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Library: An Unquiet History Paperback – June 17, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Battles, a contributor to Harper's and a Harvard librarian, offers a distinguished portrait of the library, its endurance and destruction throughout history, and traces how the library's meaning was questioned or altered according to the climate of the time. In accessible prose, Battles recounts the building and burning that have marked the library's long history. The Vatican Library built by Pope Nicholas V set the standard during the Renaissance, and the one built by the Jews in the Vilna ghetto during WWII showed the importance of books to a community under siege. Meanwhile, the mythic third-century B.C. book burnings by Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi were an effort to erase history, as was the catastrophic destruction of millions of books by the Nazis in the spring of 1933. Dynamic characters lend this history a novelistic tone: Julius Caesar began the library movement in Rome; Antonio Panizzi, an Italian revolutionary and exile, turned the library of the British Museum into one of the world's greatest in the 19th century; more recently, Nikola Koljevic, a scholar turned Serb nationalist, directed the siege of Sarajevo that led to a book burning at the Bosnian National and University Library. Battles also enlightens readers regarding the evolution of bookmaking, the card catalogue and the role of the librarian, including the most famous of all, Melvil Dewey, whose decimal system was only a small part of his influence. This always compelling history illustrates Battles's theme: despite the rule of barbarians or megalomaniacal kings, angry mobs and natural disasters, people's hunger for books has ensured the library's survival. 11 illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.

From Booklist

Battles, a rare book librarian at Harvard, takes the reader on a world tour of the library from ancient times to the present digital age, making stops in Nineveh and Alexandria, Athens and Baghdad. He considers the book culture and important collections of medieval Europe, which were assembled and maintained by popes and monks, and the founding of the first "public" library--by Cosimo de' Medici in 1444. Among the other "librarians" who capture his interest are classicist Richard Bentley, who in 1694 was appointed Keeper of the Royal Library; Antonio Panizzi, who produced the first catalog of the British Library (the first volume, covering the letter A, took seven years to complete); Melville Dewey, creator of the decimal classification system and founder of the American Library Association; and Herman Kruk, head of the Vilna ghetto library. The book is less a formal history than an exploration of the concept of library and how it evolved. Battles writes in an engaging way, and his book will be appreciated by librarians and book lovers. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393325644
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393325645
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #843,308 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Last April during the war raging in Baghdad, a mob set fire to the "House of Wisdom," the national library of Iraq. Almost all of its books and ephemera were burned. Burning a library seems a particularly vicious and sad thing to do, but it would not have surprised Matthew Battles. He works at the rare books section at Harvard's library, and he has written _Library: An Unquiet History_ (W. W. Norton), a tour of libraries through history, and what becomes of them. Those of us who frequently use our local libraries and even take them for granted may reflect with pleasure on the anomalous (and deceptive) permanence of our particular library. Battles writes, "There is no library that does not ultimately disappear." Some of them are done in by natural causes, and plenty more are deliberately destroyed to make a social or revisionary point.
There is more to libraries than their destructions, of course, and more to Battles's book. It is full of well-written and surprising paragraphs, brimming with erudition, and part of its attractiveness is that he has not stuck to any structural plan. This is not an attempt at a comprehensive history of libraries, but it does take into account a lot of history. "By bringing books together in one place, cultures and kings inevitably make of them a sacrifice to time." Though the destructions of libraries by Shi Huangdi (who started the Great Wall of China), through the Nazis and into Sarajevo are necessary subjects here, the grimness is lightened by portraits of eminent librarians. For instance, cataloging by means of the famous Dewey Decimal System was invented by Melville Dewey, born in 1851; he was a spelling reformer and changed his name to Melvil.
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Format: Hardcover
Although the purposes and processes change, libraries rise and libraries fall and Matthew Battles has given us a short, engaging, and illustrative history of libraries in Library: An Unquiet History. The destruction of libraries isn't always at the hands of human beings [decomposition and disintegration happen whether we help or not] and the destruction of libraries at the hands of humans has not always been as pat as conventional stories relate [I like the Hypatia and the mad mob version of the destruction of the library at Alexandria, but as romantic as the story is, the real fall of the library at Alexandria was far more complex.]. Battles' book can be very depressing at times [especially for the extreme bibliophile], but ultimately ends on a hopeful note. When I donate a book to the library at the high school where I teach, I am aware of the fact that the book may never see any use. This seems to confirm Battles' thought that "the library may seem the place where books go when they die." But every once in a while, one of my students comes up to show me a book and says, "Look what I found in the library!" And so I keep on donating books. I recommend you read Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History and find reason to hope.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Matthew Battles packs a lot of intellectual history between these slim covers. As he notes in his introduction, a comprehensive history of libraries could fill volumes. He does provide, however, a survey of the key points in their evolution. His focus is on the changing role of the library as an intellectual institution, and he explains how someone who shapes a gathering of books, through the selections she makes and the manner of their presentation, is really the author of that collection.
One of the more disquieting themes concerns the library as a target, both in wartime and in peace. The enemy, too often, has not been the Nazis or other enemies of thought; many times it has been someone who at first glance, would be assumed to be a friend of intellectual freedom, but in reality was seeking to contain and control it. It was disheartening to read of the destruction of truly irreplacable collections through the ages; yet the ultimate message, despite continuing challenges, seems to be one of the ultimate triumph of the book as a vessel for ideas and the library as a sanctuary for them.
Battles works at the rare book library at Harvard, and his passion for books and the life of the mind is evident throughout this well-written volume. A most worthwhile and stimulating read!
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Format: Paperback
Unquiet indeed! This little book touches upon everything from the fires of Alexandria to the book burnings of the Nazis, bargains with devils to the ghosts of literature, the purpose of libraries of the past, the present and what they may be in the future. However, as Battles states from the start, a comprehensive history of libraries throughout the ages could fill countless volumes; instead he offers a fascinating and varied history. From ancient scrolls to the Dewey decimal system Battles flits through the history of books and libraries with ease and grace.
Battles views the librarian as a modern Prometheus who is overwrought with pity and whose boon `ultimately inspires another emotion, hubris, in the hears of human beings', to him, the flaws of the Titan are mirrored in the librarian who harbours `pity for the low station of the reader, and hubris for the possibilities the library offers for the reformation of culture and society' (pg 120). Lofty ideals, but the stories of Thomas Bentley William Temple, Johnathan Swift, Melvil Dewey and countless others whose passion for books and their distribution have helped shape how we think of literature and libraries today.
An easy and entertaining read, and for the uninitiated, library and book-specific terminology is inserted inconspicuously into the body of the text. Highly recommended for those interested in the subject matter.
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