Monthly Archives: June 2015

How many librarians does it take to write a novel…or a symphony?

Still to come in our look at famous people who have also tried their hand at being librarians we have Casanova , Chairman Mao, and a 12cm high librarian doll but this week writers and composers. As I said earlier for some, librarian positions were really just sinecures carrying almost no responsibilities for the libraries in which they worked, but instead allowing time to develop their creative talent under the sponsorship of the library owner who was more interested in basking in reflected glory than actually having someone looking after their library which they never used anyway.

Berlioz - perhaps a little light shelving between compositions

Berlioz – perhaps a little light book shelving between compositions

Composer Hector Berlioz, like so many musicians, struggled to make a living from his music and even from his other post as Deputy Librarian of the Conservatoire. In 1850 however he was appointed Head Librarian of the Paris Conservatoire which at last provided him with a reasonable source of income that enabled him to pursue his real interests and forget all about that tedious library work. There is of course a very great deal written about Berlioz’s music but I have been unable to find much about his work as a librarian which adds to the suspicion that he didn’t actually do a lot. Either that or when music historians assess the Berlioz legacy the library work is usually ranked somewhere between completely irrelevant and who cares.

Artist Marcel Duchamp, one of the guiding spirits of the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, tired of life with the avant garde painting crowd in 1913 and went to work as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève in Paris; presumably the Dadaist version of running off to join the circus. Like many others whose interest lay elsewhere, Duchamp spent more time researching amongst the art books than actually working as a librarian and of course it didn’t last long. Unaccountably he found the lure of the fast life in New York more attractive than library work and headed there, only to end up a librarian again briefly whilst hob-nobbing with everyone who was anyone on the New York alternative art circuit and submitting his famous urinal to art exhibitions. It was when this now famous work was rejected for exhibition that Duchamp returned to libraries. There probably aren’t that many options after you’ve failed at taking the piss but once again he abandoned libraries this time to pursue his new bizarre passion for chess.

Library work seems to have held a particular attraction for writers. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was Librarian of Bowdoin College in Maine, USA for six years from 1829. Longfellow doubled up as a lecturer in the days when that sort of thing was very common because they still hadn’t realised that they needed real librarians. Nowadays librarians and lecturers have quite separate callings presumably because they discovered what dreadful lecturers librarians make. Lewis Carroll author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass became a sub-librarian at Christ Church Oxford until he found a better position as a mathematics lecturer and the Scots poet Robert Burns, worked as librarian for a parish library in Dunscore, Dumfries established by an enlightened squire for his tenants and other locals but this is rarely mentioned on Burns Night unless his “wee timorous moustie beastie” was a librarian, but I don’t think so.

The Brothers Grimm were grim themselves when they were both overlooked for promotion in the library at Kasel in the Rhineland where they had expected promotion to the positions of Head Librarian and Deputy respectively on the retirement of their boss. The top job went instead to an archivist with no library experience at all. One reason may well have been that as well as collecting their famous eponymous folk tales from across the Germanic kingdoms in the early c19th they also found time to begin the first German dictionary and were active in linguistics and philology which makes it surprising that they had any time to each work in a number of libraries at the same time. It can’t have gone down well with the boss that every time the brothers were needed to work a weekend shift in Kasel library they were busy miles away listening to gory tales told by old ladies in remote villages in Baden-Baden. That archivist may not have been a librarian but at least he was there and available and presumably managed to do some cataloguing of books rather spending all his time writing and publishing them. It ended badly for the brothers too when they were sacked from their posts at the University of Gottingen where Jacob became the head librarian and his brother a librarian and professor for upsetting the Elector of Hanover by dabbling in politics; always a tricky thing for a mere librarian to do. Perhaps they should have tried chess like Duchamp!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by contrast was a committed and very successful librarian as well as one of the world’s greatest poets, who worked at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar for 35 years. The library was considerably extended during his term of office and doubled in size to 120,000 volumes becoming one of the most important libraries in Germany. Of course this assiduous application may have had something to do with the fact that it was rumoured that Goethe was involved in a passionate relationship with the Duchess Ann Amalia herself who presumably appointed Goethe to the post seduced less by his meticulous classification skills and more by the impressive size of his literary output. We can only conjecture too that they probably managed to agree some form of payment in kind bonus scheme to keep him at it. Alexander Dumas on the other hand seems to have invested almost no time at all in his post as Librarian at the Palais Royal, a post to which he was promoted by the future King of France, the Duc d’Orleans. The post offered a salary sufficient for Dumas to continue his remarkable literary output but there is no record of any actual library work being accomplished although there is plenty about his pursuit of a series of relationships with various resultant offspring and becoming involved in various disputes and scandals. We can only presume there was no attractive and available Duchess on hand to offer inducements to stick to his library work and discourage him from swanning off all over Europe.

