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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Library: A Fragile HistoryThe Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Or rather, this is a fairly exhaustive history of those places where they are kept, whether papyrus, hand-written, or print, from ancient times, through dark, and into the modern period. Libraries are really an expression of what book-lovers want out of books, and there really is a conflict here.

Let's put it this way. There are certain people who enjoy books so much that they are very, very greedy. Somo of them love to use books as ways to carry value, similar to how paintings are pumped up and insured, and this is expressed in very interesting ways... private book collections, estate auctions, theft, and of course collectors. Some libraries begun as private collections not meant to be read, but hoarded.

And then there's the other side of human nature, the side that expresses the need to share knowledge, make it available to all, to uplift mankind. These libraries are wonderful creatures (personal bias) and while we get a lot of the history of both, I'm pleased to see that the ones with altruistic intentions have pretty much always been what we get.

It's complicated, though. A lot of the altruism we've had from robber barons and steel magnates was thrown into the creation of libraries. Some of the richest and hardcore business-types threw their resources into this kind of good deed, alas, and while this particular story was pretty much a light touch in this book, it illustrates how much this book leaves out of the REST of the story.

The Library is pretty good as a brief introduction or a brief indexing of famous libraries and their histories. It's about the people who championed books and kept the writings safe, through dark times and the Renaissance -- where books become valuable not just for the knowledge, but status.

I won't get into the full history, myself, because that's what this book is good for, but the printing press and the Reformation makes it spicy, as did the back and forth between gatekeepers and popular fiction, the constant loss of libraries and the heroic funding and stocking of new libraries by the altruistic.

The fact is, libraries are not to be taken for granted. They can die so easily. This is obvious throughout history and it should be obvious now. A lot of the reasons they did bite it was because knowledge and learning was simply NOT VALUED. If poverty or hardship comes to any community, it should never be a question between some momentary political cause or maintaining a door to public learning.

Unfortunately, any old reason can be thrown into the wind and unscrupulous individuals can successfully gut this more pure altruism on a whim.

No civilization is safe once this happens. As far as I can tell, almost every history that showed the death of libraries had the death of its citizens following soon after.

History repeats. Those who don't learn from it are doomed to repeat it.

I won't say this book couldn't have been a bit more charming, but for history buffs and people who want to follow this particular thread, I totally recommend it.

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