“Library: An Unquiet History” by Matthew Battles

It’s getting close to finals time, and one of my projects this semester involved a Library Journal style book review on a book about libraries.  I chose Matthew Battles’ “Library:  An Unquiet History.”  Personally, I find the style of Library Journal reviews to be unnecessarily constraining, so I thought I’d take a moment here to ramble a bit about the book.

Battles, an eccentric Harvard Librarian, describes the history and evolution of libraries from the ancient world to the present.  While the book mentions the obvious stuff like the Library of Alexandria, I also learned a lot from it that I hadn’t read before in other places.  I didn’t know about book burnings of Aztec volumes; in fact, I hadn’t even realized that the Aztecs had so many written texts.  The author also mentioned a library found in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, which shows the resilience of libraries even under some of the most hostile conditions.

While I found the information to be fascinating, I thought that Battles writing was unnecessarily verbose and disorganized.  He jumps around a lot in both time and space, and a few times I found myself caught off guard thinking “Hey wait, weren’t you just talking about something going on an a different continent?”  There was also a tangent on Jonathan Swift that lasted a bit too long for my taste (not that Jonathan Swift isn’t awesome–he is–but it felt excessive).  It’s not that the book isn’t good, but I’m the sort of person who prefers a clear form of organization that doesn’t jump around so much.

Battles very clearly cares about his subject matter, but this book didn’t really do it for me.  At the same time, I can see why some people would enjoy it.  One of Battles’ strengths is that he brings up a lot of interesting anecdotes and historical details that get glossed over or aren’t mentioned in other similar books, and those anecdotes do give readers a sense of perspective.  His use of intellectual history to illustrate the changing purpose of the library shows how the very concept of a library has changed over time.

The history of libraries is something that interests me, and I wish it were more widely known.  I often hear that e-books are killing libraries, but at the same time, books like this one show the way that people have thought that libraries were dying for hundreds upon hundreds of years now.  Instead of doing so, they evolved to confront the challenges of their eras.

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Categories: History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on ““Library: An Unquiet History” by Matthew Battles

  1. I got this book for Christmas from a dear friend. It is sitting here at work next to me as I type this. I had intended to get to it before now but it just hasn’t worked out.

    • I think it’s the sort of book that’s meant to be read at a leisurely pace. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. I read this a couple of years ago and agree that it would be enjoyed more as a sort-of dipping into kind of book than a straight read – because of the disorganised approach that you found frustrating. Maybe Battles was aiming more for a “history” in a pre-Enlightenment style: musings, rather than careful categorising (which is a strange choice considering the presumed audience!) I haven’t read much library history so I really enjoyed the fascinating snippets – and the breadth of coverage. The edition you reviewed (is it the American edition or the hardback?) has a great cover image.

    • I think that I’d have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so rushed; a lot of the anecdotes were very interesting, but they also went all over the place. I read the Kindle edition, actually, because I wanted to see what it was like reading a book for a class on Kindle and using it to highlight and take relevant notes. One of the down sides to e-books is that with the e-ink, you never get a color version of the cover… ah well.

  3. Interesting post, particularly the part about how libraries have had to evolve. I adore libraries – but more interesting books in them are always a bonus!

    • Thanks! Libraries are currently facing a lot of challenges because of the digital world, but I think it’s important to remember that libraries have always faced challenges and played different roles as technology changed. 🙂

      • Couldn’t agree more. in the UK, the libraries are under threat of closure, but pressure from lobby groups combined with the history of a library and what it means to a community and to education is winning through. Many closures have now been revoked!

  4. This sounds like my kind of nonfiction. Thanks for the review.

  5. I’m surprised by the Aztecs as well. I would have thought they had more oral traditions and stories. I learned something today!

    • I was surprised by a lot of things I read here, which was neat because I’d read other books on the history of libraries. But yeah, I had also thought it would be more of an oral tradition type deal. I think we seriously underestimate a lot of Native American groups because the Europeans wiped out so much of their culture…

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