Posts Tagged With: libraries

“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

Farewell, Britannica!

I had planned on posting a normal review today, but decided instead to comment on Encyclopedia Britannica’s decision to discontinue print editions of their encyclopedias.  Most of the articles that I’ve read so far are critical of the change, but I don’t think that it’s a bad thing.

The problem with print encyclopedias is that they are bulky, expensive, and are out-of-date from the moment that they are published.  The online editions of Britannica are written with the same level of expertise and are vetted by scholars, but errors can be corrected as soon as they are discovered and the encyclopedias can be updated to reflect current events.  You can’t pick up a print copy of Britannica and read about the Fukushima meltdown, but such information is provided through the digital version.

From a library reference perspective, it’s just as easy (if not easier) to look something up from an online version of Britannica, and you are providing better quality information.  Focusing on the digital edition also solves the problem of shelving space from having to buy new physical reference books each year as the new editions are published.  It seems a waste to have to weed out old encyclopedias to make room for the new when one can simply provide access to an updated digital version.

What are your thoughts?  Is a print encyclopedia still relevant?

Categories: Other | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments

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