Q&A with Andrew Pettegree, author of ‘The Library: A Fragile History’

Andrew Pettegree, co-author of “The Library: A Fragile History,” discusses the centuries-long development of libraries as a civic necessity. 

"The Library: A Fragile History" by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, Basic Books, 528 pp.

Here’s another reason to treasure your library card: Public libraries were never inevitable. That’s just one of the takeaways from “The Library: A Fragile History,” by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Mr. Pettegree, a British historian, spoke with the Monitor recently.

What do people misunderstand about libraries?

We think of the public library as a constant through history. But in fact, it's not. 

Before print was invented, a collection of 300 books would be quite exceptional. From around 1450, when printing was invented, and 1800, private collections drove the whole library culture. People like lawyers, doctors, and religious ministers were building collections of over 1,000 books. 

It really charmed me that in the 17th century, a professor could have a private collection that was many times bigger than his university’s library – something which is simply unimaginable now. 

Where did they store books back then?

They tended to be kept in chests with all the other valuables. One of the major revolutions in the development of the library, the idea of storing books vertically on specially made shelves, was actually very late in coming and only became the general way of doing it in the 17th century. Even so, [philosopher] John Locke still kept his books in chests right through to the end of his life. 

How were shelves useful?

They allowed much easier consultation, but books on shelves were more vulnerable. In 17th-century paintings, you’ll often see a man sitting at a table in front of some shelves of books, but there'll be a curtain hanging across them. Those were used partly to protect the books from dust, but also to protect the books from nimble hands.

How did public libraries come to exist?

The public library movement in the United States and Europe only really got underway in the middle of the 19th century, propelled by industrialization, the increase of literacy, and the closing of the literacy gap between men and women. 

Supporters promoted libraries as civilizing: People would go to the library instead of down to the tavern for their recreation, and they’d become good citizens through reading. Brewers in Britain lobbied quite hard against taxation [that would support] libraries because they preferred you drink away your wages at the pub.

How did facilities in the United States contribute to the evolution of libraries?

American library pioneers came up with innovative solutions, such as mobile libraries. Horse-drawn mobile libraries still served many Appalachian communities deep into the 20th century. 

There’s also a striking difference compared to elsewhere: American libraries, especially in rural areas, were often run by women rather than men. Even as early as World War I, U.S. libraries were already overwhelmingly run by women, who made up 70% of librarians compared to just 30% in Britain.

What role did American magnate Andrew Carnegie play in promoting public libraries?

He’s the real hero of this story. He offered around $10,000 each to communities to build simple local libraries, and in return they had to commit to maintaining the library. By 1914, he supplied something like 2,000 libraries to Britain, the U.S., and Canada.

When did trouble start for public libraries?

In some respects, from 1935 onward. That’s when the cheap and more accessible paperback was invented, which encouraged people to build their own collections. It was really difficult for libraries to restock paperbacks because they disintegrate so quickly – particularly the wartime paperbacks. 

It was really only in the 1970s that public libraries came to terms with the paperback and started stocking books like romances, which they previously thought were rather demeaning for the public, because they were so desperate for customers.

Libraries also started presenting themselves as a sort of branch of social services with meeting rooms and spaces for classes, and now  computer access. 

What happened when libraries started embracing less “edifying” book genres?

After the librarians relented, the principal challenges to library contents came from patrons and lobby groups. Librarians sometimes gave way too easily, as when “The Catcher in the Rye” was removed from the shelves of a library on the basis of one anonymous complaint. 

What does the future hold for libraries?

I’m not a pessimist. The death of the book has been proclaimed for 80 years, but people still like print. 

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