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Andrew Pettegree, Arthur der Weduwen: The Library, A Fragile History

Curating the Ruins

The most substantial legacy of Rome, none of whose libraries survived the fall of the western empire, was the gradual transition from papyrus scrolls to parchment books as the medium of storage.

With each century, new readers were brought into the compass of book ownership, and the same battles were repeatedly replayed, marking out the library as a political space. Should readers in the new nineteenth-century public libraries have the books that they desired, or books that would make them better, more cultured people?

Technological revolutions in the nineteenth-century print industry had greatly extended the range of reading matter that could be placed in the hands of neophyte readers. Publishers quickly developed a literature specifically aimed at this fresh market of the newly literate: books designed not to improve or educate, but to entertain.

For much of their long history, libraries were primarily and intellectual resource and a financial asset.

In the endless cycle from destruction to greatness, libraries have always recovered: it is in our nature to leave our own stamp on society.

Inception and survival

A confusion of scrolls

The Greeks were not the first to create libraries. The rulers of the Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) gathered considerable quantities of documents, all carefully inscribed in their distinctive cuneiform script on to clay tablets.

Papyrus become the pre-eminent writing medium of the ancient world, exported from Egypt to Greece and later Rome, and made possible the extraordinary experiment in knowledge acquisition that became the library at Alexandria.

The library of Alexandria was first and foremost a scholarly academy. This was the achievement of the first two Ptolemaic kings, the dynasty born of Ptolemy the First. Scholars have spoken of 200.000 or even half a million scrolls.

Rome boasted nothing that we would recognize as a public library. By far the most prominent and visible libraries in Rome were those established by the emperors, beginning with Augustus.

Galen and Cicero had built big private libraries.

Was the key motivation for building a library accessibility, or the demonstration of elite power? Should the library be a place of sociability or silence, a meeting place or a place of study?


In the centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, book production and book collecting took place largely within the domain of monastic communities, established throughout Europe by missionaries of Jesus Christ; through their careful curation of the written world they played a vital role in the survival of the western world’s heritage of books. As the safe harbors of books, monasteries were also responsible for the survival of the library.

The debate on the copying and collecting of pagan literature unrolled in tandem with another crucial development of the period between the third and sixth centuries AD. The transition from the papyrus scroll, the preferred medium of ancient writing, to the parchment codex, with separate pages sewn together (a book), would transform the library. By the sixth century, the codex was triumphant and remained the standard form of the book until present day. The advantages of the codex over the scroll are profound: a codex can be opened at any point of the text with ease, whereas the scroll requires a serious effort, with both hands, to find one’s place.

It was under the patronage of Charlemagne (742-814) that the monasteries assumed greater political importance and took on a more active role as book producers.

The importance of books for the monastic life was symbolized by the introduction of a new term in the history of the book: the scriptorium or writing room.

The development of the library as a monastic space was a gradual process. In many monasteries, a separate library room never came into being.

By the fourteenth century, the best university libraries were outclassing those of the monasteries. The College of the Sorbonne in Paris acquired over 2.000 volumes between its foundation in 1257 and 1338.

Monasteries, as closed communities, could control access to their libraries relatively easily. The first general use of chained books seems to date from the thirteenth century, at the Sorbonne.

The most successful book hunter of the period was a brilliant papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), who took his explorations for manuscripts beyond the Alps into the monastic heartlands of France, Germany and Switzerland. Here Bracciolini was responsible for the rediscovery of lost works of Lucretius, Cicero, Vitruvius, Quintilian and many other authors.

Little monkeys and letters of gold

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries experienced a transformation in the scale of production of manuscript books as scribal workshops in the cities of France, the Low Countries and Italy turned bookmaking into a commercial enterprise that outstripped the great monastic scriptoria.

When it came to building a library collection, the new bookmaking capacities of medieval craftsmen were still largely at the disposal of the traditional book-collecting classes of medieval society, rulers and their families, the nobility and the leaders of the church. What had changed was the ability of those at the apex of society to build larger collections.

