Reading Time: 7 minutes

In many countries, especially the UK, the public library is under threat. Despite the establishment of public lending right over 100 years ago, the very existence of public libraries is coming into question: public libraries are underfunded and being closed by local authorities. So the story of the public library, and its importance as a symbol of democracy, should certainly be told. Yet this book is hardly the endorsement of the public library I had hoped.

Pettegrew and de Weduwen’ book The Library: a Fragile History is certainly entertaining – which is all the more an achievement when you see the long list of citations, with titles like German Library History, or The Growth of the Library in modern India. They make some good points about the organisation of the library, for example, they point out [p188] that a chained library meant you could only read one book at a time. Books in chests would always be difficult to access.

However, it by no means tells the whole story, or even, in my opinion, a balanced story. For me, the history of the library is the development of the free-to-access, free-to-borrow public institution; a triumph that the authors seem to take for granted. For them, the existence of a library – any library – seems to take precedence over who had access to it, even though they give many examples of privately funded collections that are dissipated after the funder’s death. I guess that their position as tenured academics with access to books and journals via their institution makes them complacent towards public libraries; public libraries are not a vital part of their existence.

Their preference for private over public is shown through much of the book: “What France badly needed was not further ministerial directives, but a figure of the vision and resources of Andrew Carnegie” [p310]. Public libraries run by local authorities cannot keep up with the taste of children and young adults (“‘Keeping up with the kids’ was a problem to which libraries, with their stiff civic virtues and ruling committees of local worthies, were not well attuned. Gratefully they turned their attention to shipping out books to the boys at the front. This at least they understood” [p373]

The authors’ political sympathies are revealed as they reach the more recent centuries. They seem convinced that the Enlightenment was opposed to the book (“The book … has proved exceptionally resilient … surviving … the Enlightenment” [p413], and when they reach the 19th century, which should be the triumphant conclusion to the public library story, they appear almost unwilling to accept that free public libraries were a benefit. In their opinion, subscription libraries were always better attuned to the public taste. In their description of German workers’ libraries, of which there were over 540 by 1911, they point out that “the 106 books on trade unionism were borrowed on only three occasions. Meanwhile, the 261 books of literature and drama were checked out 1,633 times.” This leads them to quote approvingly one commentator: “The overwhelming majority of the German workers could not imagine life clearly in a socialist state, in spite of … the existence of fifty years of workers’ libraries”.

What is a library?

Sadly, the authors don’t define this term. Libraries may be personal or collective, private or public. All of these meanings are fair game for the authors, and it is left to the reader to pick up which kind of library is being described. So, for the authors, they include collections such as that of Anthony Wood, who didn’t allow anyone to see his books.

Lack of signposting

In their effort to be entertaining, the authors have made it difficult to work out when something started or ended; the whimsical chapter and section headings don’t help.

This is not a useful book for extracting information. I looked in vain for a chronology, for a good index, for specific dates (when did Gutenberg invent moveable type? We aren’t told).  For example, on page 3, we read “In 1556, the University of Oxford, its book collection despoiled, sold off its furniture.” This is the first we hear of the collection being “despoiled” – and that sounds like a more important fact than the furniture being sold. Later, on page 112, we learn more about it, but from what I read here, I was mystified.  I had to look in Wikipedia to find the date the book collection was “despoiled” (which seems to mean “destroyed”, since the books never reappear in the Bodleian). On page 8 it talks about “the complete closure” of English university libraries, which makes more sense. Legal deposit is one of the cornerstones of national libraries around the world, yet no date is given for Bodley’s pioneering agreement with the Stationers’ Company (it was 1610).

Public or private libraries?

By “public”, I would think certainly free for anyone to access and use, and usually free to borrow books. Go to the website of the fascinating Chetham’s Library in Manchester, and it proudly tells you “Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.” What does “public” mean? This book also describe Chetham’s Library as a public library (p191), but the authors fail to give any details of who had access, or even the date when it was founded. In fact, it was (and is) a subscription library. When was the first public library, which allowed all citizens to borrow books? Although the authors state clearly that Roman libraries were not public in the modern sense, they continue to use the term “public” to include libraries that charged a subscription or in some way restricted access.