But undoubtedly the prize for swinging the cushiest job in libraries must go to Marcel Proust which is quite fitting for a man best remembered for a story about sitting in bed eating cake. Proust was a lazy, undisciplined social climber and faced with his father’s insistence that writing wasn’t a real job offered to become a librarian being presumably the easiest thing he could think of. Having secured an appointment at Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris he immediately went off on the sick and managed to spin this out for several years and never actually did any work in the library whilst still managing to write one of the world’s greatest unread novels. I wish I had known this earlier in my career when, as a manager faced with the occasional infuriating person swinging the lead like that, I would have coined a withering new phrase to shame them, accusing them of “doing a Proust” or perhaps “Prousting”. I am sure there must be a joke here about his employer’s great undiscovered critique of Proust called In Search of Lost Working Time but I shall avoid exploring that!

Renowned writer Jorge Luis Borges was offered a way out of his unhappy time as a Librarian in a Buenos Aires Municipal Library of Argentina but took the view that the so called promotion was nothing short of an attempt by ruling despot of 1950’s Argentina, Juan Peron to humiliate after he had taken exception to some of Borges’s public political statements. Indeed Borges may never have appeared in a volume such as this at all if he had taken the post on offer unless a keen if misguided professional from a different field attempts a book on Famous Poultry and Rabbit Inspectors. Borges promptly resigned or was sacked from his cataloguing job depending on whose version you believe. It is almost certain that his rather unsatisfactory experiences as a cataloguer inspired his short story The Library of Babel which is part surreal science fantasy, part messianic prophesy, part mystical, allegory and part metaphysical debate, but chiefly a huge playful joke at the expense of the obscurantist and byzantine rules of catalogues and libraries.

Erik Desmazieres's imagining of the Library of Babel

Erik Desmazieres’s imagining of the Library of Babel

After the fall of Peron, Borges was appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina in 1955 but sadly noted the irony of assuming responsibility for a huge national library at the same time as he was losing his sight. He remained there until 1973 when Peron was once again returned as President and Borges resigned refusing to work for the man who had insulted him so gratuitously before.

If ever a librarian were famous for a single phrase, though, it must surely be Jorge Luis Borges. Despite all of his achievements in the literary and library worlds Borges finally came to the widest public notice thanks to his brilliant description of the pointless stupidity of the 1981 Falklands War between Britain and his home country over a tiny remote island in the South Atlantic. Asked his view on the war Borges said, in a quote that has been endlessly repeated since, that “the Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb”. It briefly brought Borges to the attention of a far wider audience than his esoteric surreal writing usually enjoyed.

So a blog about famous writers who were also librarians and you are wondering well where is the one celebrated creative writer whom everyone knows was a librarian and of whom everyone has actually heard. Well he is coming up a bit later on in this series of blogs.  Philip Larkin will get a couple of posts at least all to himself not because of his sublime poetry, proper writers have dealt with that, but to see what we can discover about his other life. Not that we will submerge ourselves in his budget battles with the Vice Chancellor or his library planning skills because in all those relevations after his death in his letters and his biography if you look for his life as a librarian you keep being distracted by comments about how much he “liked the red suspender belt”. So that is all still to come. Before that we’ve still got Casanova and Chairman Mao … and that 12cm doll.


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Yeah, I’d like to have been a librarian”

So now you know all about where libraries come from we can concentrate on other things and over the next few weeks we will look at appearances from libraries and librarians in fiction, cartoons, in film on TV and even in music but first I want to spend a bit of time looking at some librarians of whom you may well have heard but may never have known ever went anywhere near a library. To kick this off this post will look at the development of the profession of the librarian adopting exactly the same cavalier approach to facts and details as we saw in the previous history posts never being afraid to jettison or adapt either or both in favour of cheap humour.