The greatest collectors of the age were undoubtedly King Charles V of France (1338-80) and his three brothers.

After Paris lost its prime position as an international supplier of books, Bruges and Ghent, became new home luxury manuscript production.

The impressive collections of books gathered by the princes of northern Europe were for public display, but not for public use. For the purposeful construction of libraries, accessible to a wider public, we have to cast our eyes south, to the Renaissance city-states of Italy.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was a rarity to have a separate space in one’s house dedicated to one’s personal use. To have a room of this sort filled with books, a desk and some writing equipment, was the apex of civility.

Niccolo de’Niccoli was another book collector from Italy. Far from keeping these books out of the public eye, he freely invited scholars, friends and interested citizens to study, discuss and admire his books; he even lent them out, to the extent that 200 of his books were out of his home at his death in 1437.

The new class of book dealers were named the cartolai.

One of the most remarkable centers of book collecting was the city of Timbuktu, and important trading center on the banks of the river Niger. Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, this was renowned as the home of the most learned Islamic scholars.

What is established with greater certitude is that Chinese and later Arab society contributed a crucial innovation to the development of the library with the art of making paper.

By the thirteenth century, the first paper-mills were established in Italy and Spain, and later in France, Germany and the Low Countries. The impact of paper on book production would only become apparent in the fifteenth century.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention during the middle of the fifteenth century was certainly arrived at independently of developments elsewhere. It was European printing technology that would have the most radical impact on the production and distribution of books, and change forever the face of library building.

The crisis of print

The infernal press

Gutenberg Bible was a miracle in the eyes of the church.

Ownership of a library no longer marked a man out as a member of the European social and political elite. This, indeed, may have been the most immediate impact of the invention of print on libraries.

To monks, like many other contemporaries, the press was seen as a mechanical extension of the activities of a scribal workshop.

By the 1490s, the early monastic printing housed has mostly closed. This change took place at the same time as the price of books was decreasing considerably. Prices went down due to number of printed books. By 1500, 9 million books had been turned off the press. And paper was also cheaper than parchment.

Paris and Venice were centers of printing.

As more people amassed collections of books, the great libraries of the manuscript age lost their lustre.

One of the great collectors in 15th century was also Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, with his library in Buda.

While the invention of printing heralded a new age for the library, filled with possibilities, it also condemned to obscurity and neglect the  collections of an era left behind.

Coming of age

Johannes Trithemius had created a stupendous library, one of the last great monastic libraries of the medieval era. The library he abandoned in 1506 was now one of the largest in Europe, containing a reputed 2.000 volumes.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the greatest author of the day, and the proprietor of a surprisingly modest library. Fernando Colon (1448-1539), the son of Cristopher Columbus and the greatest collector of the age.

Colon was determined that his library in Seville should encompass the world’s learning, a task that he believed print had now brought within the bounds of possibility. At an early stage, he began his Abecedarium, an alphabetical list of the authors and titles of books in his collection.

Only in 1521, when Erasmus settled with some degree of permanence in the comfortable home provided for him by Froben in Basel, could he think seriously of building a library. Erasmus never catalogued his books: the collection was small enough for him to remember where everything was to be found.

By 1536, 15.000 books had been purchased to grace Colon’s new library, which had, as a nice modern touch on its owner’s part, shelves.

An everyday story of library. One man’s passion project would be nothing but a burden to those to whom the responsibility of curation was passed on. At least in the age of print, no failure was ever final.

For the next two hundred years, the fate of the library would lie in the hands of generations of scholars, civil servants, lawyers, physicians and merchants, who collected books for work, and increasingly for pleasure.


The Protestant Reformation represented a critical moment for the history of library. The Reformation gradually changed the nature of the book: it became cheaper, shorter and less scholarly. The Reformation shattered the unity of western Christendom. Europe’s libraries would feel the effects of the schism for the next two centuries.

