I LEFT the Museum Tavern in London and walked across the road to the British Museum which at the time incorporated the British Library, with its magnificent round reading room. I sat at a desk waiting for the delivery of a copy of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (the kind of medical textbook, as Time magazine once noted, that librarians once kept locked away). Returning to the museum tavern afterwards, I suddenly realized that I could have sat at a desk once occupied by Karl Marx or George Bernard Shaw, frequent users.
Years later, I was taken on a (partial) tour of the Vatican Library, hosted by a kind Irish Dominican who was one of the lead librarians. Along the way, I was shown a fourth-century fragment of St. Mark’s Gospel.
These are two of my favorite library memories, although the place I loved the most was the Old County Library on the Mardyke in Cork – a place I knew as a teenager and where I nourished my autodidact.
Libraries are vital repositories of information, knowledge and wisdom, and places where the realities of the past can be brought to life. Without a sense of history, we are impoverished. Libraries can also be places of respite, where one can simply rest and savor the poetry of Yeats or the dramas of Euripides.
This new book (I wouldn’t have guessed that a history of “the library” would be over 400 pages) goes a long way, covering the extraordinary history of the Library of Alexandria in the age of Google.
One of the things that surprised me was how the power of the petticoat was key to the huge success of Mills & Boon’s romantic novels. And while in the first half of the 20th century public libraries were reluctant to stock books outside the literary canon (Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Chaucer, etc.), it soon became clear that the books that many women wanted to read were not. fall into this category.
“These readers were looking for a particular genre, light and sentimental stories of love, longing, heartbreak and reconciliation, all in the space of 250 pages: romance.”
This is how Mills & Boon, founded in 1908, came into the picture. Above all, Boon had discovered the golden secret of brand loyalty. In 1992, publishers were selling 182 million copies a year.
“The romance has never attracted much admiration or attention from literary critics, but in one respect it represents a remarkable triumph for female agency, pursued with the stubborn devotion of the novels’ own brave heroines , in the face of critical and official disdain.” So, from now on, no more nose to nose at Mills & Boon.
For me, the most interesting chapter of the book is the one entitled “Libraries, books and politics”. Throughout the 20th century, the library community had to deal with official interference. “The problems of discrimination, choice and official interference were as acute in the second half of the 20th century as at any time in history. Living in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, libraries could offer either respite from daily worries or a storehouse of ideological reinforcement for truths from the East or the West. So today we have the Patriot Act in the United States: “This law requires libraries in the United States to provide the Department of Homeland Security with access to borrowing cards of readers upon request.”
This exciting book ends on a positive note. With fears of a post-book world emerging in the age of Google and with technology changing at lightning speed, the death of the book simply refuses to happen. “The book lives on, precisely for the reason why Jeff Bezos, in search of the right product, set his sights on books at the heart of Amazon.”
- The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
- Profile Books, £25