Smirnoff Ad

“…a lifestyle so mundane it yearned to be made more interesting”

One of the more common things that you find as you surf for references to libraries and librarians in the ever more tangled thicket that is the internet is the compulsory list of famous librarians. This rather gives the game away about the very thin skin that some librarians have about the recognition that they feel is for ever denied to them as professionals. You don’t get this for other professions in the same way I know because I have looked. There is just one similar list I could find, of famous accountants, but with the exception of John Grisham who left accountancy to become a novelist they all seem to have ended up as CEO’s of companies which seems to me to rather miss the point that librarians are attempting to make. For a start I am not sure you would ever have heard of any of those accountants and secondly becoming CEO seems like normal career progression for an accountant unlike some of our librarians who left the profession to become world renowned dictators, national leaders or produced literature still revered around the world.

So from this we can deduce two things I think. Firstly that librarians need to develop a thicker skin and secondly other professions have found it far more productive to worry less about the image of their profession and instead go out and get a life.

The earliest librarians were not in any sense professional librarians but scholars appointed for their learning and for whom running the library was merely a sinecure where any library responsibilities came a distant second to their scholarly research. Nowadays of course we call these University Librarians or County Librarians. The early librarians at the Library of Alexandria, for example, included several poets as well as three of the most famous Homeric scholars. Who knows, if there had been a real librarian in charge who was actually keeping an eye on what was going on, they might have noticed that small fire in the cloakroom and done something about it but sadly there wasn’t and the rest as they say is history. Even when the concept of the professions grew, the list of professions did not for a long time include librarians. Everyone knows of course what the very earliest profession was but that wasn’t really an attractive career option for many. It was often short lived and the clap you received at the end of your career had absolutely nothing to do with praise for your achievements. The three classic professions have always been the church, the law and medicine which under the guise of being socially useful were really clever ways of making and retaining wealth if you didn’t qualify under the normal arrangements which were inheriting it, marrying it or stealing it.

Others professions followed. With the growth of population and of a middle class other skilled workers began to think of themselves as a cut above the ordinary run of traders, merchants and artisans and began creating the wherewithal to become professional themselves. In reality of course professions were nothing more than a closed shop to keep numbers down and income high by restricting membership to those whom you liked, sons of those you slept with or those who paid enough so that you couldn’t refuse. The working classes tried this too in order to try and improve their starvation wages by creating trade unions but whilst surveyors, architects and pharmacists achieved status and respectability through their closed shops the labourers found themselves transported to Van Diemen’s Land as criminals. But I am getting off the point.

The point is that librarians were a bit late in achieving the same level of professional recognition than other professions only just making it ahead C-list trades like marketing and hypnotherapy but they did so eventually and there have indeed been many accomplished and talented librarians who have helped develop, maintain and manage, the wonderful network of libraries that we are able to enjoy across the globe. Not that you will have heard of any of them which is why librarians get a bit touchy about their professions. It isn’t helped by comments like those from Richard Bradford in his biography of Philip Larkin who describes the library profession as “ a lifestyle so mundane it yearned to be made more interesting”, so it is hardly surprising that many people who became famous in other fields but have spent some time working in libraries got out as soon as they decently could or, like Casanova only got into the game when they were not up to the physical demands of their original interests. On the other hand some who never were librarians who went on to make names for themselves in other fields would reflected later with tongue possibly ever so slightly in the cheek on what might have been.

Bill Whyman a man who needs no introduction to any rock music fan born before about 1990 when asked in an interview in The Guardian in 2000 about that he might he have been had he not become a member of arguably the greatest rock band of all time he said “A plumber, maybe that or a photographer or a librarian. Yeah I’d like to have been a librarian”. For some their library career was very brief. Allan Border considered by many to be Australia’s greatest cricket captain, for example, worked briefly as a clerk in an oil company’s picture library whilst playing Grade cricket in Queensland before turning to cricket full time and winning the Ashes and just about everything else, Who knows what they each might have achieved in the world of international cataloguing standards had they concentrated on libraries rather than practising those bass riffs and elegant cover drives.

