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Book Review: The Meaning of the Library

By (August 5, 2015) No Comment

The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural Historythe meaning of the library

edited by Alice Crawford

Princeton University Press, 2015

“We know there is a paradox about what libraries are and what they are trying to do,” writes Alice Crawford in the Introduction to her shiningly optimistic new anthology, The Meaning of the Library, “but we defy the contradiction and carry right on.”

The paradoxes she’s referring to are multifaceted: a building designed for housing printed texts, in a world increasingly going digital; a space intended for quiet, solitary contemplation, in a society more than ever addicted to chattering crowd-sourced identity; a place of deep learning in the age of Snapchat. And yet the defiant perseverance she mentions isn’t quixotic; the libraries described in the twelve lively essays of this collection – the essence of the place and the heart of the idea – isn’t for a moment a moribund concept. All of these contributors are writing about a place that’s changing in some fundamental ways but that’s very much alive.

The essays here range over the history of the institution, from Edith Hall’s sparkling piece on the library in ancient Greece and Rome to Richard Gameson writing about the Medieval library and Andrew Pettegree writing about the Renaissance one to Robert Darnton’s short piece on “How Books Began the Journey to Enlightenment Libraries.” The great John Sutherland writes about “Literature and the Library in the Nineteenth Century” and infuses the essay with his usual winking humor:

At the same moment as Manchester’s free public library opened [in 1852], the dominant commercial lending library in England was raising itself to “leviathan” status. Charles Edward Mudie had begun as a newsagent in Bloomsbury’s Southampton Row, with a small section of books on display. Students, then as now, would brows and not buy. It is a peculiarity of the retail book trade. Supermarkets such as Tesco’s and Vons do not install armchairs (as do Barnes and Noble in the United States, and Waterstone’s in the UK) where uncertain customers can open a can of beans, to see if it is to their taste, decide “no,” and leave having bought nothing.

“Mudie,” he continues, “drew the obvious conclusion and prudently put his books stock behind the counter and charged borrowing fees”)

Most of the world’s best-known or most sublime libraries get at least a mention in these pages, of course including William Makepeace Thackeray’s wollop of woozy hyperbole about the old Reading Room of the British Museum:

What peace, what love, what truth, what beauty, what happiness for all, what generous kindness for you and me, are here spread out! It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence. I own to have said my grace at the table, and to have thanked Heaven for this, my English birth-right, freely to partake of these bountiful books, and to speak the truth I find there.

And James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, gets the final word with a piece portentously titled “The Modern Library and Global Democracy, in which the odd but undeniable accretive aspect of the public library is extolled:

Libraries are places for the pursuit of truth. As librarian of Congress I am fortunate in my own working life to have responsibility for the world’s largest foraging ground for this pursuit – a 158-million-item collection built by the Congress around the amazingly rich personal library of Thomas Jefferson. For him, the pursuit of truth was the highest form of the pursuit of happiness that he extolled in our Declaration of Independence. This pursuit differs from others in life, because it is inherently noncompetitive and communal. One person’s discovery enriches another’s search …

Crawford also quotes Billington: “Whatever else you do in life, do not fail to experience the simple pleasure of being alone with a good book on a rainy day” – which is a wonderful sentiment but also, perhaps fittingly, paradoxical, since it describes one of the few reading experiences that can’t be had at a library. But such an exception only serves to underscore all the hundreds of ways libraries have adapted and evolved over the centuries, and The Meaning of the Library makes it clear this process is ongoing. Which is a very encouraging thing to think.