The Library: An Illustrated History

The Library: An Illustrated History

By: Stuart A.P. Murray
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication Date: July 2009
ISBN: 978-1602397064
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: October 2010

This may be the most beautiful book—and the saddest—that a bibliophile will ever read. Most beautiful because it’s illustrated on nearly every page with paintings, drawings, and photographs of libraries around the world. Saddest because so many of those libraries have, over the centuries, been sacked, bombed, or burned.

The Library opens with an account of the discovery, in 1853, of the world’s first library. As gangs of diggers worked in the ruins of Nineveh, they found inscribed terracotta tablets in the palace of Assurbanipal (625-587 BCE), the last ruler of Assyria. The next twelve chapters take us into libraries all around the world and in nearly all cultures and nations, from the ancient world to medieval and modern Europe and Asia, from Timbuktu to the New World. (The only nations not mentioned are those in sub-Saharan Africa and South America outside Brazil.) We read about the horrific effects of wars and crusades on libraries and books and about the library movement of the 19th century (mainly), when public libraries were established all over the world. Although the author describes ancient and vanished libraries in the Fertile Crescent, Alexandria, and Aksun (Ethiopia), he also discusses the digitizing of books in the 21st century. (Strangely, this book needs better editing or proofreading, as there are occasional typos.) The book concludes with page-long descriptions, most of them with pictures, of “the libraries of the world”—fifty institutions, including public libraries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia; specialized libraries (the Folger Shakespeare, the Huntington, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam), national libraries (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan), and the oldest standing library (St. Gall in Switzerland, built in 719, rebuilt in 973).

Indeed, you’ll probably want to have paper and pencil in hand as you read The Library because you’ll learn something on every single page. In Roman times, librarii “meant publishers, copyists, and book-sellers (the book trade), not buildings or book collections.” The Romans invented the codex (or scroll) but “legend has it that Julius Caesar was the first to fold scrolls, concertina-like fashion.” Eventually the folds were cut, making “leaves,” or pages, which were bound together and “protected by stiff covers, usually of wood enclosed with leather.” Codex is Latin for “a block of wood.” Both the Latin liber (the root of “library”) and the German Buch (the source of “book”) refer to wood. The Greek biblion (“book”) is the source of “bibliophile,” “bibliography,” and “bibliotheque,” in many languages the word for library (pgs. 24-27). We also learn that El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial (1563, near Madrid) was the first library to put the shelves against the walls instead of perpendicular to them and that King Philip II kept reshelving the books with their spines in to protect them from the sun. The Sorbonne in Paris was the first library to alphabetize books by title. And there’s a drawing of a nifty medieval contraption called a “book wheel.” This revolving bookstand let a reader study a dozen books, which were chained to the perimeter of the wheel (which seems to be as tall as a man), at the same time by turning the wheel.

As he takes us along his multi-century, multi-national tour of the world of books, the author also repeats what wise men have written about books. Sir Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested.” Danish physician A. Bartholini: “Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, natural science at a stand, philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things involved in darkness” (pg. 81). What else is there to say?

Quill says: The Library should be in the hands of every elected official (including school board members) and voter who is even thinking about defunding or closing a library or shortening its hours. Keep our libraries open! We need them!

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