Some people did make it as librarians though and then achieved fame later but it is perhaps fanciful to think that when historic Fourth Street School in Milwaukee was renamed in her honour that it celebrated Golda Mabovitch’s time there and her subsequent work as a well-loved teacher who managed the school library but her brief stint as librarian was of somewhat less significance than her role in later life under her married name of Golda Meir as Prime Minister of Israel during one of the most turbulent periods in its history, although she may have looked back wistfully at helping 10 year olds with their project on the Ancient Romans as she coped with the Munich Olympics massacre and the Yom Kippur War.

Golda Meir wasn’t the only politician to use libraries as a stepping stone to political success. Seyd Mohammad Khatami who unexpectedly became the fifth president of Iran in 1997 was previously in charge of Iran’s National Library and Archives from 1992-1997 and Achille Ratti spent a number of years as a librarian at the Ambrosian Library before eventually becoming Head of the Great Vatican Library. Ratti oversaw the reorganisation of the archives and even developed his own classification system, presumably one that conveniently left out numbers for divorce or contraception and included an entry under same-sex marriage saying “see also Eternal Damnation”. All of which appears to have done him no harm at all when he was elected Pope Pius XI in 1929.

Two famous Russians were also actively involved with libraries but are far better known for other things. Russian author Boris Pasternak was for a year or so after the October Revolution of 1917 a librarian at the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, but will be remembered rather less readily for any plans he might have had to reclassify all the books on capitalism as heresy or perhaps fantasy than he will for Dr Zhivago. Considerably higher up the Soviet political food chain was Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya.

Krupskaya is best remembered if she is remembered at all outside of Russia as the wife and biographer of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, but she is one of the rare examples of a powerful politician with a passion for libraries who actually knew what she was talking about and actually achieved something for libraries laying the foundations for the modern Russian library system which is probably why very few people have heard of her. Of course like the Catholic Church many years earlier she was very careful about what her beloved but easily mislead proletariat should read and the early library collections comprised mainly the Complete Works of Marx and Engel, the collected essays and speeches of Lenin and Results and Prospects by Leon Trotsky whilst the children’s section probably included Rotten Romanovs, and the series of Karl and Fred books, starting with Karl and Fred play with their collective farm and ending abruptly after the rise of Stalin with Where’s Leon?

I was completely unaware of Ms Krupskaya and would have possibly remained so but for my first scatological acquaintance with her name as a post graduate student in Liverpool. Drinking one evening in a pub made famous at the time by the art college students, artists and other creative people who used to drink there, including a young student called John Lennon, I had a need to visit the toilet. The toilets were famous for the intellectual quality of their graffiti and so of course you had to explore this aspect of the pub as well. The one mural philosophical exchange I remember vividly was a quote from Lenin scrawled on the wall by the inevitable far left supporter who was still happy to drink good capitalist bitter, “Smash the system” or something equally imaginative (as opposed to the later and much copied satirical alternative in every toilet in the country “Smash the cistern”). Below this in the spirit of intense intellectual debate someone had written “Lenin was a wanker” to which the riposte below that was “Krupskaya refutes this!” Well I was amused but then I was young and impressionable and probably well lubricated but of course had to find out who Krupskaya was after the headache wore off the next day!

Krupskaya Chocolate: a fitting tribute to a true revolutionary – much better than all those statues the blokes get

Krupskaya Chocolate: a fitting tribute to a true revolutionary – much better than all those statues the blokes get

Anyway I now know that Krupskaya, as well as defending her husband’s private sexual preferences, was also responsible for the development of a decent library system in the Soviet Union but she is remembered in the most bizarre way in Russia. Not just by the school named after her but by a product that carried the proud slogan “From the factory named after the wife of Lenin”. It must warm the hearts of feminists everywhere that one of the leading thinkers of the October Revolution who achieved so much genuine change in her country is now only remembered as the wife of a husband who predeceased her and as the name of one of the country’s most popular chocolate bars.

So there you are the little known library lives of just a few well-known people although to be honest this post has featured the least well known of them. Future posts will feature a host of writers and artists as well as more politicians and some infamous names that the library profession might just want to forget including scabrous figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Chairman Mao and Casanova as well as many more.

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Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries – Pt3 – How the wine press and temperance paved the way for modern public libraries

Many thanks for the various comments and questions in response to previous blogs especially those asking intelligent questions such as how did the monastery’s get all those Greek texts to translate and did the Sumerians read those stone tablets on the toilet. In answer I will refer you to the disclaimer in the first post of this history where I did point out that historical accuracy has been substituted in favour of a cheap laughs. If you still do want to know the answers then at the end of this post are a few suggestions for further reading that might help.

