remained favourable to their own industry.*

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg and David Widger,  readers can enjoy the first edition of A Christmas Carol (complete with original illustrations by John Leech) here.  As 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, festivities are planned in England and around the world; check out the Dickens 2012 website.  Another site of note is Charles Dickens Page by David Perdue. Dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Sandra Perdue, his aim is to bring “the genius of Dickens to a new generation of readers.”

* See Meera Nair, “The Copyright Act of 1889 — A Canadian Declaration of Independence.” Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 90, Issue 1, March 2009, pp.1-28.