The history and future of libraries is a story of fire. Many have heard of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. It may have been burned by Arab invaders or started by Julius Ceasar to forestall an invasion. In Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles observes that book burnings are not always fatal to knowledge. The burnings inspire the writing of other books. Also, while many books are lost over time to natural decay, scrolls blackened by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 are now being reclaimed using spectral photography. As he concludes his first powerful chapter, “the most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned.”
The pattern of burning and advancement of libraries is likewise true of the twentieth century. Book burnings were popular in Nazi Germany where incongruent thought was fatally punished. However, the need to sort one kind of book from another created “a perverse golden age for librarians”. Battles observes that German librarians attempted to redirect the Nazi idea of the Volk to promote the public nature of libraries.
Fire is a combustion of material releasing energy. No doubt librarians have made efforts to protect their collections from physical fire, but fire is also symbolic of other kinds of change. We think that information overload is a modern problem. The history of libraries could be considered a series of innovations in the face of that problem, from the pressmarks of Antonio Panizzi to Melvil Dewey’s precisely measured card catalogues. Fire also runs in the electrons of today’s digital libraries, but it is a conceit to think that they are the only ones to innovate.
Battle’s history of libraries treats many other subjects. He talks with affection of his library at Harvard. “The people who shelve the books in Widener talk about the library’s breathing — at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of the term, the library inhales, and the books fly back.” Battles also traces the co-evolution of libraries and readers, trending toward the ideal of a universal library. Not just one big library, or the same library everywhere, but a gradual progression of libraries toward free and open knowledge for everyone.
I read Battle’s history once when I started library school, and once again now that I have finished. Fitting book ends. Recommended for all devotees of books, libraries, and history.