Friday, December 03, 2021


Title: The Library: A Fragile History

Author: Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 528
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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.

(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 

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