Monday, September 12, 2016

"Library: An Unquiet History" by M. Battles

Fluetsch, Christopher

Battles, M. (2015). Library: An unquiet history. NewYork: W.W. Norton & Company.

Battle’s Library is a tremendous book about the history of libraries, both as physical locations and as philosophical ideas. The writing is clear, though sometimes Battles’ training as an academic writer comes through a little more than one might hope. The book is a wide ranging history, from some of the oldest collection of texts, like Sumerian cuneiform tablets, to modern digital libraries.
While the focus of the text is not specifically collection development, there are many implications for practice scattered throughout history. I found the section on medieval and Renaissance libraries to be especially compelling. It was at this time that the practice of library collection development became a profession, albeit a rare one. Italy of the 15th and 16th centuries had people who made their living out of providing libraries for rich patrons. The libraries of the day were as much about ostentatious displays of power and wealth as they were storehouses of knowledge.
The author also spends a number of pages on the fight within the British Library that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, between those who felt the collection should contain the great works of antiquity, placing much more emphasis on the importance of authority, versus those who thought the library should make an effort to seek out and acquire new books and modern research. The questions of how to use scarce resources and fill limited space is not a new one!
The author also deals with movements to restrict access to information and declare some form of knowledge “forbidden,” both in older days and today. Collection development always has to take into account community standards and expectations, and a fuller understanding of changes expectations over time can only help today’s library professionals better understand the world in which we work.
Sometimes, thinkers of the past would argue against libraries on the basis that book were no substitute for human interaction. This is reflected in today’s arguments about the use of information technology, especially among young people. Histories like Library help provide perspective on modern problems and discussions. Each generation seems to discover two things anew: sex and disapproval of the young.
This is not a book I would recommend for the general reading public, because of its highly specialized content. However, as a librarian, I found it fascinating and very much enjoyed learning about all the ways today’s library challenges mirror those from the past.

253 pages, including index. Softcover $8.19 on Amazon.

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