Library: An Unquiet History


Matthew Battle’s book about libraries took me ages to read because for the first time in months I had to read a book and somehow the requirement made the reading feel like a burden. It ought not to have, Library considers topics I find fascinating: the institutionalization of knowledge; the determination of how best to represent, preserve and promote culture/cultural artifacts; the violence inherent in the control of information; the political power attained and wielded through public institutions (of knowledge).

Granted Battle’s focus on particular figures in the history of the library from Alexander the Great through Melville Dewey casts an unnecessary focus on biographies of great men and distracts from the much more interesting questions about social and political use of spaces/places designed and used for the (at different times and to varying degrees) organization, preservation and dissemination of information. I found myself losing interest in the long sections on the influential role of x or y figure and rallying my focus for the conclusion to these lengthy biographies when Battles returned to analysis, critique and commentary on the various movements in history of the library, rather than in descriptions of them.

I know a little more about the ways libraries have been used – both literally and ideologically – but the more important outcome of reading the book might be that I am much more cognizant of the kinds of questions we might ask of public institutions, in particular those institutions purported to allow access to information and resources.


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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read

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