Page images



What is a pamphlet? is a question which is by no means capable of being scientifically answered. Yet, to the librarian dealing continually with a mass of pamphlets, books, and periodicals, it becomes important to define somewhere, the boundary line between the pamphlet and the book. The dictionaries will not aid us, for they all call the pamphlet “a few sheets of printed paper stitched together, but not bound.” Suppose (as often happens) that you bind your pamphlet, does it then cease to be a pamphlet, and become a book? Again, most pamphlets now published are not stitched at all, but stabbed and wired to fasten the leaves together. The origin of the word “pamphlet,” is in great doubt. A plausible derivation is from two French words, "paume," and "feuillet,literally a hand-leaf; and another derives the word from a corruption of Latin—papyrus," paper, into pampilus, or panfletus, whence pamphlet. The word is in Shakespeare:

“Comest thou with deep premeditated lines,

With written pamphlets studiously devised ?” But we also find “pamphlets and bookys,” in a work printed by Caxton in 1490, a hundred years before Shakespeare.

Whatever the origin, the common acceptation of the word is plain, signifying a little book, though where the pamphlet ends, and the book begins, is uncertain. The rule of the British Museum Library calls every printed publication of one hundred pages or less, a pamphlet. This is arbitrary, and so would any other rule be. As that library binds its pamphlets separately, and counts them in its aggregate of volumes, the reason for any distinction in the matter is not plain. Some of the government libraries in Europe are greatly overrated numerically by reckoning pamphlets as volumes. Thus, the Royal Library at Munich, in Bavaria, has been ranked fourth among the libraries of the world, claiming over a million volumes, but as it reckons every university thesis, or discussion of some special topic by candidates for degrees, as a volume, and has perhaps 400,000 of this prolific class of publications, it is actually not so large as some American libraries, which count their pamphlets as distinct from books in their returns.

The pamphlet, or thin book, or tract (as some prefer to call it) is reckoned by some librarians as a nuisance, and by others as a treasure. That it forms rather a troublesome asset in the wealth of a library cannot be doubted. Pamphlets taken singly, will not stand upon the shelves; they will curl up, become dogs-eared, accumulate dust, and get in the way of the books. If kept in piles, as is most frequent, it is very hard to get at any one that is wanted in the mass. Then it is objected to them, that the majority of them are worthless, that they cost altogether too much money, and time, and pains, to catalogue them, and that they are useless if not catalogued; that if kept bound, they cost the library a sum out of all proportion to their value; that they accumulate so rapidly (much faster, in fact, than books) as to outrun the means at the disposal of any library to deal with them; in short, that they cost more than they come to, if bound, and if unbound, they vex the soul of the librarian day by day.

This is one side of the pamphlet question; and it may be candidly admitted, that in most libraries, the accumulation of uncatalogued and unbound pamphlets is one of the chief among those arrears which form the skeleton in the closet of the librarian. But there is another side to the matter. It is always possible to divide your pamphlets into two classes—the important, and the insignificant. Some of them have great historical, or economic, or intellectual value; others are as nearly worthless as it is possible for any printed matter to be. Why should you treat a pamphlet upon Pears's soap, or a quack medicine, or advertising the Columbia bicycle, with the same attention which you would naturally give to an essay on international politics by Gladstone, or a review of the Cuban question by a prominent Spaniard, or a tract on Chinese immigration by Minister Seward, or the pamphlet genealogy of an American family? Take out of the mass of pamphlets, as they come in, what appear to you the more valuable, or the more liable to be called for; catalogue and bind them, or file them away, according to the use which they are likely to have: relegate the rest, assorted always by subject-matters or classes, to marked piles, or to pamph. let cases, according to your means; and the problem is approximately solved.

To condemn any pamphlet to "innocuous desuetude," or to permanent banishment from among the intellectual stores of a library, merely because it is innocent of a stiff cover, is to despoil the temple of learning and reject the good things of Providence. What great and influential publications have appeared in the world in the guise of pamphlets! Milton's immortal “Areopagitica, or Plea for Unlicenced Printing," was a pamphlet of only forty pages; Webster's speech for the Union, in reply to Hayne, was a pamphlet; every play of Shakespeare, that was printed in his life-time, was a pamphlet; Charles Sumner's discourse on "The True Grandeur of Nations” was a pamphlet; the “Crisis" and "Common Sense" of Thomas Paine, which

fired the American heart in the Revolution, were pamphlets. Strike out of literature, ancient and modern, what was first published in pamphlets, and you would leave it the poorer and weaker to an incalculable degree.

Pamphlets are not only vehicles of thought and opinion, and propagandists of new ideas; they are often also storehouses of facts, repositories of history, annals of biography, records of genealogy, treasuries of statistics, chronicles of invention and discovery. They sometimes throw an unexpected light upon obscure questions where all books are silent. Being published for the most part upon some subject that was interesting the public mind when written, they reflect, as in a mirror, the social, political, and religious spirit and life of the time. As much as newspapers, they illustrate the civilization (or want of it) of an epoch, and multitudes of them, preserved in great libraries, exhibit this at those early periods when no newspapers existed as vehicles of public opinion. Many of the government libraries of Europe have been buying up for many years past, the rare, early-printed pamphlets of their respective countries, paying enormous prices for what, a century ago, they would have slighted, even as a gift.

When Thomas Carlyle undertook to write the life of Oliver Cromwell, and to resurrect from the dust-bins of two centuries, the letters and speeches of the great Protector, he found his richest quarry in a collection of pamphlets in the British Museum Library. An indefatigable patriot and bookseller, named Thomason, had carefully gathered and kept every pamphlet, book, periodical, or broadside that appeared from the British press, during the whole time from A. D. 1649 to 1660, the period of the interregnum in the English monarchy, represented by Cromwell and the Commonwealth. This vast collection, numbering over 20,000 pamphlets, bound in 2,000 volumes, after escaping the perils of fire, and of both hostile armies, was finally purchased by the King, and afterward presented to the British Museum Library. Its completeness is one great source of its value, furnishing, as it does, to the historical student of that exceedingly interesting revolution, the most precious memorials of the spirit of the times, many of which have been utterly lost, except the single copy preserved in this collection.

Several great European libraries number as many pamphlets as books in their collections. The printed catalogue of the British Museum Library is widely sought by historical students, because of the enormous amount of pamphlet literature it contains, that is described nowhere else. And the Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum said that some readers found the great interest in his catalogue of that collection lay in its early American pamphlets.

As another instance of the value to the historical stores of a public library of this ephemeral literature, it may be noted that the great collection of printed matter, mostly of a fugitive character, relating to the French Revolutionary period, gathered by the late M. de La Bedoyère, amounted to 15,000 volumes and pamphlets. Fifty years of the life of the wealthy and enthusiastic collector, besides a very large sum of money, were spent in amassing this collection. With an avidity almost incredible, he ransacked every book-store, quay, and private shelf that might contribute a fresh morsel to his stores; and when Paris was exhausted, had his agents and purveyors busy in executing his orders all over Europe. Rival collectors, and particularly M. Deschiens, who had been a contemporary in the Revolution, and had laid aside everything that appeared in his day, only contributed at their decease, to swell the precious stores of M. de La Bedoyère. This vast collection, so precious for the history of France at its most

« PreviousContinue »