The Library: A Fragile History

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Profile Books, £25

Review by Alan Taylor

In another existence – and another millennium – I was a librarian. It is a mark on my curriculum vitae that I am proud to share with Casanova, Mao Tse-Tung and J Edgar Hoover. My first job was in a branch library off Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, which had a characterful clientele. Lodged in my memory is an elderly woman called Daisy Miller who turned up more or less daily for a fix of Netta Muskett and Catherine Cookson, the latter being the then mainstay of the public library.

Later, once I had acquired the necessary certificates, I was to be found in the reference department of the Carnegie-funded Central Library on George IV Bridge. It was a magnificent room and the collection was no less impressive. All and sundry flocked through its portals, some simply to seek shelter, others in search of information or diversion. It was the most democratic of institutions, free at the point of use, the embodiment of an enlightened, civilised society. That anyone could question its worth seemed to me a definition of philistinism.

Some did, of course, such as the Fife-based “think tank”, the Adam Smith Institute, which proposed introducing fees. We were in the era of Thatcher and everything upon which cohesive communities were built was vulnerable.


In The Library: A Fragile History, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, both of the University of St Andrews, make no mention of the ideologues on their doorstep but do acknowledge that “the economic tribulation” of the 1960s and 1970s squeezed public finances and brought about “the first sustained downturn in the fortunes of the public library”. They argue – persuasively – that a consequence of this was the evolution of libraries “from an essential institution for the promotion of learning and civilising values, to a branch of the social services”. Sensing the direction of travel, and having no desire to be a social worker, I threw my toys out of the pram and metamorphosed into a journalist. It could have been worse, I suppose; I could have become director of the FBI.

The key word in Pettegree and Weduwen’s subtitle is “fragile”. As they demonstrate, libraries have, since time immemorial, been subject to forces outwith their custodians’ control and have often been the hapless victims of war, fire, flood, pestilence, theft, neglect, the vagaries of inheritance and the invasiveness of nature, ignorance and prejudice.

They begin with the fabled library of Alexandria (in Egypt, not Dunbartonshire), which is believed to have existed around the third century BC. No-one knows exactly the extent of its collection but estimates suggest it housed around 200,000 scrolls; there may have been as many as half a million. Even by modern standards these were phenomenal accumulations, requiring organised accessioning, systematic cataloguing and a cadre of talented scholars engaged as librarians. What happened to the library is lost in the mists of time. Pettegree and Weduken’s best guess is that it was destroyed during a Roman invasion.

Over the centuries since, libraries became the preserve of the rich and powerful who, in the medieval heyday of illuminated manuscripts, were intent on outdoing rivals and impressing visitors. The libraries which they built were often as ornate as churches and galleries but little provision was made for those who wanted to read and study in them. Such are the vanities of the rich. Access to the libraries amassed by American millionaires in the 19th century, for example, was restricted to “gentleman scholars”. The oil magnate Henry Folger was just one among several who refused to pander to the great unwashed, never allowing anyone to inspect his unrivalled collection of Shakespeare First Folios. Only after his death in 1930 was the peerless Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC inaugurated.

Scotland has, library-wise, a laudable history. As far back as the early years of the 18th century, James Kirkwood, a Presbyterian minister driven by a desire to replace Catholic Mass books, founded 77 libraries open to the public across the Highlands and Islands. What scuppered further expansion was the reluctance of the local population to submit to Protestant indoctrination.

HeraldScotland: Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie

Much better known is the movement inspired by Andrew Carnegie whose vast wealth allowed him to endow thousands of libraries in the UK and US. An adept deal-maker, he offered seed money in exchange for a commitment by local authorities to run libraries. Reprehensible as some of his business practices may have been, his contribution to the growth of libraries is immeasurable.

As is made clear in The Library, the fortunes of libraries cannot be divorced from those of the book. In the eighth century, Charlemagne encouraged monks to reproduce popular texts. Thus, libraries were needed to accommodate them. In the 1450s, the invention of printing by moveable type by Gutenberg suddenly made books affordable to many more people and the number of private libraries grew exponentially.

Pettegree and Weduken describe 1880-1960 as “the great age of the public library”, and it would be churlish to disagree, despite the damage done to them by two world wars and the determined efforts of prudes to exorcise books in which sex was detected. The lifting of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 was a watershed, not only for British society and the reading public but also for public libraries. Change, however, came dropping slow. When I first worked in libraries, DH Lawrence’s novel was kept in a locked glass case alongside car manuals and guides to tropical fish, not, as I was assured, to prevent it reaching the mitts of impressionable readers but to thwart thieves. For all I know it is still there.

It is a reminder of the book’s ability to endure, as it has done for centuries, seeing off along the way, as the authors triumphantly write, “many of the technological pall-bearers sent to conduct it to the crematorium”. Few inventions can claim such longevity. And where there are books, there will be libraries, of that we can be assured.

Pettegrew and Weduken’s handsome book, which is lucidly written, mercifully free of jargon and international in its ambition, ought to be in every one of them.