Writing a comprehensive history of libraries is no easy task. Questions of definition, purpose, accessibility and function need to be addressed. Not only are there no unique answers to these questions, but the answers change over time and vary from region to region. Andrew Pettegree and Authur der Weduwen take on this difficult task in their impressive research work. Unfortunately, they only partially succeed. They leave many of these essential questions unanswered in what is ultimately a limited and Eurocentric history of libraries.
The history of libraries cannot be separated from the evolution of the book. The authors therefore recount the evolution of texts from clay tablets to papyri and rolls of parchment to codices or manuscript books, then to the first printed books, called incunabula, produced thanks to the revolutionary printing press in movable characters. They then describe later developments such as the cheap novels of the 19th century, the introduction of paperbacks in the early 20th century, the first digital books produced on CD-ROM, and later e-book readers. Along with this story, we also discover other media advances that both competed with and complemented books: newspapers, magazines, radio, film, television, and the Internet.
As books and media have evolved, so have libraries. The authors discuss imperial libraries and national libraries, monastic libraries and parish libraries, museum collections of antiquarians, and the personal working libraries of professionals, clergy, and scholars. They write about municipal libraries, subscription and circulation libraries, and public libraries.
We are also introduced to many quirky and innovative characters who helped create these libraries. Fernando Colón (1488-1539), son of Christopher Columbus, sought to create a universal library reminiscent of the ancient library of Alexandria. Henry Folger (1857–1930), an oil executive who focused singularly on the study of William Shakespeare, was willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on single volumes. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), a ruthless businessman turned philanthropist, did not collect books but built over 2,500 public libraries. In Stories of Libraries and Collectors Throughout History, Pettegree and Der Weduwen reveal that books were collected not only for practical use, but also as status symbols and expressions of values.
Despite the many fascinating details included in this story, much is omitted. Most troubling is the lack of information about world libraries outside of Europe and the United States. While the authors acknowledge the oldest known library of ancient Assyria and briefly mention the impressive manuscript collections in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia, they ultimately ignore these collections because these regions “don’t not follow Europe in adopting mass production of printed matter. ” This logic does not, however, prevent Pettegree and der Weduwen from devoting three chapters to European manuscripts. The other regions of the world only come back in the history of authors when the European colonialists bring their books, “totem of civilization”, in these regions.
Much is also overlooked in the history of European libraries. The authors dismiss the importance of e-books because of the obsolescence of early technologies like the CD-ROM and the decline in the use of e-readers. Here, they seem oblivious to the fact that technology has advanced so that people now read e-books on their phones and tablets. Likewise, authors overlook the long and fascinating history of audiobooks.
Pettegree and der Weduwen also spend little time in university libraries, except for a few pages in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Harvard Library. We also don’t learn much about the inner workings of libraries, except for an occasional detail like the revolutionary use of horizontal shelving or the method of organizing books by scholarly faculties, such as the theology, medicine and science. While Pettegree and der Weduwen name the Dewey Decimal Grading System, there is no mention that it is now the most widely used system in the world, no discussion of the theory behind the system, and no explanation of the problematic fanaticism embedded in it.
Moreover, the authors fail to give any idea of what librarians did beyond collecting books, even after the role became a profession. And they talk very little about library users. Who used these libraries? What were the criteria for doing so? Who was not only authorized but able to use them? Apart from their discussion of public libraries, the authors neglect these issues.
Even with these omissions, Pettegree and der Weduwen reveal an essential aspect of library history that is still very relevant today. As they indicate in the subtitle and show through the book, this story is not a story of growth and progress. He was shaped by struggle. Libraries have been regularly destroyed due to neglect, conflict and natural disasters.
Perhaps the greatest threat comes from self-proclaimed guardians of knowledge and taste – political leaders, religious leaders and even librarians – who seek to control what others can read. Most don’t go to the extreme of Roman Emperor Domitian, who allegedly executed the author, seller, and enslaved scribes who produced copies of an unauthorized work. Nevertheless, censorship and control efforts persisted. Ideological struggles during the Reformation, the Enlightenment and periods of armed conflict from colonialism to the world wars led to the destruction and banning of books. From the earliest days of the printing press, there were those who believed that certain groups – women, children, people of color, people of lower economic status – could not be trusted to choose what was needed. read and needed to be protected from themselves.
This part of the history of libraries is not just history. There were four times as many book ban attempts in 2021 than the year before. And yet, despite all these efforts, people continue to read and libraries continue to evolve. The history of libraries ultimately turns out not to be fragile but rather resilient.