The experience of the university libraries in the turbulent middle decades of the sixteenth century also stunned the expansion of the collections afterwards.

Oxford would have to wait until the arrival of a visionary library builder, Sir Thomas Bodley, at the end of the sixteenth century, to undo the damage that had been inflicted.

The missionary zeal of the separated Protestant and Catholic churches would inaugurate a new age of library building, with impressive results, but in the first two generations of the Reformation this was still some way in the future. To those who lived through the sixteenth century, theirs was an age in which great libraries found more enemies than friends.

The new collectors

The professionals

By 1550, one hundred years after the invention of printing, Europe was awash with books. So, it is the greatest irony that the future of the library, as an institution and social construct, looked decidedly bleak at this point in history. It would be some time before institutional libraries found their role in this new world.

The creation of libraries became an urban phenomenon: these new classes of books owners were largely city dwellers.

By 1550, the world of print had built a whole new distribution network, cycling printed books from all of Europe’s major centers of production through the international market.

By the middle of the seventeenth century a new power had risen on the ruins of the Habsburg possessions of the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic. This was Europe’s most urbanized state, with the most literate population and a buoyant economy. It had also, to the frustration of the established giants in France, Italy and Germany, become the center of the international book market.

Daniel Heinsius was one of the leading scholars of the Republic and his collection of 4.000 books was not especially remarkable.

The Dutch were the first to separate out the sale of books from other items. They put the trade entirely in the hand of the book industry. Auctions helped collectors build their libraries more quickly and with a clear conscience.

Among the new generation of collectors, we must not ignore one very important component of this new buying public: minsters of the church and university professors.

The scholars and professional men who required many books still had to improvise solutions for their storage, balancing accessibility and security. Among the most intensive solutions were those adopted by the English philosophers Thoman Hobbes and John Locke who both found ways of outsourcing the housing of their working collection.

Gian Vincenzo Pinelli was one of the great collectors of the sixteenth century. Pinelli built during his lifetime a collection of over 6.000 books and many precious manuscripts. In 1601, when Pinelli died, his was the greatest private library in Europe.

The essential problem was one that has not changed through the history of collecting, from Alexandria to the present: no one cares about a library collection as much as the person who has assembled it.

Fire, neglect, assault by pirates, ungrateful heirs, careless nephews: the transition of a library from working tool to intellectual monument was strewn with so many pitfalls that it is no wonder that few collections survived to memorialize a stratum of collecting that was, at the time, essential to the history of the library.

Idle books and riff raff

In 1598, the University of Oxford received an extraordinary proposal. Sir Thomas Bodley, a retired diplomat and Oxford alumnus offered to restore the dilapidated university library, entirely at his own cost. Over the course of fifteen years, until his death in 1613, Bodley would oversee the transformation of Oxford’s library from this empty shell to the finest institutional library in Europe. He ensured that his library would be provided with a substantial endowment, of land and property rents, to acquire books. This was the key if the library was to remain supplied with the latest scholarly publications. A second key provision was the prohibition on borrowing books from the library.

The Stationers’ Company, the cartel of London publishers that dominated the English book trade, an agreement to send one copy of each of their new books to library.

Bodley was only the first of many powerful personalities associated with the library: his first librarian, the theologian Thomas James, was almost as influential.

In 1715, King George I. of England bought the library of the late Bishop of Ely, John Moore, to give to the University of Cambridge as a token of gratitude for its loyalty during the Jacobite uprising. It was only with the gift of Moore’s library that the university library acquired some of the seminal scientific works of the age, including a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia and his Opticks.

In the new Baltic domains of the Swedish Empire, universities were planted as cultural bulwarks of the state. The Danes the greatest rivals of the Swedes, also shared a profound appreciation of their great institutional library at the University of Cambridge.

