NOTES: I've just posted a new My Word's Worth column, "The Man Behind the Curtain, at http://marylaine.com/myword/curtain.html
Also, the web pages are up now for my book, Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet, at http://marylaine.com/book/index.html. The official date for publication is September 2. Remember, if anybody wants an autographed copy, e-mail me and I'll tell you how you can get the message you want inscribed, on a paste-in-able slip of paper with my caricature on it.
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LIBRARY: AN UNQUIET HISTORY: A REVIEW
Matthew Battles. Norton, 2003, 0-393-02029-0. $24.95. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
My primary reactions to this book are 1) amazement at how much effect on history libraries have had, and 2) wonderment that I got through library school and 22 years in the profession without learning most of this. I would argue for making this book required reading in LIS programs.
How is it that I learned about the library of Alexandria and Benjamin Franklin's library, but hardly any libraries in between? How is it that I didn't know about the libraries in the public baths of Rome, or the ancient libraries of China or the great Islamic libraries of the middle ages? Why did nobody tell me how much the Renaissance depended on the competitive library-building of first the Muslim elite of the middle ages and later the Italian nobles and popes of the Renaissance? Why did I never learn about the Buddhists who rendered their library impervious to fire and vandalism by inscribing it on stone, so that people could print their own copies by making rubbings?
Despite which, the history is in too many cases, deeply saddening. I learned a new word which I wish there was no need for from Battles: biblioclasm, the total destruction of entire collections of texts. The book reads like a litany of disaster, from the fire of the Great Library of Alexandria on up to the present (though the book was published before the destruction of Iraq's libraries).
The Spanish conquerors and priests wiped out every Mayan and Aztec text they could find; the Hapsburg emperor Charles V ordered the burning of all books in Arabic when he seized control of Tunis in 1536; the invading Chinese army razed the Tibetan monasteries and destroyed their libraries of sacred texts; Jewish libraries were looted and burned by the Nazis; the Tamil library of Jaffna in Sri Lanka was torched by Sinhalese nationalists in 1981; the Bosnian National and University library, whose treasures proved that Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims had lived together peacefully for centuries, was shelled and destroyed by Serbian nationalists (of which Bosnian poet Goran Simic, who gathered bits of the burned pages as they floated in the breeze, later wrote, "Set free from the stacks, characters wandered the streets/mingling with passers-by and the souls of dead soldiers").
The folks at Stanford who run the digital L.O.C.K.S.S. project -- http://lockss.stanford.edu/ -- are absolutely right: Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. As Battles says, "If the Ptolemies had not pursued their aggressive acquisitions policy in Alexandria, confiscating books from private readers and failing to return scrolls borrowed from other repositories for copying, many of the lost works might well have survived." This book is, unintentionally, a powerful argument for libraries making physical and digital copies of unique and valuable texts.
For all the long history of libraries, however, the keepers of the library did little more than organize and direct people to specific texts they already knew the names of. It was not until the 1800s, when Antonio Panizzi took over the British Library and insisted on completely recataloging its contents, that a librarian at last revealed the dense web of connections between books, "transform[ing] the library catalog," Battle says, "from an inventory into an instrument of discovery."
Battles also traces the rise of the public library, and the intellectual divisions among its overseers about its purpose -- was it to indoctrinate the masses with the values of capitalism, or to offer the means for entertainment, escape, and even happiness? Were librarians to help someone find "the class of works and ...precise author who has written as for him alone," as Emerson wished, or to "process the clay of untutored readers into the precious metals of a cultured elite," as Lloyd Smith suggested in "The Qualifications of a Librarian"? He makes it clear that the image of the daunting librarian was very much the approved model of the 19th century; no wonder after so long a history that image is so hard to shed.
To me, the most interesting story of all here is about the geniza of Cairo's synagogue, a "library" that was actually a burial place for worn, or no-longer-useful books, pamphlets, documents and letters that accumulated over a thousand years from the 9th century to the 19th. Protected for centuries by both the arid climate and the fact that people had forgotten its existence, it is an unparalleled record of the daily lives of Jews and the people of Cairo during those thousand years.
At the Taylor-Schector Genizah Research Unit, http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor-Schechter/, you can get some sense of both the richness and the randomness of what was saved by being thrown away: a 12th cenury listing of the "fabulous trousseau of the richest girl in the Genizah," a copy of a letter to Empress Helena of Byzantium about the oppression of the Jews from the 11th century; an lluminated page of a child's alphabet primer from the 11th century; a 16th century list of holy places in Eretz Israel, etc.
I would hope that reading this book makes us newly aware of how vulnerable even the greatest collections are, not just to fire but to the fires of political and religious passions. It should move us to give new thought to our preservation and disaster recovery plans, and to make absolutely sure our fire protection system is working.
But I would also hope that it encourages us to build durable relationships with all members of our communities. Because the fires could come again, and if they do, we will need all the friends we can find to help us rescue civilization from the flames.
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The centralization and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike. But great libraries are problematic in times of war, disaster or decay, for their fate becomes the fate of the literatures they contain. Much of what comes down to us from antiquity survived because it was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes.
Matthew Battles. Library: an Unquiet History. Norton, 2003.
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