Best books

The term “best” (as in “best books”) begs lots of questions, and the authors are fully aware that books are valuable for specific audiences. Titles retrieved from monasteries are unlikely to be of general interest – so they are not the best books for many readers. Antiquarians pay higher prices for some books (such as first editions) that are of less value to the average reader. So when I read, of a new library, “inevitably, the best books had been plundered” [p186], I wonder “best for who?”

What’s included and what is missing

A lot of space in the book is devoted to topics of relevance but not central to the library, for example the rise of cinema, of radio and TV, with how much scriptwriters earned, the development and structure of the romantic novel [p376], as well as details of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial [p386], and even the retreat from Dunkirk. This space could have been used for topics more relevant to libraries:

  • Cataloguing and classification – without libraries, there probably wouldn’t be any information classification. Describing the Library of Alexandria, the authors state “The texts were stored alphabetically, though presumably also organised by genre” – but give no further information. Melvin Dewey is mentioned but only for his involvement with travelling libraries. There is no mention of the Warburg Library, and its unique classification system, which for many years has enabled art history researchers to find relevant images. There is no mention of libraries providing online digital delivery, including licensed access to streaming services such as Spotify or Audible, and how they might change the library model. Academic libraries have been providing licensed access to online content for  many years, but it isn’t mentioned here.
  • Another story could be told about conservation (which has no entry in the index): what libraries focus on preserving, how it is funded, what the goals of this activity might be.

Do the authors love public libraries?

I doubt it, at times.

  • “There was indeed a serious debate to be had over whether public libraries were the most appropriate place to nurture the habit of reading.” [p369]
  • “Libraries struggled to understand the rapidly changing priorities of adolescents … the urge to offer children what was good for them remained strong” [p362]
  • According to the authors, US public libraries during World War II abandoned trying to provide books for children and adults and instead focused on “shipping out books to the boys at the front. This at least they understood” [p373]
  • “As the public library movement celebrated its first century, the library reading rooms were already beginning their evolution from an essential institution for the promotion of learning and civilising values, to a branch of the social services.” [p361]
  • “Apart from civic pride, New York did not need one central taxpayer-funded public library, given the plethora of other large and powerful institutions with excellent library facilities”. Excellent, that is, for those with the money to buy access.

Buying books frequently seems to be preferable to borrowing them During the 18th century, “with the rapid growth of subscription and circulating libraries, for the first time, borrowing books became a plausible alternative to ownership” [p247]. That assumes we have the money to contemplate ownership.

Books as precious objects

The distinction between books as objects of utility and books as collectors’ items is made clear. “[Samuel] Van Huls could not read a word of Latin or Greek, yet he had put together a collection of over 5,000 volumes, mostly in Latin” [p230]. Yet private collectors are frequently described in detail, even though their influence on library history has been minimal.

There are two kinds of library: one where books are valued as objects to be collected, and one where the books are to be used. These two themes, often running in contradiction to each other, already existed before the invention of printing. The Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, for example, created “spectacular luxury artefacts… but not necessarily with an accurately transcribed text. For other clients, Vespasiano offered more utilitarian books … with emphasis on scribal precision” (ch 3). Most libraries are about scribal precision rather than good bindings.

The authors point out that some of the catalogues of book sales from C17 Holland have been accessed more than the books themselves. The value of a private library, they discover, is highest to the person who collected it; very rarely does it have an equivalent public utility.

The library is such a fundamental part of many societies that the history of the library inevitably entails much of the history of that society. However, the focus on collections, based on the principle that any collection is a good thing, leads the authors to some questionable priorities, since the political events behind the libraries are ignored. For example (page 167) “By the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Brazil in 1759, their Brazilian libraries collectively owned 60,000 books … the suppression of the order dealt a devastating blow to the Brazilian education system”. You shed a tear for the poor library, but this account appears to cast regret too for the expulsion of the Jesuits. It’s as if the authors are saying “but these guys had a great library – must have been a shame to ruin such a library”.

Does digital mean the end of the library?

The book ends with a sad plea for traditional values. Having stated their support for the card index [p407], the reference desk, and the value of librarians recommending books, the authors are clear that it is books that make a library: a space with computer terminals and meetings rooms is not a library. They continue to describe the library as a place for “social or personal improvement”, despite spending hundreds of pages suggesting that people often don’t use the library for improving reasons. They see the e-reader as a failure. Their final condemnation is reserved for librarians themselves: “By empowering the digital revolution, librarians have given up … the right to apply their knowledge, taste and discrimination to assisting the choice of their patrons” [p409].