The best books on the history of communication

Who am I?

I started academic life as a historian of the Protestant Reformation, and gradually shifted to the history of communication, in the process creating a major online resource documenting publications from all over the world in the first two centuries of printing, the Universal Short Title Catalogue. After several works on books, news, and information culture I teamed up with another St Andrews colleague, Arthur der Weduwen, to enjoy the pleasures of co-authorship: this book, a history of libraries and book collecting, is our fourth collaboration.


I wrote...

The Library: A Fragile History

By Andrew Pettegree, Arthur Der Weduwen,

Book cover of The Library: A Fragile History

What is my book about?

The Library charts the rich and varied history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today. This is not a story of easy progress through the centuries, nor a lament for libraries lost. Instead, we show that a repeating cycle of creation and dispersal, decay and reconstruction, turns out to be the historical norm as collections that represented the values and interests of one generation fail to speak to the one that follows. We trace the rise and fall of fashions and tastes that dictated the fate of libraries, and reveal the high crimes and misdemeanors committed in pursuit of rare and valuable manuscripts: the private collector, who offered a sanctuary for books throughout history, is at the heart of the story.

The books I picked & why

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The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

By Edward Wilson-Lee,

Book cover of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Young Columbus and the Quest for a Universal Library

Why this book?

What do you do if your father has just discovered whole new continents? In the case of Hernando, son of Christopher Columbus, the answer was to conquer a new world of his own: the new universe of printed books. In this beautifully written and accessible study, Edward Wilson-Lee explores Hernando’s quixotic yet determined attempt to emulate the library of ancient Alexandria by creating a universal library of print. It does not end well.


Knowledge is Power

By Richard D. Brown,

Book cover of Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865

Why this book?

The key obstacle to communication in the pre-modern age was distance: this was particularly the case in the transported communities of European settlers in distant continents, often sparsely settled and without the familiar settled infrastructure of roads and trade. In this landmark study, Richard Brown considers the case of colonial America and the early Republic through a series of well-chosen case studies. These reveals that Americans relied on a multi-media experience of newsgathering, where conversation, gossip, and neighbour networks competed with new media innovations. An instant classic full of insight.


The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany

By Jan-Pieter Barbian,

Book cover of The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books in the Media Dictatorship

Why this book?

It is striking that the multitude of studies of propaganda in the Second World War deal with newspapers, cinema, radio, and poster campaigns and largely ignore books. The Nazi regime certainly did not, as this fascinating and authoritative book makes clear. From the first months after their takeover of power, Nazi authorities moved swiftly to establish control over libraries and the publishing industry, as well as authors and booksellers. This is the definitive study of how the German book world was reordered to serve the totalitarian state.


The Library Book

By Susan Orlean,

Book cover of The Library Book

Why this book?

Interweaving the author’s own life and a historical event is a tricky business, but Susan Orlean pulls it off in the masterpiece of sympathetic and suspenseful writing. Having moved to Los Angeles, Orlean becomes fascinated by a local disaster, the destruction by fire of 400,000 books from the collection of the local public library. At the time this event went largely unreported, overshadowed by the far larger catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station that occurred almost simultaneously. Along the way, as Orlean introduces us to the leading characters in this still largely unresolved mystery, we learn a great deal about the pre-digital world of the public library, and the colourful cast of readers for whom it was an essential part of their lives.


Im Zeichen des Merkur

By Wolfgang Behringer,

Book cover of Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der Frühen Neuzeit

Why this book?

This is the one that got away. There was no communications revolution in the sixteenth century as important as the establishment of a transcontinental European postal network. It was made possible by the fact that the Habsburg Empire under Charles V now united most of its major postal hubs, and they found in the family Thurn and Taxis contractors with the influence and administrative brilliance to set up the necessary postal relays. This crucial innovation found its historian in Wolfgang Behringer, in a magisterial study published in the year 2003. Remarkably, it has never been published in English. There are a couple of nice articles in English, but this is like railway sandwiches compared to the feast available for those who can read the original in German.


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