Library history used to be the sleepiest of all academic disciplines. Compared with the gripping narratives of military or political history, it offered a fairly banal plot line: usually something about Andrew Carnegie or some other public benefactor erecting lighthouses of knowledge here and there. Except for the occasional fire in the stacks, there were few thrills in this story.
In the past 20 years, however, the field has suddenly become very exciting indeed, leaping into the vanguard of cultural history. Now historians are studying the libraries you scarcely knew existed: prison libraries in the age of Dickens, miners’ libraries in the coalfields of South Wales, labor-camp libraries in Stalin’s Russia, Jim Crow libraries in the Old South, polar libraries in the Arctic and Antarctic, ghetto libraries in the Holocaust.
If your postmodern friends doubt that library history is indeed cutting-edge (they’ll probably offer bromides about "the death of the book"), you can impress them by citing Michel Foucault, who emphasized the importance of understanding how society preserves, classifies, and discards texts. Foucault never bothered to study actual libraries (he was more of an ideas man), but once you accept his premise, the library becomes central to the project of investigating culture. We have come to realize that we cannot understand ancient Mesopotamia, Ptolemaic Egypt, Moorish Spain, the French Revolution, or Sinclair Lewis’s America unless we know which books were up there on the shelves, and who was allowed to read them.
Matthew Battles, coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin at Houghton Library, has now produced, for a lay audience, a distillation of this fascinating and innovative body of scholarship. He shows that the delicious sense of peace that pervades any great library is, in an important sense, deceptive. Library: An Unquiet History is above all a story of conflict. Yes, libraries are temples of learning, but they can also be political, imperial, theological, or racial battlegrounds. In that sense, the new library history is intriguing-ly revisionist.
We all know about the celebrated ancient library at Alexandria, which was burned accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. Or was it? That fire may actually have affected only a small fraction of its 700,000-scroll collection. Visitors’ accounts suggest that the library was still functioning well after Caesar’s death. Another version tells us that the library was destroyed by Arab conquerors when they seized the city in A.D. 641. But that story may have been concocted by a twelfth-century Muslim chronicler as an alibi for Saladin, who was selling libraries to finance his war with the Crusaders. Battles concludes that the library was likely burned more than once but, in the long run, probably fell victim to more mundane forces. The scrolls were written in ancient languages that, over the centuries, were forgotten. The pagan philosophies they debated were not considered worth preserving in the Christian era. This, typically, is how libraries end: occasionally with a bang or a sudden conflagration, but more often as the cumulative result of neglect, vermin, losses, dispersal, and decay.
At any rate, new library historians find the political role of the Alexandrine library more significant than its incineration. Battles describes it as a kind of institute for advanced study, where scholars on royal pensions could pursue research free of teaching obligations, in a climate of exceptional academic freedom, and exchange ideas in a common dining hall. Of course, the Ptolemies did not underwrite this expensive project out of a Carnegiesque sense of philanthropy. They aimed to acquire a weapon that could be used in the power struggles of the Mediterranean world: an information monopoly, particularly in the strategic fields of engineering, medicine, and religion. Hence they concentrated all the best minds of the region in one place, confiscated books from travelers, and banned the export of papyrus to stifle rival libraries at Rhodes and Pergamum. (The Pergamenes got around that embargo by inventing parchment.)
Students of globalization should note that the United States today maintains world hegemony by fairly similar means: subsidizing research, importing foreign experts, and enforcing intellectual property laws. Cyberphonies endlessly reiterate that ours is an "information society," but new library historians know what the Ptolemies knew: that every literate society in human history has been an information society. We have always used information to exert power, distribute wealth, create technology, preserve memory, and communicate ideas. Marx was wrong once again: the key is control of knowledge rather than of the means of industrial production. That is why historians are refocusing their attention on treasuries of intellectual capital.