Next week you may be delighted to know that we will move on from the history of libraries to begin looking at the real subject of the blog the many and varied ways libraries crop up in popular culture as well as a few posts about how libraries turned up unexpectedly in  some famous lives. Before all of that, however this week we will conclude our quick and unreliable history of libraries with a race through 300 years of library development. You will recall we left libraries just coming out of the Dark Ages.

How the wine press and temperance paved the way for modern public libraries

What we have christened The Kept in the Dark Ages would have continued to concentrate knowledge and therefore power in the hands of the priests and the wealthy but for the creative genius of a man who spotted that there was more than one use for a wine press. Johannes Gutenberg created the world’s first printing press using movable type in the middle of the C15th using a press that evolved from the traditional wine press and created a revolution that eventually led to the modern public library as well as less welcome side effects including Reader’s Digest, the tabloid press and OK! Magazine. The printing press instantly made the reproduction of books easier and quicker than the labour intensive copying by hand, It also brought the cost of buying a book crashing down so that now you could buy one of Gutenberg’s Bibles for something like three or four years wages instead of having to sell your sister to the convent to work for nothing for the rest of her life if you wanted to buy a hand written copy. Although you didn’t get all those lavish illustrations they could always be added to the printed version afterwards provided you had another sister.

The Gutenberg Press. Responsible for all those celebrity chef cookbooks that clutter up your kitchen

The Gutenberg Press. Responsible for all those celebrity chef cookbooks that clutter up your kitchen

Over in England when William Caxton tired of trading wool and turned his attention to this new-fangled art of printing the printed book and reading would gradually ceased to be the preserve of the clerics and their wealthy benefactors and the foundations for the development of genuinely public libraries had been laid. Despite this momentous development nothing much happened to libraries for the next few hundred years. Books remained in monasteries until the Reformation did away with most of them and the books found their way into the houses of the wealthy and powerful. Negotiating a price for all those books wasn’t usually a problem as the transfer of knowledge as we call it now was helped by the presence of a troop of armed soldiers with a large cart who offered the monks just enough time to make it to the cover of the nearest woodland. Gradually though the books became available to a wider audience.

The growth of the universities across Europe produced some of the great academic libraries and saw the creation of the first national libraries. But the numbers with access to and a desire to use libraries was still limited to the wealthy and privileged. The working class had more important things to deal with than read another scientific treatise on salvation; like fending off scurvy, rickets, starvation and the rapacious landlord. There was though one honourable exception which is still in existence as the “oldest public library in the English Speaking world” Chetham’s Library in Manchester was established in 1653 and intended to be a collection to rival those at Oxford and Cambridge in the south. It has been in continuous use since and the idea of a northern rival to the south has once again been taken up by Government! The Library was to be for “the use of scholars and others well affected”, and the Librarian was instructed “to require nothing of any man that cometh into the Library” which wasn’t quite as free and easy as it sounded especially for your average working person in C17th Manchester. The books were not catalogued so you had to know which book you wanted or spend a whole lot of your precious scarce free time hunting through the extensive collections. It wasn’t a lot of help that they arranged them in order of size; if you didn’t know what book you wanted you probably didn’t know how big it was either. And when a catalogue was produced it was in Latin not a common language in the working class ghettos of Manchester!

The growth of the novel and leisure reading in Britain eventually created a wider market for books and booksellers quickly realised that although not everyone wanted to actually own a book then they might want to borrow one and established a series of commercial circulating libraries that offered a choice of purchase or loan. We could have called it the privatisation of libraries but we hadn’t invented publically owned ones yet! In the UK a series of literary and philosophical societies began to appear at the end of the C18th offering intellectual conversation, lectures and usually a library again for those not working 16 hours a day down a tin mine. Some of these still survive today despite the growth of public libraries and more recently the internet or perhaps because of these developments.

