Book Review: The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree & Arthur Der Weduwen

Topic & Content

A single-volume world history of the development of libraries from ancient times to the present day. The book is organized as follows:

  • Part 1 – Inception and Survival
    • A Confusion of Scrolls
    • Sanctuary
    • Little Monkeys and Letters of Gold
  • Part 2 – The Crisis of Print
    • The Infernal Press
    • Coming of Age
    • Reformations
  • Part 3 – The New Collectors
    • The Professionals
    • Idle Books and Riff Raff
    • Mission Fields
  • Part 4 – Between Public and Private
    • Grand Designs
    • Cardinal Errors
    • The Antiquarians
  • Part 5 – Fictions
    • Orderly Minds
    • Building Empires
    • Reading on the Job
  • Part 6 – The War on Books
    • Surviving the Twentieth Century
    • Wrestling with Modernity
    • Libraries, Books and Politics

Thesis

The narrative of this history is fairly linear in how it presents the evolution of libraries from ancient times to the present day (including the impact of ebooks, digital media, and the COVID-19 pandemic). The authors contend that the history of libraries shows a cyclical pattern where they have come and gone throughout history. In this regard, individual libraries have lasted as long as people have found them useful, and in order to remain useful, libraries need to adapt to the needs of people.

Author’s Background

According to the biographical blurb on the dust jacket, Andre Pettegree is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews where he researches the history of books and media. Arthur Der Weduwen is a historian and postdoctoral fellow at St. Andrews where he writes on the history of newspapers, advertising, and publishing.

Critical Observations

Positives

If anything, this book reinforces the importance of libraries throughout history and their role in the preservation of knowledge. Part 1 describes the libraries of ancient times (yes, including the Library of Alexandria) and the role of monasteries and scriptoriums in the survival of libraries. Part 2 discusses the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press and the effects of the Reformation on books. Parts 3 and 4 examine the role of private book collectors and library developments from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment. Part 5 looks at the development and spread of more professional types of libraries such as public libraries, subscription libraries, national libraries, and Carnegie libraries. The last part examines the destruction of libraries due to wars, the effects of digital media (and ebooks) on libraries, and the possible future libraries and their role in promoting intellectual freedom.

While this book is more or less a straightforward single-volume history, it’s filled will a bevy of facts about libraries and their development. What may be surprising to some is that the public library that is paid for with tax dollars and free for all to use is a relatively new concept that began in the mid-1800s. Additionally, apart from privately maintained and academic libraries, there are also such things as subscription libraries (and a bevy of other types of specialized libraries). Additionally, the idea of a library wasn’t always an egalitarian institute. Originally, and for many centuries, libraries were symbols of the elite and wealthy. Information wasn’t open to the public, but rather, controlled. Moving into more modern times, the idea of women using libraries and of libraries curating collections of fiction was seen as improper in many circles. Even to this day, while libraries now operate without regard for gender, there is still a debate as to what kinds of materials libraries should curate for their collections. Since there’s a limited amount of space in the stacks, should a library contain more fiction or non-fiction? What about more controversial books? The debate rages on.

Many libraries have been destroyed by wars as well as by accidental fires or sheer neglect. Time, dust, and wear and tear do their number on books, so it’s the responsibility of libraries to continually curate and maintain their collections. Monasteries kept libraries alive through the Middle Ages. To prevent theft, many books were kept in chests or chained to the stacks (not that this always prevented crafty thieves). The practice of shelving books upright with their spines outward didn’t occur until well into the history of the library.

Another point that this book underscores is that libraries have constantly maintained their relevance throughout history. The spread of information in the 20th and 21st centuries hasn’t led to the end of physical books. Every time there’s a new technology, such as radio, TV, internet, ebooks, etc., people have prophesied the end of books. Yet, even in the age of digital media, physical books and libraries are here to stay because libraries continue to adapt and there’s still a massive market for physical media (and from what I’ve heard, the publishing industry still heavily pushes for physical books over ebooks).

On a final positive note, the book is well-written, well-cited, and well-researched. This is definitely a work of historical scholarship, but one that is still accessible to the layperson.

Negatives

Being a single-volume history means that this isn’t the all-encompassing, definitive work on the history of libraries. There’s a lot more that could be written (and has been written) about libraries. Additionally, this book is fairly Eurocentric (and western-centric), but that’s perhaps understandable since accessing the information on other cultures’ libraries can be challenging.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a technical manual on library and information sciences. If you’re looking for a book on how to become a librarian or what the profession does, then this isn’t the book for you. This is a general history of the development of physical libraries.

My final negative with this book is that it sometimes jumps around in the chronology and spends too much time on tangents about personal stories. It’s a fairly minor criticism, but the focus on individuals and other minutiae can sometimes be distracting if you’re looking for a broader interpretation of the development of libraries as institutions and are having difficulty keeping the broader narrative in your head.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

This book is probably best described as a love letter to libraries and why they continue to exist to this day. In spite of religious strife, ideological censorship, wars, and changes in cultural norms and technology, libraries have adapted and remained useful for any number of reasons. This book also reinforces why libraries are so important to me, personally. There’s so much to be said for the benefits of reading and building up a personal body of knowledge. Moreover, the pursuit of intellectual freedom and the preservation of knowledge (even that which you may find distasteful) is still an extremely important endeavor no matter how much things change around us. Digital media will not be the death of libraries or physical books, but rather, our lack of intellectual curiosity will.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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