Mission fields

Over course of history, and particularly in the last hundred years, wars have taken a heavy toll on libraries. But there is no doubt that libraries have sometimes been sought out as deliberate targets: as symbols of a hated power, or repositories of a culture marked for eradication.

Shortly after his arrival as the first bishop of Mexico City, the Franciscan Juan de Zumarrage ordered a public burning of Aztec manuscript.

Almost 400 of the sixteenth-century works accumulated by the college of Santa Cruz are now in the Sutro library in San Francisco, California.

A large part of the first edition of Don Quxote (1605) made its way to Mexico.

The Jesuits had arrived in Brazil by 1549, and colleges were established in six of the major settlements. By the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Brazil in 1759, their Brazilian libraries collectively owned 60.000 books, with Salvador da Bahia the largest library owning 15.000 items.

In 1620, when the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Leiden, on route to Massachusetts. Books, in particular, were an essential accoutrement of the new life they had chosen. By the end of the seventeenth century. Harvard College could boast the largest library in North America.

The first Jesuit college was established in Messina, on the island of Sicily, in 1548. Libraries formed an essential part of each project.

During the Thirty Years’ War the books of Riga and Braniewo, sent to Uppsala, survived rather better, and can still be clearly identified on the shelves of the university library. Vilnius escaped the worst of the destruction during the Thirty Years’ War, but the end of the war ushered in a still darker period for Poland-Lithuania, known as Deluge. While the Swedes occupied Warsaw and most of Poland, Russian armies invested Lithuania and occupied Vilnius, with predictable results; it was looted again by Swedish armies during the Great Northern War (1700-21).

Between public and private

Grand designs

James Kirkwood and Cardinal Jules Mazarin were great collectors of this age. Mazarin created one of the most stupendous libraries yet seen in Europe. Both men had a vision of the future of the library; one, of a series of libraries, curated by the church, which would be a major theological resource in many of Scotland’s smaller habitations; the other, of an Alexandrian collection open to visiting scholars.

The origins of the town library can be traced to the era of Charlemagne. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we find an increasing number of collectors leaving their libraries to the town, with the specific instruction to establish a municipal or public library.

Hamburg and Zurich were two towns that established town library.

If the narrative of the early public library in the German lands is a story of mixed fortunes, that of the Netherlands is a sorry tale. England’s patchwork of early public libraries emerged later than in Germany or the Netherlands. The fine library at Ipswich only found a proper home in 1617. London was exceptionally poorly served by public libraries. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the only libraries were those at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s and Sion College.

In 1699, the Reverend James Kirkwood presented to the world one of the most comprehensive library programs ever conceived: to establish a public library in every parish in his native Scotland. To persuade his fellow countrymen, Kirkwood published a twelve-point plan in a short, easily digestible pamphlet. Like all pilgrims searching for the lost library of Alexandria, Kirkwood was hopelessly idealistic.

The key to success for the public library, as many library founders failed to realize, was to make available books that users truly wanted to read.

Kirkwood’s cognate in England was the Reverend Thomas Bray. The Bray libraries, some fifty-two in these early years, and rising to 140 after his death. In 1699, Bray set sail for America. He collected funds to establish thirty-eight parochial, five provincial and thirty-seven laymen’s libraries in the American colonies.

Cardinal errors

There were few statesmen whose power rivalled that of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII of France. By the end of his life, Richelieu had a library of over 6.000 volumes, especially rich in Greek, Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts. Richelieu died in 1642. In his will he bequeathed his personal library to the French public.

Contemporaries talked of three great public libraries: Thomas Bodley’s Oxford library, and two Catholic libraries founded in Italy, the Ambrosiana in Milan and the Angelica in Rome. Sadly for France, Richelieu’s collection was not destined to join this pantheon.

Shortly before his death, Richelieu had recalled from Italy a fellow Frenchman, Gabriel Naude, to organize and expand his book collection. After curating and cataloguing the 8.000-volume-strong collection, the young librarian thanked his patron by writing a short tract, entitled Advis pour dresser une bibliotheque.