Eventually the growing need to provide an educated technical workforce to drive the industrial revolution led to the development of

Newcastle Lit and Phil Library. Still going strong. For younger readers those things on the shelves are called books

Newcastle Lit and Phil Library. Still going strong. For younger readers those things on the shelves are called books

Mechanic’s Institutes in the late C18th which were available without subscription often funded by philanthropist. As always the philanthropist’s interest were not entirely altruistic with half an eye on the need for more people with technical skills to make more things that would produce more profit and well aware that their workers would be more productive if they could be persuaded to spend their time reading and learning instead of spending a pleasant evening with their mates down the pub. The records of the establishment of the Workmen’s Library Tredegar South Wales in 1860 recorded its intention to provide “entertainment, instruction and the propagation of temperance” understandably the local publicans were not entirely happy and would have protested themselves but they were shown the error of their ways by the local wives who could also see that they would end up with a lot more housekeeping if their husbands spent their evenings and weekends improving their minds. They had obviously not read Jude the Obscure.

The Institutes provided some of the earliest libraries available to working men but once again only a certain kind of working man, and with a few exceptions certainly no working women! The problem for the rural working classes was that the nearest one was often a couple of days walk away. So you had to weigh the merits of dancing round the maypole and making hay with the local maidens, or playing that odd new game that involved kicking an inflated pig’s bladder around against a two day trip to borrow the latest treatise by Tom Paine on your half day off. This was why maypole dancing retained its popularity despite the rise of libraries and the best efforts of Oliver Cromwell and we all know what happened to that pig’s bladder lark. In urban areas the workers had easier access to the libraries but a twelve hour day plus a long walk to and from the factory six days a week left only Sundays when you can never find a library open anyway. Unsurprisingly libraries were slow to catch on for most of the working class.

It was the combined efforts of separate campaigns by The Free Library Movement and a couple of Liberal MPs William Ewart and Joseph Brotherton that led eventually to the government conceding the need to greater access to libraries in the middle of the C19th century. Not that everyone was in favour of this; the ruling Conservative Party resisted the movement claiming they were concerned by the cost of setting up libraries and not in the slightest worried by the example of Edward Edwards who was an important contributor to the Liberals’ campaign. Edwards had educated himself through the Mechanics Institutes’ libraries and as a result had become radicalised and joined the Chartists demonstrating that if you educated ordinary working people they would never again vote for a party that only represented the vested interest of landowners, mill owners and other random Gradgrinds who needed an oppressed and illiterate working class to keep them in the style to which they were just becoming accustomed. Despite this the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850 paving the way for the public library system we know and apparently still love today even if we never actually use it ourselves being busy and finding it easier to buy the latest paperback bonk buster for twopence at any major supermarket chain or read it on our phone. It didn’t do the Liberals much good either; after 50 years of self-development in working men’s libraries and still a bit miffed at being kept out of the pub of an evening the working class went and formed their own political party that eventually kicked the Liberals into the political long grass for most of the C20th.

The first free public library created under the new law was opened in Manchester in 1852, The Act allowed councils to add a half penny to the rates to pay for libraries later increased to one penny and eventually in 1964 relevant authorities were required by law to provide comprehensive free library services. None of this funding was anything like enough to provide a decent library service which was why millionaire philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie were so important to the development of a truly national library service in the UK. It is sober to reflect that if we had started this all a bit later and needed those philanthropists now we would end up with a branch of Chelsea FC in every town in the country instead of a library. Which is presumably the thinly disguised thinking behind current government policy.

Inevitably given the ambitious vision and sweeping scope of this book, this has been a rather quick and shallow trip through the history of libraries. There are of course extensive library systems in almost all developed countries and many developing ones and alternative histories from other cultures but at the risk of confirming the impression that this is no more than an Anglo-centric history of libraries I will stop here. If it has been a bit too shallow for you then you might like to try History of Libraries in the Western World by Michael H Harris or possibly if you expect to be trapped in a lift for the next month or so The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland which runs to 3 volumes. Both are as thorough a piece of historical research as anyone could wish for and neither as far as I know sacrifices rigorous academic research in pursuit of cheap laughs. On the other hand if this history of libraries has all been a bit much to take in can I suggest the I-Spy Book of Libraries if it is still available or perhaps Charlie and Lola’s library story, But Excuse Me That is My Book, which eschews academic research for nice drawings and a target reading age of 5.

