The Library: A Fragile History


I had been eyeing this for about a month before I bought it because reading a 400+ page book about the history of the library seemed like a big undertaking. Much to my surprise, it was a fun read and flowed nicely. I expected it to be much more pedantic than it was.

I do wish the contents were organized in a more structured timeline. I don’t get why authors who write biographies or histories on something specific try and be creative with the structure by organizing the book by topic, like this one was, or in reverse-chronological order like Edison was. This book wasn’t completely random and followed a rough outline, but did not advance year to year.

Actionable Takeaways

  1. A good description of a library could be: making the genius of man public property.
  2. A good way to tell what’s important to someone, or a group of people, is to look at where the store things in their home. If they have a special room for something, it’s a good indication that whatever is in there means a lot. We can use this strategy to infer books and the process of writing was very important to monastic monks, because they had a dedicated room for this endeavor: the scriptorium.
  3. The earlier Stages of libraries had chains connected to books to prevent thieves from stealing anything. Once universities started displaying their books on shelves, the got rid of the chains to make it easier for people to study, but this also meant they lost more books. By 1338, over 300 of the mere 2,000 books in the possession of the College of the Sorbonne had already disappeared.
  4. Before the invention of the printing press, books were used as a display of wealth. But once they became cheaper to buy, this practice became less so. It’s a good illustration of scarcity creating an appearance of wealth and also how, even hundreds of years ago, people still wanted to “show off.”
  5. Like with any technological advancement, the incumbents thought printed books were not as equal in value to books written by hand. Those critics were often those who were in the business of writing books by hand or who had an uptight taste. The everyday person didn’t care whether it was written by hand or printed, they just wanted the value that could be found inside. This is a great illustration about how people don’t care what technology is used to build something–they just want that thing.
  6. Throughout history, libraries were always a big target during any war. People could steal books to sell them, sure. But what was of more value was changing the city’s ideology, for what people read, they became. So if you want to influence a group of people, they realized one of the best places to do that was the library. So they got rid of any books that talked about “the old way” and replaced them with books that matched that attackers philosophy. We see this play out from the early 1000s even up to WW2.


