The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen

The Library


Goodreads: The Library
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

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.

Star Divider


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.

3 Stars

8 thoughts on “The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen

  1. nsfordwriter says:

    I recently reviewed this one and wasn’t as kind to it… I felt it was too focused on the early history of libraries and on books as objects. The authors seemed to dismiss ebooks as a passing fad, which rather annoyed me!


    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point! I do remember thinking the early pages were focused more on books than on libraries. Yes, books are IN libraries, but they’re not quite the same, are they?

      I through the comment on ebooks was interesting, too. I understand the concern that technology changes so quickly that it often becomes obsolete. But I don’t think ebooks are going away soon, even if they somehow transform. I’m not sure the comparison to microfiche was quite apt since ebooks are currently delivered multiple ways–ereaders, laptops, phones. As long as there is some sort of device we have with screens that show text, I imagine there will be a way to get ebooks on them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nsfordwriter says:

        Agreed – ebooks are not going away! Maybe they will just be beamed straight into our minds in the future but there will always be books of some sort. Libraries will be primarily collections of resources not limited to a physical space. Having used microfiche it’s a bit awkward and not future-proof at all but think of all the research it allowed (and therefore all the books it enabled) before we had the internet. Fascinating topic isn’t it?! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I don’t think libraries were wrong for investing in microfiche while it lasted. No one can predict the future with certainty, and it makes sense to try to keep up with changing technology at least a little!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Katie | Doing Dewey ❤️ (@DoingDewey) says:

    This topic sounds fascinating, but with a dry writing style, I don’t think I’m likely to pick it up. I’d recommend The Library Book by Susan Orleans for some extremely readable narrative nonfiction, although it’s also probably just a starting point. She covers some of her own experiences with libraries and the 1986 LA library fire, so she only has time to dip into the history of libraries in the US.


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