An introduction to libraries for busy blog readers

An introduction to libraries for busy blog readers

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June 11, 2015 · 2:45 pm

Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries – Pt2 – From unfortunate Roman libraries to the Kept in the Dark Ages

This week we have the second instalment in our brief not to mention shallow, three-part history of libraries as a precursor to future posts about the many appearances of libraries and librarians in popular culture. I have also added a few new quotations to the Dukedom enough page just in case anyone is interested.

From unfortunate Roman libraries to the Kept in the Dark Ages

You will recall that last time we looked at the very early days of libraries when we had to find a way of storing documents even if those documents were only receipts for the sale of basic goods like food, drink and slaves. We got as far as the Great Library of Alexandria and noted how careless the Romans were with natural forces such as fire and this week we will move on rapidly to the Middle Ages and see how the Romans still hadn’t learned their lesson.

Libraries in the ancient world were created as much to glorify rulers as to provide raw material for scholars and researchers and in any case Mills and Boon was still in its infancy. So if the Ptolemys had their Great Library of Alexandria then the Greeks clearly had to have one so they created the Library at Pergamum. The Romans had to get in on the act too and created the Libraries of the Forum and Ancient Rome also saw the start of wealthy or powerful individuals building their own private libraries to show how clever they were or more likely how well off they were to be able to afford their own libraries. Their importance can be measured by the fact that when the Romans had taken over most of the ancient world Mark Anthony gave his wife Cleopatra 100,000 or perhaps 200,000 volumes, depending whether you believe OK magazine or Hello!, from the Library of Pergamum as a wedding present. Sadly the relationship was clearly doomed from the outset as she had rather set her sights on something a bit more substantial, a treasure chest of priceless jewels perhaps, a quinquereme or two or maybe even Rome itself.

A Roman Library - for younger readers computers came later - after desks were invented

A Roman Library. For younger readers,  computers came later – after desks were invented

Evidence of a significant library has been retrieved from the ruins of a villa in the Roman city of Herculaneum where Julius Caesar’s father-in-law had found a perfect spot for his new villa known, since its discovery, as The Villa of the Papyri. Described, no doubt, by the local estate agent as “occupying a shady spot halfway up a local mountain and benefitting from stunning uninterrupted views” it was an ideal location for his extensive library of papyrus scrolls as well as for his family. The Library, it is claimed, contained many works of philosophy and specifically several on the thoughts of Epicurus and his followers who argued that there is no God, that the universe is an accident and that the purpose of life is to enjoy ourselves. So users of the library will probably still have been partying when the library and everything else for miles around was unexpectedly and devastatingly covered by 30 metres of volcanic ash on account of it being AD 79 and because the wonderful hillside location for the Library has half way up Mount Vesuvius. Still as the Epicureans would say “you’ve got to laugh” and I expect God had a little chuckle too.

Thankfully many of the remains have been preserved and the text slowly being recovered by an international team which is a lot better than the fate of other ancient libraries when foreigners got involved. Take the Fourth Crusade for example. Like all the others before it the Crusade was heading for Jerusalem, now in Muslim hands, but the European Crusaders like thousands of back packers ever since got on the wrong boat by mistake as you do when you’re are in a strange country for the first time and don’t speak the language. They ended up in Constantinople in 1204 at the Imperial Library of Constantinople, the last of the great libraries of the ancient world which was actually Christian but as it was an ever so slightly different version of Christianity from that recognised by the marauding Crusaders they decided to destroy it anyway just in case. After all there’s no point in travelling this far and not having a bit of a rumble is there?

Most of these ancient libraries have of course long since disappeared without trace for reasons hinted at in the name ancient but remarkably the remains of some have survived and at least one is featured in excursions for package tour holidaymakers along with paragliding, white water rafting and getting rat-arsed. If you are really keen when you are next on a holiday in Turkey you can actually see one of the great libraries of the ancient world or at least you can see what is left of The Library of Celsus in Ephesus. The Library claimed to be one of the most beautiful structures in Ephesus and was completed in 135 AD as a monumental tomb for Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus and his grave lies beneath the ground floor. Apparently it was great honour to be buried within a library which demonstrated your wealth and status which is a measure how libraries have fallen in the status stakes. Nowadays you are more likely to hear comments about not being found dead in a library and I am not sure I have heard of anyone wanting their ashes scattered over the floor of the local branch library, as they do on football pitches, and I am quite sure that library staff would be able to quote several unhelpful sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act if anyone ever did.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus – A package tour favourite – years of government cuts have clearly  taken their toll

Library of Celsus, Ephesus – A package tour favourite – years of government cuts have clearly
taken their toll

I have never been to Turkey so I have no idea how popular the Library of Celsus is on the menu of potential excursions on a typical package tour but I can guess. “We’re going on an excursion to the Library of Celsus today kids want to come?” “How big’s this Library?” “Well not very big there’s only one wall of it left but…”. “How many books has it got?” Well not many ‘cos they were all destroyed centuries ago.” “No thanks then. I’ll think I’ll just stay by the pool and stab my head with a fork”.

