Goodreads: The Library
Age Category: Adult
The dramatic and contested history of the library, from the ancient world to the digital age
Famed across the known world, jealously guarded by private collectors, built up over centuries, destroyed in a single day, ornamented with gold leaf and frescoes, or filled with bean bags and children’s drawings—the history of the library is rich, varied, and stuffed full of incident. In The Library, historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen introduce us to the antiquarians and philanthropists who shaped the world’s great collections, trace the rise and fall of literary tastes, and reveal the high crimes and misdemeanors committed in pursuit of rare manuscripts. In doing so, they reveal that while collections themselves are fragile, often falling into ruin within a few decades, the idea of the library has been remarkably resilient as each generation makes—and remakes—the institution anew.
The Library attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the library from ancient times up to the modern era. The focus is primarily on European and American libraries, with a few forays into countries colonized by the British or the French. The sheer scope of the project means, of course, that not many topics get covered in-depth. Rather, the authors provide an overview of various periods and practices, a little taste of topics that curious readers just might find themselves researching later. The mere idea of a book about libraries is sure to delight most library lovers, however, so suffice it to say that people who love books about books will not be disappointed here.
If I have any quibbles about the book, it is that the writing style is rather dry. Though I am not a fan of popular non-fiction writers who take on an overly personal tone or who try to make jokes, I do appreciate language that flows. The Library does not flow. It reads a lot like a bunch of facts strung together–which it is, of course. But there is a story here, and I rather wanted it to be told like a story. I wanted to fall into the pages and immerse myself in the magic of the library!
A stronger criticism I have is that The Library does not really seem interested in telling the stories of women until the book is almost over. Christina, Queen of Sweden is the first woman to get more extended treatment and she lived in the seventeenth century. Yet my recent reading of The Gilded Page by Mary Wellesley suggests to me that women in the medieval period could have been an interesting topic. Not until women librarians become prominent does The Library really talk about women, and by then the authors are wrapping up. I am sure that finding historical information about men is easier, but I also think that information about women could have been included, if it had been made a priority.
Still, The Library does cover many topics of interest, from the move from scrolls to pages, to early book storage (on tables or in trunks–not upright on shelves,) to the ways in which librarians have, far from fighting for freedom of information, sometimes actually worked against that (or as agents of oppressive states). It covers the devastating loss of libraries time and again throughout history, with a particular emphasis on the ravages of monastery libraries during the Reformation. And subsequent dismantling of Protestant libraries by Catholic governments. The history of libraries has never been tranquil–and The Library relishes in revealing all the ways that books can cause trouble. Library lovers will be fascinated!
So is The Library worth a read? Of course! But I also think it is only the start. The book raises so many interesting questions and must, of necessity, leave so much history out. But readers who love to read books about books will certainly find a gem here.