The Library: A fragile history

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen (Profile, 2021), 528pp, £25
ISBN 978 1 78816 342 2

Reviewed by Sarah Perkins

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When I heard about this book, I was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was enough to say about libraries. However, the library is inextricably linked with books and publishing, giving lots of scope. Over the centuries, there have been two main problems.

The first issue is the purpose of a library. Generally, the worthy people setting up and running the resource do not share the same purpose as the people who want to use the library. Sir Thomas Bodley was clear that the University of Oxford library should not include ‘idle books and riffle raffles’, by which he meant anything in English. Victorian library committees were keen that their collections should be improving, with no frivolous novels. In fact, when the idea of free public libraries available to all began to develop, this attitude slowed down progress. Many readers were quite happy with the provision of existing libraries, run by entrepreneurs like WH Smith, stocked with popular books that would generate a profit. On the other hand, councils often saw little point in raising funds from rate payers, when readers were funding themselves. Some councils did see the benefit of a prestigious collection of worthy books.

The second problem is getting the balance between secure storage and access. There are tales of scholars making long journeys to consult a library, only to find that they could not find the librarian to let them in. Bodley had a new approach, setting up an endowment to fund the future, imposing a no-borrowing rule to stop books going astray, open six hours a day rather than the more usual four a week, and imposing silence, to allow proper study. There are many examples of a proud collector making arrangements to preserve their books by leaving them to a responsible relative, or a university, only for the arrangement to unravel. Relatives fell on hard times, or were just not interested in the bother of keeping the collection together. Universities sometimes didn’t have the space, or already had enough copies of key texts.

Entwined in the development of these problems are bits of information about the development of society.

Early university students needed textbooks, which sometimes they expected to be reference books which would last them throughout their chosen careers. While the rich could buy beautiful manuscripts if they wished, not everyone could afford them. The solution? The standard works could be hired from a stationer, so the student could write out their own copy, before returning it and hiring the next instalment.

Once book collecting was no longer available only to the rich, it became possible for collectors to set an objective. The son of Christopher Columbus used the opportunities of his diplomatic life to try to collect all known books. But soon the world changed, and it became important to suppress any books that didn’t set out the ‘truth’. Catholics did not want any heretical books to corrupt their readers, and there are stories of Protestants swapping the order of pages so the book would be useless if it fell back into Catholic hands.

In troubled times, book collecting became less important. Records of the dissolution of the monasteries give details about the furniture in the libraries, but there is very little about the books. Even in universities there were times when there was little interest in books. Why buy books if the next regime might destroy them? That money could be better spent on feasting.

When important books were in Latin, it is logical that trade in them could be international, and it is fascinating to read about how that trade worked. Frankfurt Fair already had a biannual meeting of publishers in the sixteenth century. Once printed books became established, auctions became widespread. Books held their value well, so selling off the collection raised useful cash to fund retirement, or provide a widow with funds. In the 1600s, some Dutch clerics raised the equivalent of about 20 years of income when their estate sold their books.

This book is both informative and easy to read, and goes to all sorts of unexpected places. Come to think of it, that is much like a decent library, isn’t it?

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