Naude was used by Richelieu’s successor Mazarine. Naude traveled around Europe to find books for Mazarine library. He found more than 40.000 printed books and 850 volumes of manuscripts. The library was open to public for one day in a week. For a few years, the Mazarine public library was the greatest public library the world had thus far seen.

After Naude died, Jean-Baptiste Colbert was set to restore France’s greatest library.

In 1627, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the favorite nephew of Urban VIII, attracted Lucas Holste, a peripatetic German scholar and gifted linguist, as his librarian. Holster created a library that would almost rival the first Mazarine library in size.

The wealthy sovereign of a modest north German principality Duke August was Europe’s most successful bibliophile statesman.

The immortality that was so often desired by great collectors but rarely realized, did materialize in little Wolfenbüttel. The library still stands there today, as a center of scholarship, but also as reminder that some bibliophilic dreams do come true.

Libraries throughout Europe abandoned the basic fitting of the medieval college and church libraries, dominated by reading lecterns and low central bookcases. Instead, they remodeled library rooms to resemble great halls, in which books were placed, spines out, in great vertical bookcases along the walls.

As books circled up the social hierarchy, multiplying along the way, a road was paved towards the foundation of the first national libraries.

The antiquarians

Since the days of Gutenberg, the book trade had recognized one universal truth; books did not accrue additional value just because they were old.

That anyone would begin to pay large sums for old books just because of their antiquity was a new development, and a disruptive one.

Christina, the Queen of Sweden, had big library. Her library was now one of the finest in Europe, unrivalled for its collection of manuscripts. Christina, also attracted renowned names to her court, people like Issac Vossius, Rene Descartes and Claude Saumaise. She could do that, because of her inheritance of income collected from the booty accumulated by Swedish armies in Germany during the Thirty Year’s war.

The growing market for manuscripts, dominated by commercially minded scholars and librarians, paved the way to the formation of a volatile antiquarian market.

In the late eighteenth century, the new bookbrokers, who supplied the libraries of England, the Dutch Republic and France with antiquarian books, profited much from the general disintegration of monastic libraries in the heartlands of Catholicism. The first major blow was struck with the dissolution of the Jesuit Order, a process that had been underway since the 1750s but was formally concluded by papal brief in 1773.

Bibliomania, frantic competitive bidding for the best and rarest copies of early printed books, left a lasting impression on the most opulent eighteenth and nineteenth-century personal libraries.


Orderly minds

In the autumn of 1727, a group of friends in Philadelphia, gathered to discuss subjects of mutual interest drawn from their reading. Benjamin Franklin was the driving force. They pool their books into a single collection. In 1731 they expand their group to others if they pay a joining fee and annual subscription. Thus was born the Library Company of Philadelphia, the world’s first subscription library. In the next hundred years, subscription libraries proliferated in the American colonies, Britain and continental Europe.

These new, more democratic, circulating libraries were initially run by booksellers and functioned as an adjunct to their regular business.

The huge increase in the availability of books and the enormously increased numbers of readers – might seem to have offered much-needed impetus for the growth of public libraries. The most extensive growth of libraries took place in the former Puritan colonies of New England. That subscription libraries were rather slower to take off in England may partly be attributed to a rich hinterland of alternative institutions, coffee houses. The French cabinets de lecture fell somewhere between the anglophone subscription libraries and circulating libraries run by booksellers. In Germany there were Lesegesellschaften, reading societies.

In the eighteenth century, female readers were fast becoming a major force in the expanding book world.

The British and American subscription library, the German reading societies and the French cabinets were generally held in high esteem. This could not be said of their raucous alter ego, the circulating libraries. Circulating libraries were denounced as purveyors of pornography and books of brain-rotting triviality.

What we do see in this period is an enormous transformation in the overall size of the market for recreational reading.

