Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review: Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles chronicles, you guessed it, the history of the library! The book follows the evolution of the “book” from clay tablets to today’s more recognizable codex form. It tracks the cultural significance and rising symbolism associated with libraries over time such as elitist, propaganda machines, scenes of victory and democracy.  It subtly confronts and debunks myths and stereotypes about these people we call librarians and the mystical auras that surround the library.

I read this book for an intro course for my MLS degree. It’s one of my favorite reads so far. I liked the overview this text provided and felt it gave me insight into how traditions have influenced the field of librarianship, the relationship between the library and its users and the library’s function.

While each chapter has a theme the book more or less moves chronologically forward making the narrative fairly easy to follow. While the text is literary and not a textbook there were times when the prose gets a bit tedious, especially with the ancient quotes and digressions. These digressions held up the flow for me. The middle section began to lose my interest and I read quickly to get through.

The later chapters really began to shine. The chapter “Knowledge On Fire” was fun in a demented sort of way. Who knew libraries were such targets and have endured one physical attack after another. Books have been burned, lost, recovered and recreated so that even when some wish for a text’s destruction it proves to be an incredibly difficult task to actually burn a book out of existence. I didn’t know anything about libraries in ghettos during the WWII and found this section fascinating.

What I enjoyed most is the characterization of famous librarians, scholars and certain libraries. I met some people I never heard about like Panizzi whose radical ideas for cataloging made him unpopular with some and beloved by others. The chapter with Dewey, famous for the Dewey Decimal System, was fun and interesting as well.

This is a book written by a lover of libraries. As my classmates and I decided, it’s philosophical as much as it’s historical. It’s emotional and nostalgic as much as it is factual and informative. I certainly fall within the targeted audience and I felt it was a worthwhile read.
Publisher: Norton, 2003    Pages: 245
Rating: 3.5 Stars        Source: Purchased from Amazon


  1. I saw this on Amazon awhile ago and thought it looked really good. Glad to hear it was part of your class!

  2. The first book we read for school was Johnson's "This Book Is Overdue" so that was a fun introduction.

  3. This sounds fabulous. I will have to add it to my TBR list. Thanks for posting this!