Daily Archives: November 30th, 2021

The Library: A Fragile History

Update: and THEN Allen&Unwin sent me a hard copy!! I’m so excited to have a physical copy of this amazing book!! And it is GORGEOUS – swirly oil-colour end papers, and A RIBBON. PEOPLE, a RIBBON. It’s just swoon-worthy.

The hard cover is RRP $49.99 and is out as of 30 Nov. I’m sure there will be a paperback copy at some point. Definitely the book for the bibliophile in your life.

I initially read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Oh. My.

What an astonishing book.

Honestly I’ve had such a good year for book-related histories: The Gilded Page (Mary Wellesley), and The Bookseller of Florence (Ross King), and now this. Interestingly, this book contains parts of those two, because understanding how libraries function requires some knowledge of books themselves function, and how the book trade functions. It’s been like a mini-course in the whole book production history of Europe.

The authors begin with a discussion of the fabled Library of Alexandria, which is appropriate given its mythical place in the history of libraries… and ALSO that there’s some attempt to do something similar in the Alexandria of today, which is, let’s say, not the Alexandria of yesteryear.

What utterly intrigued me was the way that exactly what a library is FOR has changed over the centuries. I am a huge fan of the public library, and absolutely uphold its place as a community resource. I do know that in medieval Europe, libraries were the province of monasteries and nobles – not least because that reflects the literacy of the age, and also the aspirations of such people.

It was the use of libraries as exhibitions of wealth that was one aspect explored beautifully here – collecting the ‘right’ books, and beautiful versions. And then how do you have architecture that reflects that? If you’re worried about scholars nicking off with your precious tomes, and you only have a few books, then you chain the books up (literally) and your building reflects that. But when books starting getting more accessible and you are HAPPY for them to be accessed (unlike Oxford libraries not allowing students in and having opening hours for about three hours a week), then what the rooms look like needs to change.

I deeply appreciated the exploration of libraries as both weapons within colonialism and imperialism, and victims of it too. Colonial outposts in NZ and India being sent books; translations into the languages of the colonised; and libraries being looted, or outright destroyed, across the globe – these are things that need to be remembered and dealt with as people keep thinking about the use and abuse of knowledge as power. It would have been so easy to not include those things, and to stick with somehow seeing libraries as just repositories of books – ignoring books as power – but I’m so glad the authors wanted to give a rich and full exploration of libraries as institutions.

Look, I just loved this book. It’s beautifully written and has lovely images. It covers predominantly European examples of libraries. It does so across just over two millennia, from monastery to castle to private home to public institution. And the modern arguments about what a library is for! Clearly these authors are defenders of the existence of libraries, but they’re not just stuck in mid-20th century versions. They are, if anything, ambitious for what place libraries can and should have in communities.

I love books and I love libraries and this was a wonderful history of them both.