Battles over books

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Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles (2003)

This is, indeed, an unquiet history.  The aptly named Battles writes about centuries of conflict in the library world, from competing ideas about what libraries should be to episodes of book burning through history.  Many of the topics that he describes were completely new to me: Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi’s (259-210 BCE) attempt to control the population through a policy known as fenshu kengru (the Burning of Books and the Burying of Scholars), for example, or Jonathan Swift’s satire the Battle of the Books, which illustrates 18th-century concerns about the relative merit of Classical versus contemporary knowledge.

Of the 20th century examples, I was most moved by Battles’ discussion of the burning of University of Louvain library, in Belgium.  After the German army destroyed the building and the collection in 1914, the library was rebuilt after the end of World War I with donations of books from around the world.  In an act of hubris, the American architect who designed the new building, Whitney Warren, insisted that the library be crowned with the inscription Furore Teutonico Diruta/ Dono Americano Restituta (“Destroyed by Teutonic fury/ restored by American gift”).  This move prompted considerable political wrangling, and the ornately carved letters were never installed.  According to Battles, the proposed inscription may have caused the Germans to specifically target the library during World War II; it was destroyed for a second time in 1940.

This kind of cycle is central to this unquiet history, which documents the constantly changing relationships of human beings, libraries, and books. Many of the stories are of violence and conflict, but this is not entirely a history of destruction and renewal. Battles also recounts the accidental and the quixotic, from the preservation of Jewish ephemera in the geniza of Cairo to Melvil Dewey’s attempts to standardize libraries (and to simplify spelling, including that of his own name).

Although I found his writing dry at times, the material that Battles covers is fascinating.  I only wish that he had addressed the relationship between libraries and the internet age in more detail; he gives the subject short shrift, yet it seemed clear to me reading the book that there are some obvious parallels in past debates about whether libraries should be universal in scope– and whether librarians should provide access to material without prejudice or should try to guide readers’ consumption of the written word.

Despite these flaws, there are moments when Battles really hits his stride, evoking entirely new ways of thinking about, and looking at, libraries.  The book is worth reading, for me, on the strength of this image alone:

“The people who shelve the books in [Harvard’s] Widener [Library] talk about the library’s breathing– at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of the term, the library inhales, and the books fly back.”

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2 Responses to Battles over books

  1. barbara munson says:

    Your librarian mother can’t let this one go by without comment: I love the image evoked by the Harvard quote! And all things library-related are definitely changing with the internet, so giving short shrift to that is short-sighted (note the alliteration.) Good reading on your part!

  2. Cam says:

    and that makes us library users what…grains of pollen to be sneezed out?

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