Review of ‘The Library: A Fragile History’ by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

As a former librarian and student of library studies, this book needed to work hard to impress me. Unfortunately, it failed. I’m not doubting the scholarship and structure of the text, but I had some major issues with the book.

This book is about the history of libraries, mostly in the western world, from ancient times until the current era. The authors, I have found, specialise in the history of early printed books, Reformation Europe and the book trade. It seems to me that they have written a book focusing on these topics while presenting it as a broader history of libraries. Only the last part (of 6) was about the 20th century, which after the devastating impact of the Second World War on libraries, saw the biggest technological revolutions since the invention of moveable type and printing presses – that is, the provision of computers for library users, electronic library management systems, barcodes, radio-frequency identification, the internet, ebooks – and which gets so little attention.

It really bugged me how the authors mention ebooks (or ereaders, they don’t differentiate between the two) perhaps once or twice and seem to dismiss them as a passing fad which will soon be obsolete, like CD-ROMs. They don’t think that ebooks count as proper books, clearly. Libraries are, in their opinion, defined as buildings or rooms containing physical printed books. No mention of audiobooks, e-journals which are a vital part of university library provision, the changing roles of modern librarians (teachers, community links, promoters of information literacy), how libraries now accommodate users with disabilities or even the differences between libraries and archives. Dewey Decimal Classification is incorrectly described as a cataloguing system. Classification is barely looked at, anyhow. The book is preoccupied with books as objects and with reeling off lists of how many works various libraries lost in fires. The writing style is dry and academic, suitable for students of book history but for the casual reader it’s about as exciting as the lint on a librarian’s cardigan.

Published in 2021.

10 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Library: A Fragile History’ by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen”

  1. I do hate the kind of book snobbery that dismisses anything other than paper books as not really being worthy to be called a book. I suspect most readers love a beautifully produced paper book, but we don’t all have limitless space to store them, plus ebooks can make books more accessible to people who need to change font sizes and so on.

    1. Yes, agreed! Whatever format, if there are words and some kind of narrative or information, its a book. Books as physical items are very nice, of course, and I do prefer the experience of reading them, but ebooks are much more convenient and accessible.

  2. I love my ebooks and most certainly hope they don’t disappear. Please don’t shout but I haven’t been in a library for a long time. A quick visit, but all those books stacked on shelves where you have to turn your head sideways to browse? I’ve been spoiled by armchair book browsing on a screen.

    1. Ebooks are a brilliant invention! I borrow more ebooks from the library than paper books. Libraries as physical spaces are not just repositories of books or they won’t survive.

  3. Wow–always surprising that books like this get published. I didn’t study library science or information studies but I know enough about it to understand that the modern history of libraries has been a technological transformation that really can’t be ignored. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.

    1. It had a particular angle, which I’m sure is perfect for readers interested mainly in the early history of libraries and printing, but I’m more interested in recent developments. It was presented as more of a general history of libraries and I didn’t feel it matched the concept!

  4. *SMH* Sounds like this was written by book snobs. AS much as I didn’t like the idea of ebooks initially (I’m now a big fan!), but never have I ever deemed them as not ‘books’. Same for audio books. And how could the author(s) inaccurately describe the Dewey Decimal Classification!? *smh*

    1. Yes there was a snob element to the book, although I’m sure the writers are perfectly nice people. Their particular interests were foremost in the book and didn’t embrace newer definitions of books and libraries. LOL yes a librarian should have proofread it.

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