Library: An Unquiet History

Library: An Unquiet History

5.0 3
by Matthew Battles

View All Available Formats & Editions

From the clay-tablet collections of ancient Mesopotamia to the storied Alexandria libraries in Egypt, from the burned scrolls of China's Qing Dynasty to the book pyres of the Hitler Youth, from the great medieval library in Baghdad to the priceless volumes destroyed in the multi-cultural Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the library has been a battleground of… See more details below


From the clay-tablet collections of ancient Mesopotamia to the storied Alexandria libraries in Egypt, from the burned scrolls of China's Qing Dynasty to the book pyres of the Hitler Youth, from the great medieval library in Baghdad to the priceless volumes destroyed in the multi-cultural Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the library has been a battleground of competing notions of what books mean to us. Battles explores how, throughout its many changes, the library has served two contradictory impulses: on the one hand, the urge to exalt canons of literature, to secure and worship the best and most beautiful words; on the other, the desire to contain and control all forms of human knowledge.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Battles' sprightly narrative performs a valuable service by blowing the dust off our stodgy, conventional conception of the library to reveal the living heart of cultures that beats beneath its stone facade. — Wendy Smith
The New York Times
The central focus of Matthew Battles's Library, engrossingly saturated with fascinating lore, colorful anecdotes and deft portraits, is on the millenniums-long battle of the books between what he calls the ''Parnassan'' ideal of the library as a collection of the canon versus the all-inclusive vision of the universal library … Battles, himself a librarian at the Houghton Library at Harvard, entertainingly traces the evolution of the library through the centuries, from ''temple to market, from canon to cornucopia.'' — Sherie Posesorski
Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
Battles, a contributor to Harper's and a Harvard librarian, offers a distinguished portrait of the library, its endurance and destruction throughout history, and traces how the library's meaning was questioned or altered according to the climate of the time. In accessible prose, Battles recounts the building and burning that have marked the library's long history. The Vatican Library built by Pope Nicholas V set the standard during the Renaissance, and the one built by the Jews in the Vilna ghetto during WWII showed the importance of books to a community under siege. Meanwhile, the mythic third-century B.C. book burnings by Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi were an effort to erase history, as was the catastrophic destruction of millions of books by the Nazis in the spring of 1933. Dynamic characters lend this history a novelistic tone: Julius Caesar began the library movement in Rome; Antonio Panizzi, an Italian revolutionary and exile, turned the library of the British Museum into one of the world's greatest in the 19th century; more recently, Nikola Koljevic, a scholar turned Serb nationalist, directed the siege of Sarajevo that led to a book burning at the Bosnian National and University Library. Battles also enlightens readers regarding the evolution of bookmaking, the card catalogue and the role of the librarian, including the most famous of all, Melvil Dewey, whose decimal system was only a small part of his influence. This always compelling history illustrates Battles's theme: despite the rule of barbarians or megalomaniacal kings, angry mobs and natural disasters, people's hunger for books has ensured the library's survival. 11 illus. Agent, Susan Barry. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Battles, a rare books librarian at Harvard University's Houghton Library, has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Book Review, London Review of Books, and Harper's Magazine. His elegantly written, ruminative history (parts of which appeared in Harper's as a January 2000 article "Lost in the Stacks: The Decline and Fall of the Universal Library") traces the fate of scrolls, tablets, books, and libraries from antiquity to the present day. "What I am looking for," he writes, "are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself." Battles shows how throughout history libraries have been places of controversy and change. Much like today, libraries of the past had to deal with access issues, cataloging, weeding, and censorship (fortunately for modern librarians, we don't have to be concerned with being buried or burned with our "questionable" collections!). Preservation librarians may feel a bit anxious as they read Battles's vivid accounts of how fires, wars, and other acts of destruction have shaped the library's current face. This is a great read, flowing over many time periods and geographic regions, from the great library at Alexandria to the war-ravaged libraries of Bosnia. For those librarians who long for the library of the past, this book is a must read. Strongly recommended for library history collections and many personal collections as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/03.]-Tim Daniels, Library & Information Ctr., Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Historical survey by a rare-book librarian of the defining epochs and events leading to both the destruction and proliferation of libraries. Rebutting the stereotype of a silent sanctum in which mousy librarians maintain perfect order, the author reminds us how chaotic and impermanent these repositories of accumulated knowledge are. He contends that a library, "a world, complete and uncompletable," draws its reason for existence from the culture in which it arises, a situation as liable to shifting social currents as the edifice housing it is subject to weather and other disasters, both natural and man-made. Battles follows the notorious "biblioclasms" of past ages, from the burning of the library at Alexandria to the bonfires of the Nazis, who destroyed more than 100 million books. He asserts that "most books are bad, very bad in fact," and bemoans their inability to surmount the babble of their times. He does not, however, suggest that their fates are deserved; rather, that an ironic result of gathering so many volumes in a single place is that it makes them ready targets for revisionist fervor. Many small collections in obscure and scattered locations, on the other hand, ensure that more books will survive the onslaught of marauding princes, vengeful dictators, and fanatical clerics. Among the other ironies the author points out: many of the scrolls in Herculaneum survived the volcano of a.d. 79 because they burned, thereby making the charred remains amenable to spectral photography, which rendered their ancient text visible, while intact scrolls of the same age have long since crumbled into dust. Battles points out that books have always been an ephemeral experience: older manuscriptsand proscribed texts were often recycled or reused, the imperfect palimpsests still visible to later readers. Yet he seems to lament the onset of the digital age, with its 800-million-page archive, by attesting that libraries now exist in a "state of flux which is indistinguishable from a state of crisis." A must for every home or institutional collection. (11 illustrations) Agent: Susan Barry/ Barry-Swayne Agency

Read More

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.93(d)

Meet the Author

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >