The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

The story of The Library is a dramatic one. At times it is a surprising one too.

In this work of detailed scholarship, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen have nevertheless written an eminently readable history, full of intriguing insights as they traverse continents and centuries in search of the library’s ‘fragile history’.

Did you realise quite how vulnerable libraries have always been? War has always been a danger. Libraries across Europe were destroyed by bombing in World War II. Books were looted – or destroyed for ideological reasons.

However, libraries have also come to unpredictable, even mundane ends. The authors describe how, in the late 1700s, the Jesuit Order was being dissolved. Books from the Jesuit college in Brussels were taken over for the royal collection but kept in a church in the meantime. To keep them safe from the depredations of rodents, one man found a solution: ‘he duly made a selection of “useful books” which he placed on the shelves in the middle of the nave, and the remainder were strewn on the floor, so as to distract the mice with easily accessible food’.

Libraries, too, often run their natural course, sometimes simply down to human nature. Collections of books could have been lovingly gathered, but then scattered after the death of the owner. As the authors note drily, ‘no one cares about a library collection as much as the person who has assembled it’.

Despite all these dangers, libraries in different forms have continued to thrive, and over the years they have become more and more accessible to the public. Again we are treated to a litany of details which humanise the history. Early lending libraries were commercial concerns. W. H. Smith cleverly capitalised on the growth of the railways to set up bookstalls and libraries for passengers. Free public libraries of the sort we know today came about largely due to Andrew Carnegie, who the authors say is ‘the one figure who we associate with the success of public libraries’. As a businessman Carnegie would provide the library buildings for communities, who had to agree to maintain the building and provide staff wages. Unlike many earlier libraries, continuity was thus built in. The very first Carnegie library is still in use and can be visited today not 40 miles away in Dunfermline, Carnegie’s birthplace.

The community library run by volunteers is one of the latest instances of the ever-evolving history of libraries, exemplified of course by our own Pittenweem Community Library and Information Service. However, as we’ve seen, the history of libraries is a fragile one. How will they develop in the future?

[We have a copy of The Library in the library]

Reviewed by a library member