For the fifty years between 1844 and 1894, the golden age of Victorian prose writing. Mudie possessed a quasi-monopoly over the supply of quality fiction. Charles Edward Mudie did pass up one major opportunity when in 1858 he declined an invitation from W. H. Smith to operate a network of railway libraries on Smith’s behalf. When Mudie declined his offer. Smith decided to run the new circulating libraries himself, thus starting a national institution that would persist until 1961.

Building empires

We have seen how European books were carried on the first voyages to the Americas by English Puritans and Spanish Jesuits. For those that carried them, books were a totem of civilization as much as tools to plant European culture in their new homes.

The nineteenth century, the great age of empire, was a critical era in the global development of library. The glories of empire were lauded in new national libraries, substantial collections erected to celebrate the cultural and literary achievements of each European nation.

A new breed of library builder, the robber barons of the rapidly industrializing United States of America.

In India circulating libraries grew under British empire. The pattern of library growth in India was replicated in the other colonies of the British Empire. In Cape Town, a government funded public library, opened in 1822, was turned into a subscription library seven years later.

The opportunities afforded by the colonial market were fully exploited by the publishers Macmillan, founded by two Scottish brothers in 1843.

In 1753, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Hans Sloane, offered his life’s work to the British nation. In 1795, the British Museum opened its doors. The museum remains host of national library until the foundation of the British Library in 1973.

In 1794, when Russia played its part in the third partition of Poland-Lithuania, its armies returned from Warsaw with the famous Zaluski library. The Zaluski library was one of the greatest libraries of Europe, with some 300.000 volumes.

For the first time in history, institutional libraries had become decisively larger than the best private collections.

Antonio Panizzi, the librarian of the British Museum articulated the role that a national library should play. A national library should aspire to be a universal collection of a nation’s book: those printed in the country, written by all authors of that nationality, written in the language of that nation, or dealing with its language and culture.

The symbolic association between the nation and its library has ensured that the concept of a national library continues to be of some relevance.

The rapidity with which the United State could build the most expensive library building in the world, and its confident presentation of American destiny, was characteristic of the Gilded Age, the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Reading on the job

If there is one figure who we associate with the success of public libraries then it must by Andrew Carnegies (1835-1919), the proud son of Dunfermline, Scotland. Carnegie brought little romance to the business of libraries, but much of the clear-minded rationality with which he had made his business fortune. He helped financing more than 3.000 Carnegie libraries in US and England and Scotland. A Carnegie library was a symbol of the community’s coming of age. Carnegie truly inaugurated the golden age of the public library.

On 14 February 1850, Mr. William Ewart rose from his seat in the British Parliament to introduce his bill ‘for enabling town councils to establish public libraries and Museums.

The growth of organized sport and the music hall represented further challenges to reading as a preferred leisure activity.

The most important institutional step in this era of library development was the opening in 1854 of the Boston Public Library. The Boston ideal, of libraries offered free to all citizens for the greater good society as a whole, had to struggle against the engrained practice of a commercially minded society entering a golden age of prosperity and international influence.

For liberal reformers like Henry Broughma, adult education was a critical weapon in the fight to raise up the new industrial poor.

French public libraries were big but badly managed. The extent to which these libraries fell short of an acceptable standard of curatorial care was vividly exposed by one of the most sordid scandals in the history of libraries – the Libri affair (around 1841 to 1848). Jean Aymon, known as Libri, was an Italian who spent most of his adult career in France. Aymon was unique in his exploitation of the negligence of the municipal libraries, but he exposed a systemic problem.

So, although in principle public libraries continued to favor serious works of history, geography and comprehensible technical and scientific books, by the 1890s, public libraries reported that between 65 and 90 per cent of books borrowed were works of fiction.

It was only after the WWI that the library shed its nineteenth-century identity as an instrument of social reform, and tentatively embraced a new role, as much as part of the entertainment industry as it was a source of enlightenment, improvement and redemption.

The war on books

Surviving the twentieth century

Hitler announced in 1933 a new public libraries program, focused particularly on small towns and villages.

