IN last month's Library World attention is drawn to the subject of literary history and its teaching by Mr. Sayers, who points out some weak points in the syllabus and examination scheme of the Library Association. His remarks recall the fact that this subject has always been a difficult and rather inflammable one to tackle, because wrapped up in it is that other exciting question of Language, which must be taken in connection with Literature when considered as a teaching subject. We understand that the Literary History syllabus of the L.A. is merely a compromise, which arose out of a tangle caused by the language difficulty. The draft scheme for the teaching of Literary History which was first submitted, provided for a very strict limitation of the subject to the great authors of all nations, according to a list which had been prepared. This scheme proposed to get over the language difficulty by allowing for all purposes the use of textbooks and translations in English, because it was felt to be utterly ridiculous to expect students to be equipped with firsthand knowledge of Homer, Dante, Hafiz, Confucius, the Vedas, Molire, Cervantes, Schiller, Virgil, Tolstoy, and other great authors. This proposal, which would have limited the requirements of the examination to a biographical and critical knowledge of about 300 or 400 of the greatest authors of all times, was rejected, and in its place was adopted the compromise to which Mr. Sayers and many others object. This compromise on the face of it, limits the examination to English Literature only, but, when more closely scanned, it will be found also to demand a most extraordinary knowledge of all kinds of foreign authors, in a form which has not yet been systematically recorded. Apart from this, the dimensions of an unlimited survey of English Literature are enormous, because there is no attempt at definition. All that can be gathered from the actual Examination Papers is that the examiners have largely confined themselves to the purely critical side of the subject. But students are not told that modern technical and scientific literature is excluded, nor is any indication given which will show that it is the literature of power, and not of knowledge, in which candidates are expected to be proficient. Now, it is perfectly well known to every reader that not 1 per cent. of the books published is literature at all. The output of printed matter all over the world consists mostly of Lamb's books which are not bookstextbooks, ephemera, rubbish in general, and other nondescript essays in typographical artwhich have no real place in a Literary History Syllabus. It was to get over this anomaly, and equip students with the knowledge mostly required in librariesan acquaintance with books which are not booksthat the original draft scheme for the Literary History syllabus imposed a limitation which should prove effective in confining the examination to pure literature, and relegating the literature of knowledge to the sections devoted to Bibliography and Book Selection. In the present Syllabus, as revised, this distribution actually takes place, but with an extraordinary degree of overlapping which makes it necessary for a candidate to pass thrice in Literary History He must first pass in Section I. Literary History, which demands among many other things a knowledge of the editions and forms in which the works of the authors have been published. Good. No limitation here, and any examiner would, accordingly, be perfectly fair and within his rights in asking for bibliographical details of Cocker's Arithmetic or Buchan's Domestic Medicine. Again, in Section II., Elements of Practical Bibliography, we have a demand for knowledge of book selection, the best books and periodicals, and courses of reading. Here, once more, no limitation, and again an examiner could ask when the first edition in English of the Arabian Nights was published,or what is the best edition of Cdmon or the Koran. Finally, in Section V., Library History and Organization, the same requirements are set forth, without any limitation, and candidates are evidently expected to possess a full knowledge of all literature before they can obtain a certificate. All this is very confusing and absurd, and gives point to every complaint which has been uttered against this part of the scheme of examinations. After all, a dilletante, gossipy, pseudocritical acquaintance with literary history is of verylittle practical value, compared with exact bibliographical knowledge concerning great authors and their works. For this reason we think the Association should carefully revise its Syllabus, and adopt a betterproportioned and more equitable distribution of the subject. Section I. certainly requires strict limitation within reasonable bounds, and it ought to be confined to a working knowledge of the chief authors of the world according to a carefully prepared list of names. This should demand knowledge of biographical and critical facts, plus enough of bibliographical detail regarding titles to satisfy an examiner. Failing this, a list of authors, periods, or subjects selected for study and examination should be issued every year before the examination but a fixed limitation to begin with would, we think, be better.
New Library World – Emerald Publishing
Published: Mar 1, 1906