Library: An Unquiet History

Library: An Unquiet HistoryLibrary: An Unquiet History, by Mathew Battles. Published by the W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. 227 pp.

The author, a rare book librarian at Harvard University, roams through history looking at the connections between libraries and the societies that they serve. Libraries have been alternately highly prized, manipulated, destroyed, and ignored by various cultures down through the ages. From Caesar burning the great library of Alexandria and the Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi burning all literature and burying alive the Confucian authors as he started to build the Great Wall of China, to the ritual book burning of the Nazis and the genocidal destruction of the National Library of Bosnia, there has been great tragedy throughout the history of libraries. But there has also been great, almost miraculous heights in libraries. From Cicero’s personal library and the Arab House of Wisdom in Baghdad to the democratic university of New York Public Library and the wonder of discovering the records of a lost civilization in the Geniza of a Cairo synagogue.

This survey of the library through both the eyes of an historian and an anthropologist is somewhat dense and assumes a high level of familiarity with world history and literature, but one finishes the book with an appreciation for how the library can bring out the best and the worst in mankind.

– Bob Sibert