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An Afternoon In A Free Library

( Originally Published 1902 )



ONE Saturday afternoon, I visited the Cooper Union Library and Reading Room in New York. After having read for an hour or two, I sat thinking about the value of such an institution, and of the wisdom and love of the man who founded it. I knew he built it largely for the benefit of the poor mechanics and working people, and I wondered how nearly his idea was being carried out. There were between sixty and seventy men present in the room, and I concluded to find out, if possible, their occupation. Only three of the number declined to answer my question. They may have been modest; they may have had an occupation of which they were ashamed, or they may have thought that it was none of my business ; but only three declined to give the information desired. The rest answered in the following order : Bookkeeper, groomsman, woodsawyer, engraver on jewelry, clerk, typewriter, compositor, gas collector, architect, baker, stone grinder, house painter, teacher, canvassing agent, dealer in rags, seller of smoking articles on the street, clothing cutter, clerk, sign painter, student in medical college, longshoreman, machinist, candymaker, book canvasser, coatmaker, tailor, baker, clerk, chartered accountant, marine engineer, electrician, oyster-opener, student with law in view, fish salesman, plumber, waiter in restaurant, tailor, machinist, job press feeder, wiremaker, assistant engineer on ship, medical student, bookkeeper, laborer, carpenter, carpenter, canvasser, journalist, head waiter in hotel, attorney-at-law, plaiter of skirts, cutter of clothing, architect, law clerk, broker, waiter in hotel, editor.

The result of the inquiry revealed the fact that, with the exception of a professional man here and there, all were mechanics, day laborers and poor employees. It was a half-holiday, and these hard-working men had seized upon it for their intellectual and moral instruction. It spoke well for the men, and for the wisdom of the poor struggling mechanic who had founded the institution and made such instruction possible.

Peter Cooper learned, in his provision for the mental and moral wants of the struggling poor, that there is a higher accumulation than that of material wealth ; the millions of dollars which he saved were as nothing to the millions of hearts which he made his own by his gifts to the poor and struggling common people.

Like so many inventors and benefactors, Peter Cooper thought that piety should be the chief aim in life. In the corner-stone of Cooper Union, laid in 1854, was a scroll with these words : " The great object I desire to accomplish by the erection of this institution is to open the avenues of scientific knowledge to the youth of our city and country, and so unfold the volume of nature that the young may see the beauties of creation, enjoy its blessings, and learn to love the Author from whom cometh every good and perfect gift." The student of science has only a partial education who stops at a knowledge of material facts or of their relation to each other, and does not find the Great First Cause, who is Infinite Love.



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