‘The Library: A Fragile History’: A Q&A with author Andrew Pettegree


Here’s another reason to treasure your library card: Public libraries were never inevitable. This is just one of the points to remember from “The Library: A Fragile History”, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Mr. Pettegree, a British historian, recently spoke to the Monitor.

What do people misunderstand about libraries?

We consider the public library as a constant throughout history. But in fact, this is not the case.

Before the invention of print, a collection of 300 books was quite exceptional. From about 1450, the date of the invention of the printing press, to 1800, private collections animated the whole culture of libraries. People like lawyers, doctors, and ministers of worship were building collections of over 1,000 books.

It really charmed me that in the 17th century a professor could have a private collection that was many times larger than his university library – something that is simply unimaginable today.

Where did they store the books at the time?

They tended to be kept in safes with all other valuables. One of the major revolutions in the development of the library, the idea of ​​storing books vertically on specially designed shelves, actually appeared only very late and did not become widespread until the 17th century. Nevertheless, [philosopher] John Locke kept his books in vaults until the end of his life.

How were the shelves useful?

They allowed much easier consultation, but the books on the shelves were more vulnerable. In 17th century paintings you will often see a man seated at a table in front of shelves of books, but there will be a curtain hanging across them. These served partly to protect the books from dust, but also to protect the books from nimble hands.

How did public libraries come into being?

The public library movement in the United States and Europe did not really begin until the mid-19th century, propelled by industrialization, increasing literacy, and the closing of the literacy gap between men and women.

Proponents presented libraries as civilizing: people went to the library instead of going down to the tavern for leisure, and they became good citizens through reading. UK brewers lobbied pretty hard against taxation [that would support] libraries because they preferred you to drink your wages at the pub.

How have facilities in the United States contributed to the evolution of libraries?

American library pioneers came up with innovative solutions, such as mobile libraries. Mobile horse-drawn libraries still served many Appalachian communities well into the 20th century.

There is also a striking difference from elsewhere: American libraries, especially in rural areas, were often run by women rather than men. By World War I, American libraries were already predominantly run by women, who made up 70% of librarians, compared to just 30% in Britain.

What role did American magnate Andrew Carnegie play in promoting public libraries?

He is the real hero of this story. He offered about $10,000 each to the communities to build simple local libraries, and in return they had to pledge to maintain the library. By 1914 it was supplying about 2,000 libraries to Britain, the United States and Canada.

When did the problems start for public libraries?

In some ways, starting in 1935. This was when the cheap and more accessible paperback was invented, which encouraged people to build their own collections. It was really hard for libraries to restock paperbacks because they decay very quickly – especially wartime paperbacks.

It wasn’t really until the 1970s that public libraries accepted the paperback and started stocking books like novels, which they previously thought were rather demeaning to the public, as they were desperate for patrons.

Libraries also began to present themselves as a sort of branch of social services with meeting rooms and spaces for classes, and now computer access.

What happened when libraries started adopting less “uplifting” genres of books?

After the librarians gave in, the main challenges to library content came from patrons and pressure groups. Librarians have sometimes given in too easily, as when “The Catcher in the Rye” was pulled from a library’s shelves based on an anonymous complaint.

What future for libraries?

I am not pessimistic. The death of the book has been proclaimed for 80 years, but people still love print.


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