HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Library, A Fragile History’ by Arthur Der Weduwen and Andrew Pettegree

Famed across the known world, jealously guarded by private collectors, built up over centuries, destroyed in a single day, ornamented with gold leaf and frescoes or filled with bean bags and children’s drawings – the history of the library is rich, varied and stuffed full of incident.

In this, the first major history of its kind, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen explore the contested and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today. Along the way, they introduce us to the antiquarians and philanthropists who shaped the world’s great collections, trace the rise and fall of fashions and tastes, and reveal the high crimes and misdemeanours committed in pursuit of rare and valuable manuscripts.


This book is one for all of us book nerds. The Library covers everything you could want to know about books in all their forms. The history of libraries is in-depth, patient, and genuinely interesting, as it not only tells us tales of books, it tells the story of those who owned books throughout history, whether those books were in a library, a single shelf, or just a box. As a result, the history of the book is somehow made human, as it shows from ancient times until now, and from rich to poor, books were the thing that people valued.

The book starts with a recreation of the library of Alexandria, to share the grandeur of the ancient site. A book alone could be lost to this one subject, but the book soon moves on through the creation of books, with the history of tablets, papyrus, leather, through to printed paper. Even while going through these practical elements of a physical book, The Library shows how and why decisions were made as people sought to protect their knowledge and value its physical state. The Library shows how books were considered valuable success markers for the wealthy, kept by even those who couldn’t read themselves. As libraries were often private collections, particularly Latin books, this book is able to tell the story of kings and queens, mighty rulers, and wealthy merchants in times past, it can tell us about who owns books today.

The library does stick to a European viewpoint of the history of books, though also shares eastern Mediterranean influences as well. Being Euro-centric, this also shows the catastrophic advance of colonialism, which also took books across the world. The Library is able to show us how this influenced shared knowledge, even if the physical books in question did not accurately cover the stories of the invaded and colonised nations. This book is one for those who really want to get down to the specific details of the history of books and libraries, a testament to millennia of book-loving.

You can read The Library, A Fragile History, and gain more understanding of why you love your own books today.


This review was not given in return for a free book – buy books (or visit libraries) and make sure authors are fairly paid

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