Why libraries matter, and why we shouldn’t despair

by Professor Andrew Pettegree FBA and Dr Arthur der Weduwen

6 Dec 2021

Books stacked on a dark wooden shelf in the Library of the British Academy

It might seem foolhardy to attempt a history of libraries from ancient Alexandria to Google, but there are certain benefits from taking the long view, particularly in this digital age when the library story is often thought to have run its course. One good-natured prediction model from 2007, Ross Dawson’s Extinction Timeline, anticipated that the last public library would close its doors in 2019 (along with the last butchers’ shops and free parking). That has not happened, but there is no disguising the sense of gloom as local authorities reshape, trim and redesign their library resources, a process that often involves painful closures.

When we began researching our new history of book collecting, The Library, A Fragile History, we spoke to both municipal officials forced to find economies in the library service, and local campaigners dedicated to preserving them. The officials were traumatised by the opprobrium heaped upon them by those defending the established library service, many of whom were not themselves regular users of the threatened services. It was notable that the case for preservation was usually framed in terms of the library’s role as a community hub, a social service, and a place of refuge: even for the libraries’ protectors, books scarcely seemed to feature. But it is hard to envisage a future for libraries without books.

Premature obituaries

One thing that has become clear in the last 20 years is that the debate about the death of the library has at least become detached from the anticipated death of the book. While institutional libraries stumble, the printed book continues to dominate publishing. It has seen off a host of pretenders that were to have brought about its demise: the radio, cinema and television, and technical innovations that now find themselves in the dustbin of history, the microfilm and the CD-ROM. The e-reader may join them there in the near future. That is partly because the publishing world has gone through massive change to adapt and reshape the market in the face of evolving public taste and technological challenges. Perhaps the public debate about the future of the library also has to take a longer view. We would do well to recognise that the history of book collecting has been a story of constant re-invention as libraries were built, dispersed, reconfigured and reborn.

Print and its perils

The invention of printing in the 15th century brought a massive growth in the number of available books, but also the extinction of many of the most distinguished libraries of the manuscript era. Now books were less exclusive, they could not function in the same way as markers of status for princely collectors. Books found a new home in the houses of lawyers, doctors, ministers and professors, able to build substantial collections for the first time. By the 17th century, it was not unusual for professors to own more books than their university library. This was a brutal age for institutional collections, mauled by the successive crises of the Reformation and Enlightenment, which turned its modernising zeal on the monastic collections, the refuge of institutional memory through the first millennium of the book. Even in the emerging industrial democracies, the public library ideal had to contend with a vibrant mixed economy of commercial circulating libraries and subscription libraries owned by their members. The age of the public library, it turns out, has occupied a surprisingly short period in the history of book collecting, its heyday (1885-1965) lasting less than a century before the rot began to set in.

Savouring the joke

Writing the history of the library has for too long been distorted by the concentration on the most beautiful buildings and the most distinguished collections, or a lament at the vulnerability of these collections to wartime destruction or bureaucratic malevolence in the last hundred years. These losses form part of the story, but we also need to recognise the extraordinary regenerative quality of book collecting, as each generation seeks to shape a collection to reflect its own tastes and professional needs. Throughout the history of the book, as institutional libraries have withered through neglect or been deliberately destroyed, the literary heritage has found its refuge in the more informal setting of private collecting. Private libraries have been, to a surprising extent, dictator-proof: in Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera’s The Joke sold 119,000 copies in the years following its publication in 1967, but then was banned on his expulsion from the Communist party in 1970. Copies were removed from public libraries, but this still left 100,000 copies in private hands. Growing in the Global South, secure in the sanctuary of private homes, libraries will live on, even as institutional collections re-examine their role in the digital age. This constant evolution has always been a part of library history.

Andrew Pettegree is a Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2021. Arthur der Weduwen is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St Andrews. The Library, A Fragile History, was published on 14 October 2021


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