After Rome and Greece there is then a bit of a gap in our knowledge about libraries during what are known for fairly obvious reasons as the Dark Ages at least in the West. This period was dominated in Europe by the successive waves of Barbarians and other invaders who had little time for reading what with all that raping, pillaging and dancing on the oars of their long boats (or perhaps that was someone else) and anyway even when they did have time they couldn’t read anyway. As they didn’t read they were deeply suspicious of all those scrolls, and so they destroyed them and the buildings that housed them just to be on the safe side. Libraries in the rest of the world free from any invasions and spared all those rampaging tourists continued to develop, China was busily doing clever things like inventing paper and library catalogues whilst Islamic libraries were busy inventing the concept of the lending library and some of the earliest classification schemes, but no one knew about them because the Barbarians had destroyed all the travel guides and maps. Unfortunately not long afterwards the great libraries of Islam met a similar fate to those in the West. Despite being spared by the inability of European crusaders to read a map properly they were none the less largely destroyed by the Mongols coming from the opposite direction whilst the Muslims were busy laughing at all the stupid crusaders.

It was the depredations of these invaders that lead scholars to realise that libraries needed strong and secure buildings in which to house their precious learning and the books in which it was recorded and so grew up the great monastic libraries. Medieval monasteries were often as difficult to assail as castles but just in case anyone got in with hostile intent the books were usually chained to the desks anyway.

Medieval libraries had a lot of material to look after but, as cheap paperbacks were as far off as Mills and Boon of course, the only way to produce more than one copy of a book either for another monastery or as a gift to a wealthy patron was to painstakingly copy it by hand. But wealthy patrons being what they were of course only wanted the fully illuminated manuscript with lavish illustrations richly embellished in deep colours and gold foil. Inevitable it took years of dedicated and skilled labour to produce a copy which meant that if you were on the waiting list you had to resign yourself to waiting nearly as long as it takes for a modern plumber to come and look at your leaky boiler before you had any chance of getting your hands on the latest illuminated bible.
Nowadays if you went about copying another publication page for page the publishers would pretty quickly invite you to meet them and their lawyers at a suitable venue to discuss copyright infringement. In medieval Europe on the other hand your chances of topping the bestsellers by Christmas were severely handicapped if the only copy of your commentary on Thomas Aquinas was currently in some mountain top monastery in a remote Umbrian village or kept off shore in a monastery you could only reach when the tide was out and then only every other Wednesday so authors were happy to encourage copying and indeed the Church positively encouraged it.

There does seem to be some evidence that monasteries whilst they were going about the process of creating new books to replace those lost to the Barbarians also decided that they would do a little stock editing as well. In order to avoid going to all that trouble of trying to explain to ignorant peasants about all those pre-existing pagan ideas about god and religion that conflicted with the Christian Church’s latest thinking, or giving wealthy benefactors any ideas for other good causes to support apart from their lavish lifestyles monks carefully destroyed, hid or otherwise spirited away any books that did not support their view of what people ought to be allowed to read. So material about any other religions, tracts casting doubt on any aspect of current Church teaching and definitely any books by Richard Dawkins disappeared to be replaced by a nice simply easy to understand and completely Christian narrative about the world in which everyone should believe. In fact there are many who think that what we have called for centuries the Dark Ages were succeeded by the Kept in the Dark Ages.

So we’ve reached the late medieval period and next time we will complete our very brief history of libraries bringing it up to the creation of the modern public library system that we know and love and which still survives in some wealthy regions. Along the way we will see how actual books came about, why women were more keen than publicans to encourage the working men’s libraries and how an ungrateful electorate rewarded the Liberal Party for creating that world’s first free public library system.

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