One of the constants in scholarly communication is the importance of understanding the full system of knowledge production. Whether you are a researcher, work in a library or in publishing, or in one of the myriad places deploying the myriad skills needed to create and share knowledge, it’s always helpful to spend time reflecting on how your own position and work relates to others.
Another constant is that many of us are big readers. And if you really, really love reading, whatever your professional situation in this business, you might also really love reading about reading – and libraries. And librarians. I’ve been reading a lot about libraries for a long time, and more lately. But the category is huge, and it feels like a good time in a globally hard year to think about the pleasures of reading about something that is a near-universal good (excellent critiques of the form and practices of collecting and more notwithstanding). A warning that this post is a bit like those tweets that ask for references; help me crowdsource, with this global crowd of scholarly comms folks, a bigger list of great books about libraries and librarians.
Books about libraries range from academic analyses of the social and economic origins of library foundations (like the Carnegie Libraries, which are located predominantly in the U.S. but also in the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere) to accounts of librarians saving books from the violence of war, to the sheer visual pleasure of library architecture and interiors. Book Riot just ran a feature on historical libraries in my new hometown of Providence, Rhode Island and perhaps I’m only a touch biased, but wow have we got some beauties (I’m partial to #5, and am headed for a visit to #6 tomorrow). The history of libraries and librarians is an academic field of inquiry, a hobbyist’s pleasure, and for many of us should be a professional necessity.
One of the first books people started to recommend to me earlier this year, but which I didn’t read until one of my board members suggested it again, is The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A novel about the great book woman and the founding director and librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now the Morgan Library and Museum) in New York City, Belle da Costa Greene, Benedict and Murray’s book explores Greene’s life as a Black woman living and professionally triumphing as a white woman in the early twentieth century in a story about racism, collecting, and the birth of one of the world’s great libraries. It’s a great read, but it also made me hungry to learn more about Greene and about the world of women librarians in her era. I just started a 2007 biography of Greene. The Morgan is planning an exhibit on Greene in 2024, and has been sponsoring some research on Greene’s work and life including transcription and digitization and a digital platform with I Tatti for some of her correspondence.
Over on Five Books Richard Ovenden, the 25th librarian of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, talked about his role and the historic institution he leads. He also recommended five books about libraries; it’s worth checking out his selection. Among them I concur about the thrill and terror of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book about the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It’s a visceral book, bringing you close to the nearly-indescribable heat of the fire itself and into the soggy post-fire mess of thousands upon thousands of volumes, along with the staffing and infrastructure that created the Library and then had to be rebuilt. I’ve thought lately that though I just bought Ovenden’s own lauded work, Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, a year ago, it is worth a serious re-read in light of the efforts to ban the 1619 Project and associated (or even vaguely related) work.
I’d like to read more about librarians and their innovative practices. I read the novel The Paris Library, but am waiting to find a good history of the place and its people. As a historian running a library, I am perhaps naturally attracted to histories of these great institutions and the people who have built them; I’ve certainly been scouring the institutional archives and histories of the John Carter Brown Library, and using the collections at Brown University’s Hay Library to learn more about some of the early librarians. But I’d still like more context. I’m wondering, for example, why I can’t find a good book about Henriette Davidson Avram, the computer scientist who developed the MARC format at the Library of Congress. I’m also going to pick up over the break Peter Devereaux’s The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures. In a blog interview for the LOC, he described the innovation of card cataloging so elegantly, and also reminded that one impetus for a virtual catalogue came from the sheer weight of the thing. “By the 1950s, as the main card catalog at the Library surged to more than 9 million cards in 10,500 trays, staff grew increasingly concerned.”
Libraries and librarians the world over are complex, diverse, and distinctive — and in addition to filling vital roles for people and societies who depend on their critical function of providing information and preserving knowledge, they make for fascinating reading. I’m based in the U.S., and have read a lot about U.S. libraries. But having read a couple of academic articles about libraries in India, I’d like to read a general audience book about both private libraries and public library systems there. Having watched with horror as the news reported the loss to fire of special collections at the University of Cape Town earlier this year, I’d like to know about this particular library but also other university libraries in Africa. The universe of stories and histories of libraries and librarians is vast. Share some of your favorites in the comments?