Libraries were never just the innocent victims of war: they were themselves weaponized. At a time of total war, their role became more important than ever.

Destruction by bomb and fire would be the sad fate of many great libraries of Europe during the WWII, by far the most destructive epoch in the history of library.

Nazi regime destroyed majority of Jews literature, but they also wanted to collect some written record for future study of the enemy. Under Alfred Rosenberg the organization Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) collected more than 5 million volumes until the end of the war.

After the war German public libraries were stripped of around 4 million volumes. Almost 1 million went to Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Russia had lost 100 million books, France 20 million, Poland two thirds of its entire book stock, England lost 60 million only in 1943.

Wrestling with modernity

It was only after the war that the pleasures and plenty of peace challenged the role of the library. The twentieth century would be different. From the first days of radio and then cinema these were real competitors, not just for much-valued leisure time, but also for possession of the imaginative world once shaped primarily by print.

The first commercial radio station was established in the US in 1921. The BBC broadcast its first radio play in 1922.

Libraries also flourished because rising prosperity prevented consumers from having to choose between their modes of entertainment.

110 million copies of books were printed in the US in 1933, a figure that had more than doubled by 1943.

When it came to building library provision for rural areas, America once again leads the story. The first major initiatives to meet the needs of rural readers came with the establishment of a network of travelling libraries.

There was a danger, however, that while libraries embracing children, they were losing young adults. By the first half of the twentieth century the Mechanics’ Institutes and mercantile libraries had lost their crucial role in the educative and social world of the professional classes.

A good proportion of the first generation of public libraries in England were supplied with a separate ladies’ reading room. This was not generally the case in the United States. The removal of ladies’ rooms in British libraries took place mostly in the two decades before and after the 1919 Public Libraries Act.

The death of the circulating libraries (Smith’s in 1961 and Boots in 1966) led to an adjustment of the Mills & Boon business model, and in 1958 they made a tentative step into the paperback market. This proved hugely successful: in 1992, Mills & Boon still held a dominant market share as a publisher of romantic fiction, a staggering 85 per cent of the market.

The romance would eventually emerge triumphant as libraries realized they needed the readers of romances as much as the readers need the libraries.

Libraries, books and politics

All libraries are the product of a process of judicious selection.

Patriot Act in 2001, required libraries in the US to provide the department of Homeland Security with access to readers’ borrowing cards on request.

Even in highly controlled societies, reading is an individual activity. Libraries were always at the center of the Soviet project. In the 1980s, Russian readers gradually turned away from the public libraries.

In Czechoslovakia after the Communist takeover, 27.5 million books were removed from public libraries.

In India, as elsewhere in the former British colonies, libraries were initially intended to serve the needs of the European governing elite.

The post-war drive to establish libraries in the developing world received considerable impetus from the new world institutions promoting peace, principally UNESCO.

There was no doubt that in some circumstances, libraries provided the weapons of intellectual empowerment for nationalist movements.

There is no doubt that library strategists have a daunting task. They need to serve the current generation of users, while at the same time anticipating future need in an ever-changing media environment in which consumer habits constantly evolve.

Reading without books

The new Alexandria library collection remains stable at 2 million copies, well below the 8 million capacity, as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina serves as a symbol: of a worldwide commitment to the value of education as a means of empowerment, and the place of information at its heart.

The real problem is not the assault of the medium of the book, but the attack on our attention span.

By empowering the digital revolution, librarians have given up the one unique selling point which they defended so tenaciously for almost as long as we have had libraries; the right to apply their knowledge, taste and discrimination to assisting the choice of their patrons.

In 2020 there were 2.6 million institutional libraries worldwide, including 404.487 public libraries.

Those who entered the library did share one vital characteristic, in that they were by and large aspirational: the library was an instrument of social and personal improvement. It is the continuation of this tradition that ensures the vitality of the library in parts of the world where public provision is relatively novel.

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