Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Library: A World History

The Library: A World HistoryThe Library: A World History by James W.P. Campbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would be easy, yet criminally dismissive, to merely tell you about how gorgeous the pictures are in this book. Don't get me wrong, they are gorgeous, and those who are addicted to "book porn" will need a lifetime of therapy to get unhooked, but this book is so much more than pretty pictures.

A simple chronology doesn't do it justice, either. Yes, Campbell outlines the history and evolution of libraries from the earliest antecedents in Mesopotamia to the most modern libraries of both hemispheres (with the notable exception of the University of Chicago's Joe and RIka Mansueto Library - I guess you can't cover them all in one book). But this book is much more than a simple history.

Really, the core of the book is the manner in which mankind goes about collecting, protecting, and cataloging knowledge in written form. It is not comprehensive, and the underlying themes are presented in such a subtle way as to go almost un-noticed amongst all the data that is presented. But make no mistake about it, Campbell's work here is not a mere recounting of the many buildings that make up the libraries of history. It is a map through the maze of the ever-changing ideas of privilege, egalitarianism, the interface between civilization and nature, the interplay between trust in the good of mankind and the fear of man's greed, and the monumental (I use the word literally) expression of the human race's physical interaction with the texts of its intellectual achievements and struggles.

There are intriguing tidbits that point the way through this maze, but they are never obvious or pedantic. For instance, the earliest monastic libraries housed the collected knowledge of much of Christian civilization to that point, but it was in these same libraries that books were chained to desk-mounted rods in order to prevent theft or, more likely, the temptation for an enterprising monk to sell books to an outsider (It took the skins of 250 sheep to make enough parchment for a copy of the Bible), spurning his vows of poverty. Here, we don't just have a clinical recounting of methods of theft-prevention, we have an emblem of the internal struggle between religiosity and human nature. And though libraries were open to the "public" (read: "good" citizens) back in the Renaissance, it wasn't until the 1890's that library patrons were routinely allowed to browse books. Both of these factors (chained books and controlled patronage) had profound effects on the physical building itself.

Campbell's specialty is architecture, not information science. I was fascinated by his take on the building of libraries, but a little disappointed at the lack of emphasis on the collections themselves. Still, without buildings, you have no library. The skin and bones are important, as they contain the other organs and protect them from the outside environment, as well as providing a chassis in which the engine can operate.

But my metaphors are getting away from me. Forgive me. I'm slipping into metaphorical usage because I want to highlight the danger of reading this work as a straight data set, which would confine it to beautiful banalities. And, again, it is so much more than that.

This book is a treasure-chest (it better be, for what I paid for it!). This became apparent before I even received it, as it was backordered through University of Chicago press not more than a month after it was published. Apparently there was a greater demand than the press anticipated, probably based largely on the lovely photographs contained therein. The beauty of the artifact itself is obvious. But the hidden beauty, what I would term the "deep knowledge" hidden between the interstices of the text, that, THAT is where the real treasure lies!

And there's plenty to go around . . .

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