Sunday, November 16, 2008

Four: Library An Unquiet Library - Matthew Battles

What is a universal library? This question is what Matthew Battles sets out to investigate through history. He quotes Seneca's definition
In the universal library...books are not treated as precious and crysalline essences...Instead they are text, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in a new combinations and patterns...they are not to be praised for particular influences or qualities; they must be counted and classified before they may be desired.
Battles also references Jorge Luis Borges' universal library described in The Library of Babel. The story concerns an infinite library, composed of endlessly connected hexagonal galleries and populated by inhabitants among whom have risen various weird belief systems and subcultures.

The rest of the book focuses on points of transformation in library history - starting with the burning of books at Alexandria, in the far East, Mexico and Rome. Battles then explores how libraries evolved and thrived within Europe during the Renaissance. The next chapter focuses on the essay by Jonathan Swift called The Battle of the Books. This essay tells an account between the ancient and modern books in Saint James' Library.

Battles chooses the late 1700s - early 1900's as the next time period of transformation in library history. The principle - 'a book for every person' is the main theme throughout this chapter. He takes the reader through how the standards that are part of a 21st century library were developed by Mevil Dewey, William Harris, William Coswell and many others. War's influence on libraries is the next topic that Battles' attacks. He points out that fire is not the only way to 'destroy' a library. Nazi Germany during both World Wars, Sarajevo and Bosnia are the wartime situations that Battles analyzes.

The last chapter does focus a short while on the library of the current century. Battle provides his own commentary on the digital library and takes the reader back to the stacks at Harvard to find where his book would be located.

Fun facts I learned:
  • King Ashurbanipal established the first systematically organized library
  • Qin emperor Shi Huangdi ordered the most extensive book burning in the world
  • Julius Caesar created the notion of a public library, but Asinius Pollio actually built the first library in Rome based on Caesar's wishes.
  • In Persia, books were revered as items of beauty with illustrations and calligraphy.
  • San Marco, Florence - first modern public library created by Cosimo de'Medici in 1444
  • Librarians at Sorbonne University in Paris introduced alphabet and Arabic numerals to the organization of books.
  • Vatican Library created the first 'cataloger' position - or scriptore in 1475. The books were organized by profession.
  • First literary reference of the 'doddering librarian' in Swift's The Battle of the Books.
  • Antonio Panizzi developed the first rules of cataloging and the concept of the modern day catalog.
  • Melvil Dewey's library reforms came from being incorrectly diagnosed to die within two years after inhaling smoke while rescuing books from a fire. This awareness of imminent death spurred an interest in time-saving that lasted the rest of his life.
  • Dewey also influenced women as being dominant in the library profession as a means to define the profession down.
  • Lloyd P. Smith wrote an essay called The Qualifications of a Librarian in 1876.
  • Herman Kruk was a librarian in Vilna ghetto during the World War II.
  • Great drawing of the stacks at New York Public Library which appeared in Scientific American, May 1911

Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. W.W. Norton & Company (2003). 214 pages. ISBN 0393020290

This was my first non-fiction book that was part of this Cannonball Read. I must admit that I did struggle through this book. The subject of the book has interest to me as a librarian, but the writing style of the author was not the easiest to read. Luckily I was able to make it through most of the book on train ride to and from NYC.

I was disappointed that the author skipped nearly 10 years of library history to just offer his commentary on the modern day digital library. There was no explanation of how libraries evolved digitally. I also thought he would offer more history on the Harvard Library than he did, but it turns out he wrote a whole separate book on the Widener Library. While I learned some interesting fun facts and found some additional reading on libraries, this book was not quite what I was expecting. I felt that sometimes Battles would go off on historical tangents and had a hard time coming back to the main discussion.

Totally unrelated - but Matthew Battles was on NPR's Talk of the Nation - twice! Once talking about the role of libraries and this summer talking about WALL-E. He even wrote a small article for the Boston Globe about WALL-E.

1 comment:

  1. Great review -- I especially liked your bulletpoint fun facts! Like you, I wanted to read more about the Harvard Library and regret to say I was overall disappointed with this book although some of it was interesting. My own review for it: