If you are a regular reader of BookPage (or even an occasional one), chances are you are also someone who has spent a fair amount of time in a library. Like me, you probably remember the monumental day when you got your first library card and, since reaching that milestone of childhood, have spent perhaps a little too much time roaming the stacks.
Until I read Matthew Battles' engaging book, Library: An Unquiet History, though, I had not given much thought to the colorful past of those buildings-full-of-books that so many of us love. I didn't know that while libraries date back to well before the famous one at Alexandria, the first truly public libraries were the brainchild of Julius Caesar. Or that one of the first card catalogs was the work of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who kept track of his extensive library on the backs of playing cards.
One might expect a book that deals with three millennia's worth of what some might consider arcane history to be both huge in scope and academically dry in presentation. Library is neither. Battles, a rare books librarian at Harvard's Houghton Library, opts for a breezy, somewhat idiosyncratic narrative that revisits the high and low points of what he terms "the universal library." Some of the highs include the creations of Alexander's legendary Egyptian collections, the Vatican Library by the Renaissance popes, and, most significantly for our modern concept, the British Library and the French Bibliothéque Nationale during the Age of Enlightenment. Soon after, the mass production of books in the 19th century would forever change the purpose and stature of libraries. At the start of that century, Battles tells us, the British Library had only 48,000 volumes. By 1833, it had a quarter million.
Battles has given his book the subtitle "An Unquiet History" with good cause, for it is the more ignominious moments of libraries past that enliven his chronicle. These generally involve the battle between those who want to destroy and those who hope to preserve knowledge. A century after Alexander, Emperor Shi Huangdi undertook one of the most extensive book burnings the world has known in an attempt to obliterate all Chinese literature, history and philosophy written before his dynasty. Two thousand years later, the Nazis did pretty much the same thing. Much of Western book culture owes its heritage to Islam, yet between the 13th and 15th centuries, the extraordinary libraries of the Muslim world disappeared under the less intellectually-focused watch of Mongol, Turk and European conquerors. In recent history, libraries and vast numbers of holdings have systematically been destroyed in Tibet and Sarajevo. Still, books, libraries and the knowledge they safeguard have always managed to survive. One of the more inspiring, if bittersweet, tales in the book is the story of the library the Jews built in the Vilna ghetto, for even in the face of imminent deportation and death at the hands of the Nazis, the residents sought out and devoured books.
There is a sad irony buried within the pages of this history. Battles writes of the circumstances that led to the passage of the 1850 public library bill in Britain, which brought about a proliferation of tax-supported lending libraries for the masses. The call for these libraries grew out of a time when the country was experiencing an economic depression, and it was felt that the working poor would benefit from the educational opportunities that such libraries would afford them. In our own times, the first hint of economic trouble usually signals the reduction of public funds to libraries, a decline in acquisitions and reduced hours and services. Progress? Libraries have changed, and continue to change rapidly, in our digital age. Faced with problems of space as more and more information is published, librarians continue to debate what should be preserved and what is expendable. The rest of this history remains unwritten. Still, as Battles concludes, "In its custody of books and the words they contain, the library has confronted and tamed technology, the forces of change, and the power of princes time and again." The library will endure.
Robert Weibezahl has worked as a writer and publicist for 20 years.