Library : an unquiet history

by Matthew Battles

Hardcover, 2003




New York : W.W. Norton, c2003.


"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."--BOOK JACKET.

Media reviews

"Library: An Unquiet History" explores the creation of libraries, beginning with the clay-tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, and proceeds to the destruction of libraries, culminating in the wars of the 20th century that shamelessly wiped out entire collections. Battles examines the two competing notions of the library's mission: the library as temple for the best and most beautiful works, and the library as a place where all knowledge is brought together under one roof. He looks at the library in Islam, in the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, across centuries and cultures.
1 more
In this sweeping view of library history, Harvard librarian Matthew Battles provides a beautifully written story of the often-tumultuous saga of books and book-places in the world. Written first as an essay published in Harper's; this study grew into a book-length treatment, an admirable overview of the large issues facing libraries over the past couple of thousand years.

User reviews

LibraryThing member SomeGuyInVirginia
Michael Battles writes in an engaging, incisive and lucid style, which is good because he covers 2,500 years in less than 300 pages.

Library develops two themes in detail; the accretion and destruction of several grand libraries, and the development of the library in the West. The burning of the library in Alexandria is well known (though Battles paints a much more complex picture than the one we have of barbarians torching the joint), but three great libraries have been destroyed in the past 100 years: The destruction of the Louvain University Library by the Germans (twice- in 1914 by the Imperial Germans and in 1940 by the Nazi Germans), and, in the 1990s, the destruction of the Afghani National Library by the Taliban and the library at Vijećnica by the Serbian Nationalist army.

The most terrible and awesome story is the creation of the 100,000 volume library in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. It is profoundly moving and I will leave it to Battles to tell the story to you.

Battles also points out two ironies- the only library we have from ancient times is one that burned (the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum) and one of the greatest discovered treasure trove of ancient MS comes from what the West would call a dump (the geniza from the Cairo synagogue.) One burned and the other passed over because it attracted no attention.

The development of the Western library begins with the accumulation of books by popes and princes, at first open only to family and scholars, and the building of magnificent libraries open to the public (in that the public was welcome to ooh and awe). With the advent of printing the number of books available increased, libraries bulged, and the Western canon became diluted with plays, novels and other “highly seasoned” works. Librarians pondered how to store and retrieve so many books, and what kinds of books it was most meet to store and retrieve. The universal library was born- a large, (usually) free library open to the public, but still with a affinity to try and move the right kinds of books into readers’ hands.

This is just a brief outline. Matthew Battles has written a detailed and lovely book that packs a wallop. It is of interest to all bibliophiles.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
A great topic and title of interest to all bibliophiles that is badly executed. After a strong start, Battles loses focus and fails to present the broad ranges of libraries that exist. The part about Ancient and medieval libraries is readable and fairly complete. Later on, his Anglo-/US-centric approach might not matter to his primary readership and even to more international readers, if Battles had included more of the differentiated types of libraries of the modern world. Besides private, public, church and university libraries mentioned by Battles, there are also working, company, political, union, hobby and poor men's circulating libraries. Battles completely misses the introduction and competition brought by cheap paperbacks as well as the non-book-based social services many libraries offer.

