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Library: An Unquiet History


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Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and a program fellow at the Berkman Center of Harvard University, where he is associate director of metaLAB, a research group exploring the bounds of networked culture.


Battles, a rare books librarian at Harvard University's Houghton Library, has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Book Review, London Review of Books, and Harper's Magazine. His elegantly written, ruminative history (parts of which appeared in Harper's as a January 2000 article "Lost in the Stacks: The Decline and Fall of the Universal Library") traces the fate of scrolls, tablets, books, and libraries from antiquity to the present day. "What I am looking for," he writes, "are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself." Battles shows how throughout history libraries have been places of controversy and change. Much like today, libraries of the past had to deal with access issues, cataloging, weeding, and censorship (fortunately for modern librarians, we don't have to be concerned with being buried or burned with our "questionable" collections!). Preservation librarians may feel a bit anxious as they read Battles's vivid accounts of how fires, wars, and other acts of destruction have shaped the library's current face. This is a great read, flowing over many time periods and geographic regions, from the great library at Alexandria to the war-ravaged libraries of Bosnia. For those librarians who long for the library of the past, this book is a must read. Strongly recommended for library history collections and many personal collections as well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/03.]-Tim Daniels, Library & Information Ctr., Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"One might expect a book that...[is] huge in scope and academically dry...Library is neither...[An] engaging book." -- BookPage "A must for every home or institutional collection." -- Kirkus Reviews "Elegantly written...A great read, flowing over many time periods and geographic regions." -- Library Journal "Battles turns an all-seeing telescope on the most spectacular galaxy in our intellectual heavens-that magnificent constellation of books we call a library-and brings into focus the brightest stars and blackest holes in its dynamic history." -- Richard Lederer, author of A Man of My Words

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. Agent, Susan Barry. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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