  • Pliny the Elder, when talking about Asinius, the friend of Julius Cesear who would bring Ceser’s plan for a library in Rome to fruition, said Asinius was “the first to make the genius of man public property.” I quite like that description for a library.
  • “A monk who works is troubled by only one devil, while a monk who is idle is troubled by many.” This is similar to Newton’s quote about resisting temptation by keeping busy with intellectual practices in The Clockwork Universe.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire disrupted the papyrus supply throughout the Mediterranean, parchment became the standard replacement. It was more expensive, but lasted longer and could be written on on both sides.
  • The importance of books in the monastic life could be symbolized through the existence of the scriptorium or writing room. For no one ever dedicated a room to something that wasn’t important.
  • Around the twelfth century, monasteries lost their monopoly on book collections and creations and universities took the reins.
  • The word studio is derived from the Latin studium, which describes a monk’s cell.
  • Eventually, in the rooms of those colleges, books began to be put on display for anyone to use, rather than locked away in chests like they were in monasteries. This was a positive, for it made knowledge-sharing much easier and people could reference books in a much faster way. This also meant it was easier to lose books. By 1338, over 300 of the mere 2,000 books in the possession of the College of the Sorbonne had already disappeared.
  • After the invention of the printing press, owning and collecting books no longer became a status symbol because it was much cheaper to get a book. Before, when things were produced by hand, they were much more expensive and it was a fun thing to “flex” on. That was no longer the case after the invention of the printing press.
    • “Ownership of a library no longer marked a man out as a member of the European social and political elite.”
    • Paris became the center of printing in Northern Europe; in the south, it was Venice.
  • Though some tried to make an argument that printed books weren’t as “worthy” of books that were written by hand, owners didn’t seem to mind: “Those buyers who bought a book for its text do not seem to have minded whether it came from a press or a pen.”
  • Whether the press had any role on the value of books is up for debate, but it certainly had an impact on the creation of libraries. Before the press, wealthy people wanted to make libraries to show off their wealth, but they were open for other people to use. But since the press made it much easier for anyone to get a book, the ruling class, the only people building libraries at the time, weren’t as inclined to donate their generous books and money.
  • Fernando Colon was one of the first people to recognize building a library for what it is today: a place for all books on all subjects for all people in all languages. This was not the common attitude for most collector’s of the day.
  • We lost a lot of potential collections and libraries once the owner passed on. Though they had a plan and intention to pass it on to an heir, it was a common thread throughout history that the heir didn’t want to bare the responsibility. It was much easier to just get a little pay day from the collections.
  • The Reformation had a quite a lasting impact on libraries and it was the beginning of a common pattern that is still happening today. After the Protestant’s rose up, a lot of the Catholic works were no longer accurate (which at that point, was a lot of Europe’s book stock), so they got rid of the Catholic works in libraries and started to replace them with Protestant works. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 acknowledged King Henry as head of the Church of England. This granted him the power to dissolve monasteries and with it, a lot of their books. Later in 1550, another Act was passed that made owning of the former monastic books illegal, which only sped up the rate of destruction that was currently taking place. But it wasn’t just Catholic works that were lost, because when you’re in a frenzy of book burning, it’s quite difficult to tell the difference between “secular manuscripts of historical importance and works of catholic theology.”
  • When Queen Mary took over, the reformed books act were reversed and everyone started stacking shelves with catholic works again. This wasn’t as vicious of a process as before, but it did have an effect on Oxford and other colleges, for they were where those of the future were being taught. This was again reversed under Queen Elizabeth, which added space for more protestant works again. But to this day, “No Oxford colleges own any Protestant books acquired before the reign of Elizabeth.” It makes sense though, for “Why would colleges spend money on books when the books might be confiscated or burned after the next reversal of royal policy?”
    • This pattern of one ideology ruling, burning the others books or trying to censor them, and someone else coming into power would be a running thread through history.
  • Between 1550 and 1750, normal tradesmen such as doctors, lawyers, and merchants starting collecting more books. Essentially, they picked up where the monks left off.
  • By the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch Republic had become the center of the international book market. Book auctions had been around since the 15th Century, but the Dutch Republic were the first to separate books out from the rest of the estate. They also provided a printed catalogue people could look through ahead of time and come ready to bid. This had an interesting second order effect. Because books were now making much more money posthumously than before, people were much more encouraged to invest in books throughout their life, because they knew it could be used as a sort of an investment for their family when they passed.
  • Thomas Bodley restored the Oxford library to what it is today completely on his own dime. He may have been the first to incorporate, strictly, the “silence rule” in libraries. By 1711, this rule had been adopted more widely; where the user in Amsterdam was greeted with this severe warning:
    • “You learned sir, who enter among books, don’t slam the door with your tumultuous hand…here it’s the dead who speak to them who work.” (147)
  • Libraries were a popular target to destroy during wars because what people read, they become. So if you wanted to change the culture, starting at the libraries was a good thing to do.
  • The success of early public libraries depended on the degree of access and excitement of the leaders to treat it as a genuine public good, not just an off-shoot of their personal collection. When someone cares about something, they make it last.
  • Starting around 1720, older books became much more valued. Hitherto, a book was valued solely on the contents of it, not when it was published, by whom it was written, or how it was published. This started to change around 1720, as people started to value older manuscripts and earlier printed books as much more valuable as later ones.
  • The Library Company of Philadelphia was the world’s first subscription library. We can thank Benjamin Franklin for this beautiful addition to the library economy. It still flourishes to this day.
  • Fiction became it’s own industry around the 19th Century, even though it carried with it a sense of disrespectfulness and “childish” attitude.
  • Carnegie, with his generous donation of libraries in the Americas and Europe, truly inaugurated the golden age of the public library.
  • WW1 and WW2 destroyed many of Europe’s great libraries and books.


  • As with so many of the libraries we will meet in this book, neglect was a much more potent enemy than war or malice.
  • Libraries were a private encyclopedia of the world’s wisdom and follies.