Our Academic Libraries and ‘The Library: A Fragile History’

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The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwe

Published in November of 2021.

The Library: A Fragile History is ambitious in its scope and detail-oriented in its execution. The book traces the entire history of libraries, inclusive of private, state, public, and academic libraries.

The Library can be read in several ways. The book is a history of the idea of the library, but also as a chronicle of how the physical form of the library has evolved. The Library helps us understand the place of libraries throughout history in nations, communities, and institutions (such as colleges and universities), as well as what the evolution of the library says about the places and cultures in which they are embedded.

The Library can also be read as a history of the book. From manuscripts (most often created by skilled monastic scribes) to the 15th-century invention by Gutenberg of movable type printing to the current digital e-book age, the stories of the library and the book cannot be separated.

Most of the attention in The Library is paid to the evolution of the physical book and of printing and the impact of these changes on the purpose and design of libraries. It is perhaps ironic then that the optimal medium to read The Library is likely as an audiobook.

At 528 pages, The Library may deter even the most dedicated bibliophile and library enthusiasts from tackling. While long at 15 hours and 24 minutes, the audiobook is an absolute pleasure to spend time with, thanks in no small part to the compelling narration of voice actor Sean Barrett.

I listened to The Library during a series of long e-bike rides on the rural roads surrounding the academic library where I have my office, an experience that I highly recommend no matter where your office (or academic library) is located.

One of the themes of The Library is the consistency of predictions throughout our history of the imminent death of the library.

Libraries, and especially public and academic libraries, are perhaps most notable for their resiliency. To read the global history of the library is to understand how skilled libraries, and the librarians that create and animate these spaces, are at overcoming adversity and adapting to change.

The library has survived each successive change in technology. From scrolls to parchment, manuscripts to printing, and CDs to e-books, the library has persisted without ever losing its essential place in our institutions and our culture. The library has also made it through every attempt to destroy its buildings, burn its books, and defund its services.

Reading The Library will be deeply satisfying for any reader who believes that the academic library is at the heart of academic life.

Our academic libraries will not prosper without allies and advocates. We should not lose sight of the necessity for all of us in academia to fight for the resources and respect our libraries deserve.

At the same time, reading The Library should give us some confidence that our academic libraries will be as cherished and referred by future inhabitants of our colleges and universities as they are today and have been throughout the history of higher education.

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