The best books on the history of the library

Arthur der Weduwen Author Of The Library: A Fragile History
By Arthur der Weduwen

Who am I?

I am a historian at the University of St Andrews, and an expert in the history of books, media, and communication. My working life has revolved around libraries: I stacked shelves at my local university library while I was an undergraduate, and have since worked as a researcher in some hundred reading rooms in twenty countries (and I am therefore the proud owner of many library cards, expired and current). I am also an avid book collector, and have a growing collection of seventeenth and eighteenth-century books, mostly printed in my native Netherlands. Writing a history of libraries was an enjoyable tribute to those fine institutions, historic and present.


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: A Fragile History 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 is at the heart of the story.

The books I picked & why

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The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco,

Book cover of The Name of the Rose

Why this book?

This is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying historical novels out there, not least because it is centered on a mysterious library in a mediaeval monastery, and involves a series of unexplained murders. I think this was probably one of the earliest works I read as a teenager that revolved around libraries. It is a fascinating book, and one of the finest written by Umberto Eco, a master of the genre (this was his debut novel!). While this might be fiction, Eco was always extremely careful to frame the historical context accurately, so you will learn a great deal about fourteenth-century library culture along the way. Once you have read the book you can also indulge in the filmed version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater from 1986—but be sure to read the book first.

The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Name of the Rose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Read the enthralling medieval murder mystery.

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.

William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

'Whether…


The Book on the Bookshelf

By Henry Petroski,

Book cover of The Book on the Bookshelf

Why this book?

Why do our libraries, those at home, at university, or in the public library network, look the way they do? Many people would agree that books are best stored upright on shelves, spine out, but how did we come to that conclusion? This delightful book offers all the answers, and incidentally reveals more than you could ever think of to ask about the manner in which we take care of, store, and display books. It might even give you some inspiration on how to arrange your own collection.

The Book on the Bookshelf

By Henry Petroski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Book on the Bookshelf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

He has been called "the poet laureate of technology" and a writer who is "erudite, witty, thoughtful, and accessible." Now Henry Petroski turns to the subject of books and bookshelves, and wonders whether it was inevitable that books would come to be arranged vertically as they are today on horizontal shelves. As we learn how the ancient scroll became the codex became the volume we are used to, we explore the ways in which the housing of books evolved. Petroski takes us into the pre-Gutenberg world, where books were so scarce they were chained to lecterns for security. He explains…


The Lost Library of the King of Portugal

By Angela Delaforce,

Book cover of The Lost Library of the King of Portugal

Why this book?

This is the most recently published book on my list of recommendations, and also the most beautiful. Books on libraries are often lavish, but few offer as striking and sad a history as this. This is the first in-depth examination of one of the greatest lost libraries in the world, that of King John V of Portugal (1689-1750). John was a true bibliophile, and arguably the greatest librarian-king. Although he rarely travelled, he amassed one of the most magnificent court libraries in Enlightenment Europe. This book tells its story, which also dips into a broader history of elite collecting, and of the devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755 and wiped the library off the face of the earth. Knowing the haunting fate of the library makes this a mesmerizing read.

The Lost Library of the King of Portugal

By Angela Delaforce,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lost Library of the King of Portugal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The destruction on the morning of All Saints Day 1755 of the heart of the city of Lisbon by an earthquake, tidal wave and the urban fires that followed was a tragedy that divides the 18th century in Portugal. One casualty on that fatal morning was the Royal Library, one of the most magnificent libraries in Europe at the time. The Lost Library of the King of Portugal tells the story of the lost library – its creation, collection and significance.

This 18th-century library was founded by the Bragança monarch Dom João V shortly after he came to the throne…


Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

By Stephen H. Grant,

Book cover of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

Why this book?

What does true bibliomania look like? Read no further than Stephen Grant’s Collecting Shakespeare, the story of the couple who created the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Henry Folger was a wealthy oil baron, but with the devoted help of his wife, poured all his money into buying up copies of Shakespeare editions, especially the famous First Folio of 1623 (he ultimately ended up with 82). The couple erected an enormous library building opposite the Library of Congress (flattening several blocks of housing in the process) to become the permanent home to the largest collection of books by and on Shakespeare in the world. Although Henry died before the library opened, this is a rare story of success in a long history of eccentric library curation that generally ends with the dispersal of the collection. 

Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger

By Stephen H. Grant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Collecting Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Collecting Shakespeare, Stephen H. Grant recounts the American success story of Henry and Emily Folger of Brooklyn, a couple who were devoted to each other, in love with Shakespeare, and bitten by the collecting bug. Shortly after marrying in 1885, the Folgers started buying, cataloging, and storing all manner of items about Shakespeare and his era. Emily earned a master's degree in Shakespeare studies. The frugal couple worked passionately as a tight-knit team during the Gilded Age, financing their hobby with the fortune Henry earned as president of Standard Oil Company of New York, where he was a trusted…


Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

By Nicholson Baker,

Book cover of Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

Why this book?

How do we decide what is kept? Every librarian will spend some part of their lives ‘weeding’ items from their collections: a necessary and important task. In this book, Nicholson Baker chronicles, with increasing agitation, what happens when de-accessioning gets out of control, and little foresight is given to weeding. Written from the perspective of a journalist uncovering a major hushed-up conspiracy, Double Fold demonstrates how (mostly American) libraries destroyed much of their historic newspaper stock during the twentieth century, throwing them out in favor of a new and fancy (but now largely obsolete) technology, the microfilm. The book made major waves, and is one of the finest clarion calls for the careful preservation of rare items, such as newspapers, which are often poorly catalogued and stored, but are priceless historical and cultural artefacts.

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

By Nicholson Baker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Double Fold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The ostensible purpose of a library is to preserve the printed word. But for fifty years our country’s libraries–including the Library of Congress–have been doing just the opposite, destroying hundreds of thousands of historic newspapers and replacing them with microfilm copies that are difficult to read, lack all the color and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age.

With meticulous detective work and Baker’s well-known explanatory power, Double Fold reveals a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, former CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives are destroyed with a machine called a guillotine. Baker argues passionately for…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Europe, and the Crusades?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, Europe, and the Crusades.

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