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Good Read #002 …(un)quiet, please

March 13, 2010 Comments off

This book is for the librarians, bibliophiles, and history buffs of the world.

For a sweeping history of libraries, let me recommend Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (W.W. Norton, 2003). Anyone would be hard-pressed to pack a comprehensive history of libraries into a few hundred pages. Battles, himself, admits this. What Battles has done is artfully weave together a collection of stories, vignettes, and historical facts about libraries that range from the earliest libraries of Mesopotamia to those of today. The book is strongest in its depiction of libraries prior to the twentieth century.

In Library: An Unquiet History the reader will encounter such things as the burning of the library of Alexandria, the beginnings of the use of the alphabet and numerals for the arrangement of books in libraries, the birth of the library catalog, the Jewish genizas where books go to die, the portable “home libraries” of early twentieth-century America, and a poignant chapter on the destruction of libraries around the world in the twentieth century. The reader will also learn of leading figures in the history and development of libraries, including Melvil Dewey, Richard Bentley, Edward Gibbon, and Antonio Panizzi. But Battles doesn’t stop there. He addresses ways in which library operations and perceptions have changed over the course of time. Most notably, he weaves into the text discussion of a shift in the philosophy of libraries. Libraries as storehouses, with an emphasis on the collections and their preservation and protection, become places of discovery, with an emphasis on the reader/library user. Librarians embracing the latter philosophy, such as Antonio Panizzi, are what Battles calls “Promethean librarians.” That is, those who seek to bring the knowledge contained in libraries to the masses and help the reader find his/her book.

There are other books that more systematically present the history of libraries, but Battles’ book is a refreshing approach. So, to all you helluo librorums (devourers of literature) out there, Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History is worth the read.

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