- Our Inaccessible Heritage. To the Editor of The Athenaeum
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 147 Our Inaccessible Heritage To the Editor of The Athenaeum The Athenaeum, 4669 (24 Oct 1919) 1076 Sir, – Your correspondents appear to have exhausted their commentary uponthe“InaccessibleHeritage.”1 Thereis,however,oneimportantbranch of the subject which has not, so far as I know, been explored. The heritage does not include only the books we wish to buy and cannot procure; it includes also the books which we do not wish to buy, but wish to read and cannot reach. The question is whether the British Museum Library ought not to be open to readers in the evening, and on Sunday.2 At present the Library can only be used by those whose occupation or lack of occupation permits them to pass their days there. The research of the professional scholar, the curiosity of the affluent, the affliction of the dotard, the idleness of the pauper – these may all be gratified or solaced in the Library; it can also provide a degree of physical warmth for the homeless . But for those who are regularly occupied elsewhere for even six hours of the day, the Library is useless; and among this last class, I believe, are many of those who might most profitably make use of it. For this class there is one resource, if they can afford it: the London Library.3 The London Library, for a private library, is surprisingly good; its terms are generous and its manners gracious; but if one wishes to pursue any subject very far, it is, naturally, not inexhaustible. Moreover, there is no need for more than one complete repository of printed matter. The Museum might, as a test, be opened for two nights a week until ten o'clock. Some enlargement of staff would be necessary; if the Museum authorities would inform us of the probable cost of this innovation we should know whether such an expansion of the usefulness of the Library is beyond the means of the nation, which endures expenses of far less general benefit. I am, Sir, your obliged obedient servant, T. S. Eliot 1919 148 ] Notes 1. The exchange in the pages of the Athenauem began on 11 July 1919, when John Middleton Murry’s unsigned leader, “Our Inaccessible Heritage,” lamented the “infinite difficulties” that face readers who would procure inexpensive editions of English literary classics, especially editions of Elizabethan writers other than Shakespeare (581). A flurry of responses appeared in the following issues, and Murry printed another front-page essay (“Our Inaccessible Heritage, II”) on 5 Sept 1919, in which he emphasized “the frank and salutary statements of the publishers that they would gladly do more reprinting if they could afford to” (837). TSE’s contribution came five weeks after the last letter on the topic appeared on 19 Sept. 2. The British Museum Library housed the print collections of the British Museum, founded in 1753 by Act of Parliament. From its inception, the national repository aimed to provide free access to all, though throughout 1919 government offices that had been temporarily installed there during the war continued to obstruct that access. In Mar 1919, the reading room eased war restrictions and extended hours until 6:00 p.m. In Dec 1919, the board of trustees declined requests from the House of Commons to revert to the prewar closing time (7:00 p.m.) and to open on Sundays. 3. The London Library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle as a private, lending library. In June 1919, the library reported that its annual book circulation had exceeded 100,000 volumes and that the entrance fee had been raised from £1 1s. to £3 3s. TSE became a member in Oct1918(seeillustration4).WhenhebecamepresidentofthelibraryinJuly1952,TSEreflected on how invaluable it had been when he was “employed in a bank in the City, and had little time to spend in libraries”: “There was the British Museum: but I had only my Saturday afternoons free. . . . At this juncture, it was the London library that made my literary journalism possible. I could go there at my leisure, after lunch on Saturday, rummage the stacks, and emerge with nine or ten volumes to take home with me. Without the London Library, many of my early essays could never have been written.” A Presidential Address to the Members of the London Library (London: Queen Anne Press, 1952), [1-2]. ...