8 Weird Facts From the History of the Library


“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.

Some normies ruined Aristotle’s Library.

“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

The first public library was probably started by one of Plato’s trashier students.

“The first public library of all may have been established by Clearchus, tyrant of Heraclea on the south coast of the Black Sea, who died in 353 B.C. This Pontic despot had been educated at Athens by the two leading intellectuals of the time, Plato and Isocrates., and the tradition that he built a library is connected with the ancient perception that the Greeks of the Black Sea were anxious to avoid the accusation that they lived in a cultural backwater.” — Edith Hall

No matter what you read on Wikipedia, the reading wheel or “wheel desk” — sometimes considered the analogue precursor to the e-book or digital library — was around in the 1300s. Charles V had a luxe version.

“The second particularly striking image is the famous depiction of Charles V of France… Charles is portrayed in a panelled study or carrel beside a three-tier book stand. The base, resting on an anchoring platform-cum-footrest, contains cupboards… it also provides a surface on which to stack them. The top is crowned with a double-sided lectern, its books at an appropriate height for perusal while standing. Wheel desks, sometimes with a screw spindle, permitting hte height of the plate to be adjusted, are reasonably well known from other late medieval depictions…[they] are often shown with three or four volumes, sometimes with five or six. This one, by contrast, boasts ten and is clearly meant to suggest a substantial book collection — and, by implication, the considerable learning of its user.” — Richard Gameson

Even after the invention of the printing press, Renaissance libraries were a horror show…

“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

…and rich people stopped caring about books because there were too many.

“Mostly, though, it was the sheer profusion of books that doomed the Renaissance library. Before print, the creation of a library was the work of a lifetime… Something like 9 million printed objects were in circulation before 1500… Assessed country by country, the Europe-wide production of printed books amounted, by 1600, to some 345,000 separate editions: about 180 million printed items… Suddenly books were no longer an object of wonder.” — Andrew Pettegree

Book piracy helped drive the Enlightenment and stock its libraries.

“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

Georgian Era British librarians hated the novel and wanted to ban it from the proto-Modern public library.

“But the commonest problem… was the novel, a literary form that from midcentury, the era of Fielding’s Tom Jones, Richardson’s Pamela, and Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, was sweeping all before it in public taste, much to the horror of many critics… The issue with novels was, or was usually held to be, twofold. One concern was that narrative fiction seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or white-wash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and — a fascinating Georgian Georgian perception — servants…” — David Allan

The illegality of private porn libraries in 19th-century England led to a masterpiece of Victorian sexology…

“The most necessarily private collections are of pornography — a criminal practice until the late twentieth century…Two nineteenth-century names are famous for their encyclopedic erotica. One is Richard Monckton Milnes…The other is Henry Spencer Ashbee…as cultivated as he was prurient, [Ashbee] collected Cervantes and erotica. He wrote on the latter under the pen names ‘Fraxinus’…and the bawdily punning ‘Pisanus Fraxi,’ under which pseudonym he wrote his classic three-volume bibliography of “Prohibited Books”…It is plausibly suggested… that Ashbee was the author of the monumental work of pornography My Secret Life, published between 1888 and 1894 in eleven volumes in Amsterdam… The work, clearly as fictional as it is factual is, of its peculiar kind, a masterpiece of Victorian literature.” — John Sutherland