Not recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member waitingtoderail
As I approach the end of my two and a half year path through library school, I find myself reflecting back a bit on just what it is I'm doing. There's an unspoken battle going on in libraries today, a battle over where the future lies. In one class, my professor says that libraries will no longer have books in them within ten years. In another, a professor who says books - that is, the codex - will be with us for years and years to come. Such battles have raged before, of course, with progress always being the victor. After all, when is the last time you came across an illuminated manuscript in your trip down to your local public library? Battles was a rare books librarian at Harvard when he wrote this book, and yet despite his obvious love for the book as a physical object, I would have to assume that he would smile knowing that information - and the knowledge that can come with it - will be freer and more accessible than ever before. I think that's what librarians, as a profession, want. This book is a fine introductory text, and love letter, to the last moments of libraries as they were, and as such, is a fitting book to read as I try to go out into the library of today, and hope that I can keep in mind how it all came to be.… (more)
LibraryThing member joeydag
A personal perspective on the history of libraries. From Alexandria and Qin dynasty to Sarajevo and Tibet. I really enjoyed this 217 page journey.
LibraryThing member sjanes
Rather than being a comprehensive history, it covers a series of anecdotes in the history of libraries, publishing, literary criticism, biblioclasms. Everything is at a very accessible level -- it doesn't require any prior knowledge of history or librarianship. It's just good stuff. You can tell that Battles enjoyed writing it, as well, because of the language. It's delicious. He's got a talent for picking out absolutely precisely appropriate words and meshing them together for alliteration and other nice audible effects.… (more)
LibraryThing member Auntie-Nanuuq
Another dry non-fiction offering. I'm a librarian, and I am interested in the history of libraries, but TMI is just TMI...let's keep it interesting.
LibraryThing member jburlinson
The title is somewhat misleading: "Unquiet Reflections" might be a little more appropriate, since Battles makes no attempt at a sustained history. He ranges broadly in time and place, while starting and stopping at (and periodically returning to) Harvard. His theme is perishability, and a gloomy mood prevails throughout. Even his account of Swift's "Battle of the Books" seems a little dour. There are a number of interesting points to be made, especially Battle's discussion of the Genizah, but there's also quite a lot of vapor.… (more)
LibraryThing member WaxPoetic
It is a mistake that is so commonly made you would think more would be said about it. I speak, of course, of the attempts of library workers to read every book in their libraries. It is its own kind of insanity that comes in waves and leaves your living room awash in beautiful and obscure writings that you will never ever get around to reading. Matthew Battles discusses his experience with such an attempt and makes an intriguing kind of use of it, drawing his reader into the breathing of the Widener Library as the semesters begin and end, and finally leaving us on a shelf in its stacks.

Everyone who works in libraries knows how they live and how we become of them, rather than simply passers by in them. This work that follows the history of libraries, by no means a neglected topic, is one that stands out to me because I always feel that I’m not missing anything, that Battles is standing right next to the book I want to read to find out more about The Public Library Movement, or Herculaneum, or the development of parchment or even the multiple theories about the destruction of the library at Alexandria. It is, in many ways, a catalog of histories, without being pedantic or overwhelming or superficial.

My only real complaint about the book is that there is no bibliography as such. He includes his citations in the Notes sections, which is a very enlightening section, but still. I enjoy a good bibliography.
… (more)
LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
This book was not so much a chronicle of the history of libraries as it was a chronicle of the history surrounding libraries. Filled with lots of interesting (though maybe a little dry) details, Matthew Battles addresses issues faced by libraries from the ancient past to the modern day. The format of the book was a little unusual in that it almost wandered from one subject to another and then back as opposed to methodically focusing on a particular topic, spending significantly more time on some more than others. Regardless of some of the imbalances, I enjoyed reading Library, though I might look for another book on the subject to recommend to someone else.

Experiments in Reading
… (more)
LibraryThing member renardkitsune
Library: An Unquiet History was a fun book to read, as it jumps from one vignette to the next, highlighting times of turbulence and uncertainty in libraries' history, from the relatively light "Battle of the Books" of Jonathan Swift's time, to the darker episodes of systematic library destruction during World War II and beyond. Battles illustrates the truth of Borge's statement, "the library is unlimited and cyclical" as libraries fall and decay and are rebuilt throughout the ages. He makes these stories relevant by highlighting the fact that the fear for the modern library--that it will be rendered obsolete by the digital era--is a fear echoed earlier in history, as various technological advances were made. The only thing I'd fault is that sometimes the stories don't seem to relate to one another, and there are large jumps across time and topic that slightly lack coherency. A good, light read on library history.… (more)
LibraryThing member kaelirenee
As a librarian, I just had to read this one when I plucked it off the shelf. Not really a book for librarians as it talks about the actual buildings without giving much thought to the librarians, but that's beyong the scope of the book. It's a bit slow-going at times (I am not much of a history buff), but it's tied together nicely and the history of (and perils of) those big buildings full of books is well-presented here.… (more)
LibraryThing member cransell
This is an interesting read, but not as all encompassing as I had hoped. While I liked the book and learned a lot about Ancient and Renaissaince libraries, there wasn't really anything about libraries post-Dewey.
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
An interesting short history of the idea of the library. Quite superficial really but a fun read. Special emphasis on destuction of books and libraries.
LibraryThing member matthew254
Library has such potential but disappointingly falls neatly into a stereotypicallu dry, old-school and out-of-touch librarian's rant. Moreso, it's not really so much of a history as it is a reflection on several different ancient libraries. Tried as I might, I couldn't come away with anything worth mentioning.
LibraryThing member aliciamalia
It's my understanding that this is one of the standards in the world of writing about libraries. It's packed with interesting tidbits, as well as mountains of uninteresting tidbits. This is definitely not for everyone. I'm glad I read it, but it wasn't easy to finish.
LibraryThing member Othemts
A short work, that is less a straight history, but more musings on the library through the ages. Written by a librarian at Widener, it dares to venture into the quiet of the stacks and discover the turmoil that is captured there. Battles discusses how libraries have been at the center of wars both literal and figurative, places where knowledge is secreted and entombed or efficiently spread. Destroying libraries as a means of destroying culture. And the Battle of the Books over what should be placed in the library in the first place: only the best books or the universal library? A fascinating account of the places I love most.

