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Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew…
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Library: An Unquiet History (2003)

by Matthew Battles

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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Battles offers a history of libraries as the site of violence against books, whether through burning, destruction, censorship, ruthless editing, or innumerable efforts to control their content, classification, and availability to readers. A counternarrative--the preservation of written / printed material--often overlaps, indistinguishably, the disquieting parts of this history.

Many slow bits in the middle, and Battles has a hypnotic tendency to segue from one vignette to another (I often found myself 4-5 paragraphs into a new story before realizing that I couldn't remember who it was about or why we'd moved onto talking about them), but things really pick up speed in the final chapter.

The book is organized more or less chronologically--one chapter each for antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 17th-20th centuries--but mercifully a comprehensive history is not Battles' aim. He picks out and muses on representative ideas, writings, and histories from each era, noting connections across time, space, and seemingly disparate philosophies of the library and what/why it is.

Unsurprisingly (or should it be?) Battles was involved in developing the Digital Public Library of America. I found his continual references to Harvard's Widener Library as "the universal library" irritating, until the last chapter revealed the string of references as a setup for this:

Ultimately, even the universal library is less a true compendium of the totality of human knowledge--less a model of the universe--than simply another kind of ritual representation of the collective wisdom."

I wonder if he's since changed his mind, whether acknowledging the futility of aiming at universality in fact freed him to believe that a project like DPLA could succeed.

Based on his current work--PI at Harvard's MetaLab, Berkman Center Fellow--Battles has likely updated his thinking about digital preservation and the role of libraries since writing Library. Here's a line imagining a role for new [digital] media in cultural heritage:

Perhaps present-day written texts, translated immediately into these evanescent digital media, will be preserved for future generations. But won't those generations be as concerned to preserve the framing data that gloss and illuminate those texts?" (p. 212)

Library was published in 2003; the 10 years since have seen the turnover of many generations, technologically speaking. These days few question the need to preserve digital material, although NDIPP and other organizations still work hard to emphasize the scope of appropriate preservation (e.g. software environments or platforms matter). The past few weeks' NSA revelations seem to have introduced the general public to the concept of metadata and how revealing / dangerous / useful / meaningful it can be. Reading Library at this particular moment makes me wonder if--or know that--we continue to live in dangerous times for the pursuit of knowledge, for the social life of information. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
I picked this book up in a discount bin a few years ago. I figured I would read it the summer before my first semester of library school and be ready to crush the program with my awesome knowledge of library stuff. So here I am, a week before my final semester of school, finally reading and reviewing this title. The plans of mice and men...

Read full review on my blog: http://jmnz.us/19hQs7F ( )
  cjime008 | Aug 15, 2013 |
I think Battles would be the guy in the office party (probably a spouse) who corners everyone who stands still so he can lecture at them. He's from the local university, and he sincerely thinks you're interested.

You wish you were because the topic is interesting enough and you have plenty of things to say about it, but he just wants to recite the bibliography of his thesis at you, and you can't tell what he thinks about it, or get a word in edgewise. ( )
  MarieAlt | Mar 31, 2013 |
What I hoped for was a chronological description of libraries, from the ancient world to the modern. What I found was a somewhat disjointed essay about one librarian's thoughts about libraries and their purpose, both in the past and today (and in the future), with a smattering of interesting historical facts thrown in here and there. What is there is interesting, and worth reading, but this book could have been so much more. ( )
  tnilsson | Jan 25, 2013 |
Library has such potential but disappointingly falls neatly into a stereotypicallu dry, old-school and out-of-touch librarian's rant. Moreso, it's not really so much of a history as it is a reflection on several different ancient libraries. Tried as I might, I couldn't come away with anything worth mentioning. ( )
  matthew254 | Sep 27, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
"Library: An Unquiet History" explores the creation of libraries, beginning with the clay-tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, and proceeds to the destruction of libraries, culminating in the wars of the 20th century that shamelessly wiped out entire collections. Battles examines the two competing notions of the library's mission: the library as temple for the best and most beautiful works, and the library as a place where all knowledge is brought together under one roof. He looks at the library in Islam, in the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, across centuries and cultures.
 
In this sweeping view of library history, Harvard librarian Matthew Battles provides a beautifully written story of the often-tumultuous saga of books and book-places in the world. Written first as an essay published in Harper's; this study grew into a book-length treatment, an admirable overview of the large issues facing libraries over the past couple of thousand years.
 
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Epigraph
"The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (or even humble and pure coherence) is a miraculous exception." -Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"
Dedication
For my family and for Ken Carpenter Keeper of Books
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When I first went to work in Harvard's Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393325644, Paperback)

"Splendidly articulate, informative and provoking....A book to be savored and gone back to."—Baltimore Sun

On the survival and destruction of knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet. Through the ages, libraries have not only accumulated and preserved but also shaped, inspired, and obliterated knowledge. Matthew Battles, a rare books librarian and a gifted narrator, takes us on a spirited foray from Boston to Baghdad, from classical scriptoria to medieval monasteries, from the Vatican to the British Library, from socialist reading rooms and rural home libraries to the Information Age.

He explores how libraries are built and how they are destroyed, from the decay of the great Alexandrian library to scroll burnings in ancient China to the destruction of Aztec books by the Spanish—and in our own time, the burning of libraries in Europe and Bosnia.

Encyclopedic in its breadth and novelistic in its telling, this volume will occupy a treasured place on the bookshelf next to Baker's Double Fold, Basbanes's A Gentle Madness, Manguel's A History of Reading, and Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:09 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"From the clay-tablet collections of ancient Mesopotamia to the storied Alexandria libraries in Egypt, from the burned scrolls of China's Qing Dynasty to the book pyres of the Hitler Youth, from the great medieval library in Baghdad to the priceless volumes destroyed in the multi-cultural Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the library has been a battleground of competing notions of what books mean to us. Battles explores how, throughout its many changes, the library has served two contradictory impulses: on the one hand, the urge to exalt canons of literature, to secure and worship the best and most beautiful words; on the other, the desire to contain and control all forms of human knowledge."… (more)

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