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The Library: A fragile history by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

26 November 2021

Michael Wheeler looks at a history of libraries and their vulnerability

LIBRARIES, whether local public libraries, large university libraries, or magnificent specialist research libraries, tend to be associated with silence, serenity, and stability. This book invites us to think again. Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, and Arthur der Weduwen, deputy director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue which Pettegree founded, take us on a hair-raising journey through the long history of libraries, starting with the Assyrians and demonstrating just how fragile libraries are.

Threats to their existence include mould, bookworm, and fire. More interesting are the human frailties that this history exposes, ranging from neglect to downright aggression, usually with a political purpose.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Spanning the collections of cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia in royal palaces or temples, through the scholarly academy at the library of Alexandria, the manuscript glories of the monasteries, and the subsequent work of cathedral Chapters in establishing school and universities, the long history of the library before Gutenberg is celebrated here, while the vulnerability of such collections is always emphasised.

Come the printed book, and the range of library types expands to include large private collections, often housed in grandiose buildings that make little provision for actually studying the books, and are largely for display; university libraries, such as Oxford’s, where Bodley allowed no loans, thus preserving the collection; and, from the mid-19th century onwards, generously stocked public libraries, which encouraged loans, but also incurred heavy losses.

Carnegie was a significant donor to public library services, cannily insisting that town authorities would commit themselves, in perpetuity, to matching ten per cent of the value of his donation for the maintenance of the building and staff wages. Nor did he provide the books.

Faulty electrical wiring proved to be enemy number one in the 20th century, as public libraries went up in smoke all over Europe and the United States.

One of the most enthralling sections in this excellent book concerns the Second World War. “Destroyed by enemy action” was regarded by us cynics in the old British Museum reading rooms as an excuse when books had gone missing. But many libraries had, indeed, been partially or totally destroyed during the Blitz, and Allied bombing of continental Europe wreaked havoc in turn.

Less familiar, perhaps, is the story of the Nazis’ Janus-like policy of systematically destroying collections of Jewish books — a vicious form of “libricide” — while Hitler’s chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, gathered vast collections of material related to enemy ideologies, including Jewish books. He was thus “the accidental saviour of much of the cultural heritage of European jewry”. As Nazi fortunes waxed and waned during the war, millions upon millions of books flooded from east to west and back again.

Fittingly, The Library is a handsomely presented and reasonably priced book, with plenty of informative colour plates. The authors’ erudition, reflected in a huge bibliography, is carried lightly, and their story is told with wit and wisdom.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of
The Athenaeum: “More than just another London club” (Yale, 2020).


The Library: A fragile history
Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
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