“Like most readers, Kazin believes that the stuff he wants has been lost here, forgotten, discarded – that the library is a genezia that offers up its secrets only to the most indefatigable scholars. Of course, someone acquired these yellowing, fading materials; of course, someone retrieved them from the shelves and will return them when the reader is finished. But in the library these assistants hide behind the curtains; the library becomes a stage with a mirror for a backdrop that reflects only the reader and obscures the multifarious origins of the books.” (p. 202)

“The centralization and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike. But great libraries are problematic in times of war, disaster, or decay, for their fate becomes the fate of the literatures they contain. Much of what comes down to us from antiquity survived because it was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tnilsson
What I hoped for was a chronological description of libraries, from the ancient world to the modern. What I found was a somewhat disjointed essay about one librarian's thoughts about libraries and their purpose, both in the past and today (and in the future), with a smattering of interesting historical facts thrown in here and there. What is there is interesting, and worth reading, but this book could have been so much more.… (more)
LibraryThing member Birdo82
A whimsical and articulate chronicle of the history of libraries, particularly in the western society, Battles' book is a treat for librarians and readers of all kinds.
LibraryThing member madamepince
Got bored with it. Never finished it.
LibraryThing member TheTwoDs
An intriguing jaunt through the history of libraries, it's not as broad in scope as you may expect from the title but puts more of a focus on why libraries were started in the first place and how they were used, misused and abused through the ages. It covers the entire epoch from ancient Greece and Alexandria through Renaissance Florence, medieval monasteries, London, Paris, Nazi book burnings and the deliberate shelling of the Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Highly recommended for librarians, history fans and for LibraryThing users in general.… (more)
LibraryThing member EasyEW
When you're a book person, even a flaky one like me, you usually end up with a library fixation. Matthew Battles, who works at Harvard's Houghton Library, ended up doing something useful with his by tracing the history of the library through the centuries. In the process, we find some interesting things about the guardians of knowledge and the ways they try to steer the course of things. The chapter on Nazi librarians is especially fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member booklover3258
Boring. Not the book I expected it to be. Could not get through the first chapter.
LibraryThing member MeganS
Interesting... but pretty hard work at times. Its described as 'A slim history of the library that speaks volumes'.... One for the librarians only I think!
LibraryThing member jahein
Battles explores how libraries have impacted society across cultures and history. He begins by observing how rulers alternately established or destroyed libraries as a means of consolidating political power in the classical and medieval eras. Moving to the 17th and 18th centuries he examines the rise of publishing and libraries as ideological battle grounds torn between classical and modern ideals. He explores the linking of libraries and literacy to democratic ideals in the 19th century, and concludes by examining how political factions employed the destruction of books as a means of consolidating political power in the 20th century.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarieAlt
I think Battles would be the guy in the office party (probably a spouse) who corners everyone who stands still so he can lecture at them. He's from the local university, and he sincerely thinks you're interested.

You wish you were because the topic is interesting enough and you have plenty of things to say about it, but he just wants to recite the bibliography of his thesis at you, and you can't tell what he thinks about it, or get a word in edgewise.… (more)



Page: 0.3208 seconds