Cover Image: The Library

The Library

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Member Reviews

As someone who has worked in a public library and once aspired to becoming a librarian, this was such an interesting book. I loved seeing the influence libraries and the people who run them have had on the world
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I loved this book. So much so that having read the ebook, I’ve ordered a paper copy. This is the sort of book you should hold in paper and put on your library shelf. Even if your library is tiny. As you’ll learn reading this, all libraries start somewhere. The book has philosophy, psychology, politics, history, crime, sociology, cultural theory… it has heroes and real villains… it has laughter and it has quite a few tears. There is so much stuffed in here - never mind the extensive notes at the end.

Going from earliest history to the present day, this story evolves from private libraries of the wealthy through a time of few municipal libraries and many subscription libraries. I knew WH Smith had had a lending library but I’d no idea that Boots the chemist did or that it stocked a lot of Mills & Boon.

There is heartbreak through various wars when books are stolen, purloined, or destroyed. The scenes described of the Nazis destroying Jewish culture are genuinely heartbreaking because the knowledge and the continuity can never be replaced and book burners/pulpers know that. There have been a huge number of fires and floods that have damaged collections. But there are also heroes. People (mainly librarians) who stood up for books and for people’s right to read what they choose.

Some of the facts are fascinating. Manchester library opened in 1852 with Dickens and Thackeray present. They had 25,000 books and were visited by 4,841 people who borrowed an average of 20 books per year. In a Polish library, the books on politics were loaned 60 times, the books on trade unionism 3 times and 361 books on literature and drama were borrowed 1,633 times. I love this kind of information because I’m a nerd.

One heartbreaking fact is that after Glasnost in 1989, it was revealed the Soviet Union had 2.5million books they had confiscated ~ mainly from Germany ~ after the war. They had been piled up, unsorted in a church and had degenerated into unreadable mush.

The US Patriot Act requires libraries to give Homeland Security access to readers borrowing history on request. A new library built in San Francisco was three times the size of the old one but was totally inadequate in shelving and storage so upwards of 200,000 books were skipped. A sin indeed but the bigger sin was that no one listed which books were discarded or on what basis they had been chosen. Librarians were horrified and protesters turned up to rescue the books. It was found many were a single copy in the library system. 

I agree with the authors that libraries will survive as long as we use them as they are the perfect place for reflection and for slow thinking. They also allow you to find books and authors you didn’t know you wanted to read. And in the current financial climate, they may be one of the few places people can go to stay warm as fuel bills rise to stupid levels.

I will definitely read this again and I applaud and thank the authors.

I was given a copy of this book by Netgalley
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Books about libraries are in whether they are fiction or nonfiction doesn't really matter. With more and more national holidays focusing around libraries, library workers, books, and reading - books like these tend to become more than recommendations.

This book covers everything from Antiquarians to the history of reading trends. Its jam packed full of interesting tidbits for all book lovers and historians alike.
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Sweeping History..
A sweeping history of the library in all its glory and dramatic turns. Clearly meticulous in research and extravagantly told. A major achievement which spans from the ancient world to the present day and encompassing collectors, criminals and antiquarians but so much more. Comprehensive and absorbing in equal measure. A perfect delve for bibliophiles everywhere.
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Thanks to NetGalley for an e-arc of this in exchange for an honest review.

Apologies to NetGalley and to the publisher, as this book was DNFed at 55%. I had such high hopes for this book. I love history and I love books, so a history book about books would seem like the epitome of perfection. And yet, this failed to encapsulate me. My dislike of the book relates to two main points.

First, it is very academic. I don't consider that a negative trait, especially given all the well written academic works that I have read. Unfortunately, this is one of those academic works that strives more to be academic than accessible. A history book, or any book honestly, needs a story, an arc to take the readers on. The introduction to this book hinted that there was such an arc within this work, but it turned out not to really be the case. This is less a story about books and more of a point by point laydown of historical events relating to books. It is extremely dull. The worse part about is that that kind of structure is so hard to follow and become engrossed in. When someone just states fact after fact, they all start to blend together, and I'm left with very little to actually take away. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of history here to learn. I just think it could have been told much more eloquently. I admit this is a personal preference, but my second point is more objective.

My second main point of issue with this book was its European fixed perspective. The book tells the history of libraries almost exclusively in Europe. Obviously, it starts with a discussion the Library of Alexandria in chapter one, and it alludes to other countries as well. However, the overarching narrative is focused heavily on Europe. If I didn't know better, I'd think Europe was the only continent to ever construct a book or a library. I did wonder if perhaps my difficulty to follow caused me to overlook discussions of other parts of the world or if they do it later in the book, so I did a search of the ebook. There is less than ten mentions of Africa or Asia outside the bibliography. I searched Europe, and it is mentioned hundreds of times. I am not saying history of libraries in Europe isn't uninteresting or a story not worth telling. However, this is a book advertised as a history of libraries from the ancient to today. "In this, the first major history of its kind, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen explore the contested and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today." That is not what we get, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.

At the end of the day, this book feels esoteric and poorly written. It, like other history books I have read, advertises it as something more marketable despite it actually being more niche. What's worse is that niche topic isn't even told well.

This just isn't for me. 2/5 stars
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Incredibly tedious. Overwhelmingly a census of who owned how many books when, with limited exploration or discussion of the wider context or value. Focused significantly on western libraries. I was also disappointed by the discussion of modern libraries - very dismissive and suspicious.  

Thank you to NetGalley & the publisher for providing an eARC for review.
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a very interesting book all around library. 
i personally love learning history and details about topics i enjoy -aka books and reading in this case- so k really enjoyed an entire book all about learning more about how, what and when libraries became what they are. 

it’s a great book and i can only recommend it!
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An exhaustive study of the “library” in all of its various forms in history, The Library: A Fragile History begins with a modern recreation of the library of Alexandria which tries to recapture some of the glory of that ancient site mentioned by early writers but completely lost to us. From there the book’s journey moves to early forms of texts on tablets, papyrus, leather, through history to the development of paper and printing. For libraries are inseparable from the written objects saved.

Initially, owning or perhaps even aspiring to having books was the world of rulers, of kings or princes, the very wealthy, perhaps traders. Others could not read and reading materials were beyond their knowledge. In fact, some of the wealthy wanted these early manuscripts or books as status markers for they couldn’t read either. Libraries were initially personal collections, often religious, in Western Europe written in Latin for centuries.

This is not a cursory glance or an overview. It is a caring, in depth exploration into the history of collecting words on whatever material was used by human kind. And then how these collections of materials containing words were organized or managed, be it in a box, a trunk or, eventually a shelf or shelves or a room or a building. This book is a different approach to history.

One caveat to consider whether this book is for you. The Library is intended for the reader who is interested in the minutiae of books and their history of collections, a reader who would enjoy learning of the details of collecting over the millennia and the people, collections and libraries involved.

Much of the material is Euro-centric but does address early eastern Mediterranean cultures and history. And in more recent centuries, it discusses the vast outreach of European nations through colonialism. The book moves up to the advent of the 21st century and the new digital world. The book is fully footnoted, with a bibliography.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
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When most people thing of "the library," they think tend to think of your average small to medium sized community public library. However, as Pettegree and der Weduwen brilliantly chronicle here, what a library is has changed and grown throughout history in a fascinating evolution. Definitely a great selection for lovers of books and libraries!
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3.5 stars for a solid and thorough history of libraries of the western world.

This book is largely focused on library history as opposed to library politics, which is why I liked it better than Susan Orlean’s The Library, which was well-crafted but almost exclusively devoted to the politics rather than the history of the library. 

The Library takes us through the titular subject’s entire history as it relates to the western world, from the ancients to the modern library. Some sections are more detail-driven than others, and I found that those that were from a more micro perspective were the ones that I enjoyed most. 

The postwar section of this book was my least favorite, as it’s largely driven by library politics, though it was certainly as well-researched and presented as the rest of the material.
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The Library is definitely a book for lovers of books and libraries. The authors undertake a thoroughly researched history of libraries and topics related to libraries. The authors begin with the Library of Alexandria, stretching out to  libraries in the digital age, and circling back to the current Library of Alexandria. I found the discussion on special edition books particularly interesting. Nobles used to gild pages in order to show wealth. Currently, many services offer sprayed pages or foiled covers to the public. It was interesting to look at the current trend through the history of how personal ownership of books and personal libraries grew. 

Whereas this book is well-researched and thorough in its discussion of libraries, it is not an easy non-fiction read like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City or Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook. At times, it came across as a dry reporting of the facts rather than engaging the reader in how things were in the past. I received an e-copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for the opportunity!
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Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books for the chance to read a copy of this book!

I love libraries, but I'm afraid this massive tome was more than I could tackle. These days I tend more toward light genre fiction than to footnote-laden non-fiction, and while the introduction was intriguing, I could not keep up my focus as we progressed into the body of the book.
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It was my pleasure to feature this title in my annal holiday gift books guide for The Globe & Mail national newspaper (Saturday Nov 20, 2021 print edition), also on AppleNews, organized thematically by giftee archetype. Feature online at related link.
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A wealth of information…

Libraries have always held the information of the age and that still holds true today, even in the digital age. A refuge, a quiet place to learn and reflect, that also hasn’t changed. What this book gave was a deep dive into the subject – from how libraries formed, how the information they contained was created and stored (from papyrus onwards) to how it was collected, catalogued and managed.

I enjoyed that level of detail very much. From ancient to medieval times, the thirst for knowledge, and the need to record it was the springboard to what followed. From the creation of personal libraries sprang, many years later, the notion of public libraries. Nothing was considered too small or insignificant. And those details were covered all the way to modern times, including discussion on the current genres of the day and their significance.

What a wonderful treasure for anyone interested in books, reading and the impact they had on history and modern time. I had a temporary copy to read but will definitely have this one on my re-read shelf.
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The Library: A Fragile History sets out to provide a survey history of the library in civilization. It is focused on "...one lesson from the centuries-long story of the library, it is that libraries only last as long as people find them useful." (Pg 21). Throughout it's chapters it explores the birth, expansion and destruction/ dispersal of many a collection and the libraries that held them.

In the telling of this history, The Library starts with the story of the Library of Alexandria, in both its modern attempted reincarnation and the ancient library. It then moves through the different developments in the history of libraries organized by era, technology, or popular perceptions of the written word. Readers will learn of the development of the book, its precursors, creation of manuscripts, the development of printing, how and why books were collected, the changing roles and purposes of libraries, and who would get to use them.

Pettegree and Weduwen are clearly very knowledgeable about this subject and share that knowledge in compact chapters and copious footnotes. While the narrative does explore the world history, it is overwhelming focused on Europe and latter chapters on the United States. Those looking for more of a global history of the book would be more enlightened by The History of the Book in 100 Books: The Complete Story, From Egypt to E-Book.

If anything this book shows that despite the challenges they've faced, the book will always accompany humans in one form or another, following our own cycles of foundation, growth, destruction and renewal.
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Famed across the known world, jealousy guarded by private collectors, built up over centuries, destroyed in a single day, ornamented with gold leaf and frescoes or filled with bean bags and children's drawings - the history of the library is rich, varied and stuffed full of incident. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the extensive history of the Library, as put together by Andrew Pettegree. This is a dense and deeply researched history text, so I was a little slower getting through it. But super interesting none the less. It’s always been a debate about the value of libraries in society, but through the examples, the stories and the words of Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, it's clear that Libraries are essential to our communities.
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I studied librarianship in the 1980s in Aberystwyth, but I didn’t know much about the history of libraries before reading this amazing book. This is an engaging and exhaustive look at the history of libraries from ancient times to the present day and the threats faced to the institution from fire, war, neglect and looting. Throughout history, libraries have faced challenges to their existence and the current situation is no exception. The materials have changed from clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment, to paper based books and to our modern times where everything is digitized. The authors clearly researched their subject in great depth and I found the text engaging as we look at different characters throughout history like Cardinal Richelieu, John Harvard, Sir Thomas Bodley, Gabriel Naudé and not forgetting Andrew Carnegie, who gathered together books and sought to build libraries for themselves and for posterity. Sadly, it was often the case that an avid collector of books, would have his collections dispersed on his death as his heirs didn’t share his interests.

Religion led to a lot of book burning Leo X ordered the burning of any texts related to Martin Luther. The Nazis burned many sacred Jewish texts.

Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa was named after the Alexandria Library, a library that burned in ancient times. A new Alexandria Library was created 20 years ago looking to the future, serving a worldwide community through digital access to its collections.

