“The hallmark of public libraries — the printed book, bound by covers and centuries of page-turning — is being shoved aside by digital doppelgangers,” the Washington Post wrote this month. It’s true. And because of the recent incineration of hundreds of thousands of printed volumes across the Western world, libraries are of increasing interest to the “general intellect.”
As it happens, too, they are of interest to the specialized mind. Thankfully, the two intersect in The Meaning of the Library, an excellent collection of essays on the cultural history of the library in the Western world, edited by Alice Crawford and out this month from Princeton University Press. One of the many virtues of Crawford’s collection is that it situates the contemporary library’s precious present within a long history of upheaval and general weirdness. Below is a sampling, from the book, of that history.
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“The papyrus on which most ancient Greek and Latin books were recorded, as an organic material, was extremely vulnerable to rotting and wear and tear. Aristotle bequeathed his personal library to his student Theophrastus, but two generations later the collection of rolls ended up in the hands of some “ordinary people” of Scepsis in Asia Minor, who did not know how to store its precious contents.” — Edith Hall
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“The majority of books published during the Renaissance fell victim to more mundane dangers: rats and mice, birds and moths, worms or damp. Fire, neglect, and use all took their toll. But it does illustrate vividly the great gulf between the rhetoric of the humanistic book world, and the practical experience of those who sought to build a library. It might have been thought that the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, and the huge increase of the availability of books, would usher in a great new age of library building. In fact, the opposite was the case. Many of the great Renaissance collections were broken up, the victim of predators, politics, or neglect. In the sixteenth century the library… took a backwards step.” — Andrew Pettegree
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“Pirate publishers rarely attempted to produce a book that would look like the original. They churned out down-market editions, eliminating “typographical luxury” as they called it. They used relatively cheap fonts of type, eliminated ornaments and often illustrations, and frequently abridged the text. Because they paid no author’s fees and had access to inexpensive paper, they could undersell the privileged edition, even when they had to smuggle their works into France… Probably half the books sold in France during the twenty years before the Revolution — current literature of all kinds but not chapbooks, religious tracts or professional treatises — were pirated.” — Robert Darnton
Link to the rest at Flavorwire