Battles does precisely that for the general readerconcisely, vividly, and memorably. He walks you through controversies that once engaged only specialists, and makes them unexpectedly interesting. The history of cataloging may sound soporific, but he shows that the organization of books is an intriging intellectual problem that took centuries to work out. Librarians still debate, with ideological fierceness, whether catalogs should use "dysmenorrhea" or "menstrual cramps" as a subject heading. Battles shows that Melvil Dewey devised his ingenious decimal system of classification as part of a much vaster plan to create a huge social machine for the efficient delivery of knowledge. To that end he founded the American Library Association and launched the nation’s first library school, at Columbia University. He set up a firm to supply libraries with labor-saving equipment, everything from card files to date stamps. He propagandized for phonetic spelling, shorthand, and the metric system, and his lectures were clocked at 180 words per minute.
All societies are information societies, but until recently only Dewey and other pioneering librarians fully understood the importance of classification and retrieval. In the 1890s Dewey devised a desk with 120 pigeonholes and paper slips coded in five colorsa remarkable anticipation of today’s workstations. John Dee, a celebrated scholar in Elizabethan England, introduced into his vast personal library a cross-referencing system that astonishingly foreshadowed hypertext. It remained only for the hardware to catch up.
Of course, you can also corner the market for knowledge by burning books, which Battles treats as a universal human habit. Shi Huangdi, the emperor who unified China in the third century B.C., consolidated his authority by destroying private libraries and (frequently) the scholars who owned them. Early followers of the Koran burned rival scriptural texts. When the Aztecs conquered Mexico they destroyed their own histories: now that they constituted a great empire, they wanted to erase evidence of their nomadic past. The Spanish conquistadores would in turn burn nearly all of the Aztec books, realizing too late that they had wiped out the kind of ethnographic information that can be extremely valuable to imperial administrators. That mistake was not repeated by the British, who meticulously preserved and studied Indian texts.
The most devastating "biblioclasm" of all time was carried out by the Nazis, who in 12 years destroyed an estimated 100 million volumes throughout occupied Europe. The book burnings one sees in newsreel footage were only the beginning. German students celebrated the bonfires as a perverse academic ritual, a kind of anti-commencement. In one case firemen threw kerosene on the flamesquite possibly the inspiration for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For a long time Joseph Goebbels did not publish lists of forbidden books, a Machiavellian strategy for keeping librarians and private citizens in constant anxiety: because they did not know which titles the stormtroopers would rip from their shelves, they preemptively censored themselves, often burning their own books.
The Nazis temporarily permitted some libraries to function in the Jewish ghettos, perhaps to distract the residents from the inevitable. Library annual reports as a genre are usually dull, with their pie charts and bar graphs, but the report filed by the Vilna ghetto library in September 1942 is devastating. You read there that patrons frequently borrowed War and Peace, trying to make sense of the present conflict, and you know that within a year they will all be shipped to the camps.
The literary holocaust certainly did not stop at Jewish libraries. Collections in occupied Poland and Ukraine typically suffered losses in the range of 80 to 100 percent. Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg had his own team of official looters, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, who raided collections throughout Europe, seizing some books for German libraries but destroying most of them.
The Nazis understood what Battles understands: national consciousness is incarnated in books, therefore you can erase a people from history by wiping out their libraries. Just 50 years later, with the same motive, Serbian nationalists launched a barrage of incendiary shells at the Bosnian National and University Library in Sarajevo. András Riedlmayer, who works at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, has taken a leading role in the Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project (www.kakarigi.net/manu/ingather.htm), which catalogs the losses and tries to find replacements. At least book burning is now considered a war crime: Riedlmayer has testified in the trial of former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic.
Given those dangers, a library is not always the best place to preserve books. In Jewish tradition, obsolete volumes were not destroyed but interred in a geniza, a kind of literary tomb which has proven to be a gold mine for bibliographers. The geniza preserved books which, in a working library, might have been misplaced, stolen, used until they fell to pieces, deaccessioned, or never acquired in the first place. An equally remarkable find is a 2000-scroll collection excavated in the Roman city of Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Most of the books survived only as charred fragments, but now even these can be deciphered using digital imaging techniques. "The most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned," Battles concludes, with some wonderment. But then the new library history is full of counterintuitive ironies.
Jonathan Rose’s most recent book is The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which won the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Longman-History Today Historical Book of the Year Prize. He is also the editor of The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, and coeditor of the journal Book History. He teaches history at Drew University.