For all who love history and especially those who love books and libraries, this is a fascinating read. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of books and the history of libraries. I received an e-copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange, I voluntarily leave my honest review. I would like to thank NetGalley and Perseus Books for this opportunity.
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Libraries have been a godsend for ages, and now, in a time where there are very few spaces where we are allowed to exist as people for free, they are necessary. Great history.
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Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s book is a detailed and thoroughly fascinating study of libraries. The book is well researched and referenced, with a wide-ranging coverage of libraries, from the specificity of  personal collections to the big institutional and public libraries with extensive acquisitions.  The books explorations demonstrate the significance of education, wealth, religion, geography, culture, and politics as well as the actions of nature on the history of books and libraries.

The book comprehensively covers a myriad of allied material related to the overall library theme, such as the development of paper, creation of manuscripts and the introduction of book auctions by the Dutch.

I loved reading this book and found myself engrossed from the start. The subject matter itself is appealing, but I also found myself very interested and impressed by the extensive research done and references used in gathering relevant data. I found the discussion about books in testator documents from Cambridge inventories and also the analysis of the Dutch book catalogues engaging, and the evident information revealed by these documents fascinating. Understanding the extent of ownership, the types of books which were sought, read and collected so long ago is amazing. 

There is much to enjoy about reading The Library: A Fragile History, and I would highly recommend it to others.

Thank you to NetGalley and Basic Books/Hachette for an eARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
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I’ve always been fascinated by libraries. They are my favourite place to be in. So I was more than eager to read this one.

The Library: A Fragile History takes us on a wonderful journey of discovery, from the earliest collections to the most respected libraries that stand today, against the backdrop of the development of paper and printing, the period of the Renaissance and later, the Reformation.

The book was an eye-opener. I had not imagined the richness and variety in the history of the library across nations and cultures. Nor the remarkable developments in the evolution of the book from handwritten manuscripts, boasting of elegant calligraphy, lavish colours and other decorative flourishes.

It was fascinating to read about the development of paper and how it displaced parchment, which had earlier displaced papyrus, how print enabled the democratisation of libraries and about how the gradual evolution in reading tastes, with the novel and female authorship first disapproved of and then accepted.

Initially, libraries were a treasured part of the monastic life, until members of the nobility began to acquire books. The Franciscans and the Jesuits had a lot to contribute to the proliferation of books. In fact, St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was the first one to take the appointment of a librarian seriously. Earlier, the role of a librarian was not as defined.

The significance of the library meant that for a long time, people believed that libraries should only edify; reading for entertainment was frowned upon, as was romance as a genre.

Detective fiction was the first genre to gain a huge following. The growth of escapist literature opened up the world of books to the general public.

The author tells us about how libraries have evolved over the years, with the cathedral silence of libraries a thing of the past. Libraries in the Renaissance period were convivial social spaces, in which books jostled for attention alongside paintings, sculptures, coins and curiosities. Finally, the emergence of the public library as we know it today, in great part owing to the munificence of philanthropists, and the subscriptions-based library.

Libraries also developed tremendously on the back of the empire and colonisation with hateful ideologies like Nazism also leaving their own stamp on their development.

The continuous evolution of the library reminds us that the news of the death of the library and of the book are greatly exaggerated.

We read about some libraries that I certainly hadn’t given much thought to. The libraries of Jesus’ apostles, the writings that were later canonised in the New Testament.

I was happy to see that the National Library of India, in Kolkata, formerly known as the Imperial Library, found mention in this book.

How easy it is to destroy a library and how hard it is to build one, is the thought that struck me. In fact, the very ideas of the library has faced persecution, with libraries being vandalised and destroyed. I read with a sense of sorrow about the ethnic biblioclasm, the wilful destruction of the public library in Jaffna in Sri Lanka and that of the Bosnian state library in Sarajevo.

In modern times, the popularity of the library has suffered on account of radio, television¸ cinema and the Internet.

For those fascinated with libraries, this book is a trove of information. The research that must have gone into this book is a labour of love. The author tells us about the quantum and nature of famous book collections down the ages. The book is peppered with a few old photographs and illustrations.

My only grouse was that the book had an excessive focus on the US and Europe, besides Australia, New Zealand and Russia. There was virtually nothing about famous libraries in India or Asia, apart from stray references to the library of Mughal Emperor Akbar and the Chinese invention of paper. Nor was there any information about libraries in India before the East India Company arrived on the scene. Canada found no mention, nor did much of South America.

Aside from these misses, the story of The Library is a story of the growth of libraries that is bound to appeal to lovers of books and libraries everywhere.
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