Ironic, isn't it, that bookstores and libraries, where books and readers most often meet, are rarely the subjects of books themselves? One can find a few works of fiction in which bookstores play a role (try 84 Charing Cross Road), or others set in or around libraries (Dewey Death and Dewey Decimated are two of my favorite titles, and Deborah Adams's All the Crazy Winters is set in a small public library in Tennessee). But books about bookstores and libraries are all too rare, especially books written for the general reading public.
Here's one book on libraries that fills the bill: Fred Lerner's The Story of Libraries, which chronicles the development of libraries from ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria to modern Europe and North America, from the sacred library of Ramses II to the computerized libraries of today and the digital libraries of tomorrow. The author, a librarian for over 30 years, holds degrees in history and library science from Columbia University.
True to its title, this is a book of stories: of the founding, the glory, and the slow death of the Alexandrian Library (four thousand bath houses of Alexandria were said to have been heated for six months with the papyrus scrolls of that great library); of how the Rule of St. Benedict helped keep libraries alive during the Dark Ages; of a Chinese bibliophile of the 15th century who wrote eloquently of the love of books; of how Lorenzo the Magnificent, the uncrowned prince of Florence, set up a lending library for Florentine humanists; of the library careers of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Casanova (yes, the Casanova), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; of why Lenin and his wife were such strong believers in the value of libraries; of how a young man named Melvil Dewey organized all knowledge by counting to ten.
In all cultures and all ages libraries have played a vital role, albeit in widely different ways. The tablet and scroll libraries of the ancient worlds, East and West, were often monuments to royalty and, like Shelley's Ozymandias, king of kings, followed their leaders into dust and sand. Some, like the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, were repositories of culture and centers of learning. After the fall of Rome, and with it the libraries of the Caesars, monastic libraries, chains and all, became the lanterns of the Dark Ages. Private libraries sprang up across China centuries before Gutenberg; Chinese woodblock printing could produce a thousand copies of a book in a day. With the mass production of books in Europe, the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and to libraries to which the general public, stirred by heady democratic notions, demanded access. Public libraries as we know them, libraries for the people, had to wait until the 20th century before coming to fruition, mainly in our own country.
If the past is prologue, then the library of the future will be an extension of the library of the late 20th century that has seen more changes than in the previous 40 centuries. In an electronic age, will the public library have a future at all? To survive, the author believes, the library will need to hold on to traditional functions such as cataloging and reading guidance both badly needed in a world awash in raw information while continuing to expand access to information in its manifold formats. This shift may parallel that experienced by libraries that made the change from papyrus and parchment to the product of movable type. The Story of Libraries provides a greater appreciation of that long journey of the world's libraries over the centuries.
Edwin S. Gleaves is the State Librarian and Archivist of Tennessee.