In an interview with The Saint, Professor Andrew Pettegree and Dr Arthur der Weduwen of the School of Modern History, they discussed their new book The Library: A Fragile History. This book is not their first collaboration. Dr der Weduwen came to St Andrews as an MLitt student and, after volunteering for the school in research on Dutch news- papers, produced a two-volume bibliography of Dutch and Flemish newspapers un- der the supervision of Professor Pettegree. Professor Pettegree said, “We got quite into that, so I suggested we might write a book together on the book culture of the Dutch [The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age]. And after that came this.” On the inspiration for The Library: A Fragile History, Dr der Weduwen com- mented, “One of the things that struck us when writing The Bookshop of the World was how important private libraries were to general book culture. This prompted a chat about a history of libraries. This is something that has been done before, but often either from the perspective of saying ‘the history of libraries is sad, they are victims of violent acts of war and destruction’ or presenting monumental illustrations of the most beautiful libraries of the world. So, we thought, ‘people clearly love libraries, but there is potential here for a different kind of story. One that doesn’t just tell this aspect, but also investigates the fact that most libraries throughout the world don’t exist anymore. Almost all libraries that were built are gone, and that’s also why we subtitled the book ‘a fragile history’ because it’s this sense that the fate of most book collections is to be dispersed.’” Professor Pettegree added, “When it comes down to it, nobody loves a library as much as the library’s first creator. I know not only all of my books, but I know the stories behind them, where I got them, the great strokes of luck when you’re looking for something else, but that means nothing to anyone else. So as soon as a collector comes to the end of their life, their family sells their books.” Both authors admitted that they wanted to “pop the balloon” when it comes to traditional understandings of libraries, finding in their research that the history of the library has always been one of adaptation and change. Professor Pettegree said, “The key theme of the book is that the cycle of creation, growth and then dissolution and then recreation and rebirth is a natural part of the human engagement with its cultural heritage but also with its cultural aspirations. Each new generation wants to reshape its communal resources in its own way.” Dr der Weduwen emphasised this point by saying, “Think for example about university libraries. If we were to go to the university here now, it’s an active place. There is lots of energy, there’s a café, people who meet up to do group exercises, just to browse, get a book off the shelf and go again. There’s an IT service point. All of these various factors. When libraries grew in the sixteenth century, becoming important institutions, most undergraduate students had no access to them. If they did, it was for four hours a week. University libraries were designed as resources for professors, and only then for reference works. A professor like Andrew would have been expected to have his own collection. And it’s only the really expensive items he might have gone to the university library for. It was common for a university professor to have had more books in his own library than the university library. So, it’s never been a static thing.” The theme of loss also came into this discussion of transformation. Dr der Weduwen commented, “Sometimes mistakes are made. This is a constant in library history and in this history of books. People are always looking for the modernising change that will revolutionise everything.” “Take e-books for example. University libraries have e-books because they are popular. Especially for books in high demand, you can still access a text. But there are other implications here too. There is increasingly a scholarly sense that reading something on paper is better for retention than reading it on screen. Similarly, for university libraries, buying e-books is incredibly expensive. On top of that, if a university were to say we are going to get rid of physical books and focus on e-books, what happens when the publisher goes bust, or the link dies?”
“Or the lights go out,” Professor Pettegree added. “I think we discovered during COVID just how fragile all of this is and the things we took for granted, like in my case access to my library.”
When asked about the research process, Professor Pettegree said, “Obviously, you think about the project for quite some time before you decide to write a book about it. Our books normally start with a quiet pint in Aikman’s. We put a piece of paper down on the sticky table and we map out a chapter structure. And that’s the first thing you need to do. This meant that we knew which libraries we wanted to go to. Happily, we got the research done just before lockdown. We divided it up, nine chapters each. We write in very different ways, I tend to write longhand and key it in, Arthur has his own system. But once you’ve done your draft, you give it to the other guy, and it comes back to you with track changes. The deal is, you accept the track changes without any discussion or argument, and that’s the end of that.” On whom the book is aimed at, Professor Pettegree said, “It’s aimed at the general reader who wants a serious and long read. I think it’s probably more a dipping in and out book rather than a book to curl up and read.”
Dr der Weduwen agreed. “Yes, anyone who is interested in history or libraries or books. You can read it straight through, but you could still get a lot out of the book just by focusing on a few specific chapters. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we couldn’t include everything. The librar- ies we have chosen here are really more symbolic of particular developments, and because we found funny stories about them. That’s another thing we do try with our writing, to let it be led by narrative. That way it remains a very human story.” The geographical focus of the book is Europe. The book also contains sixteenth and seventeenth century material on South America in the missionary age, as well as nineteenth and twentieth century material on North America. From the nineteenth century there is research on colonial em- pires from the British Empire. Towards the end of the book there is reflection on current developments in the global south. On the geographical focus of the book, Dr der Weduwen said, “One of the ironies is that in an age in which many European countries are wavering in their commit- ment to physical books and libraries, they are just becoming a big thing in large parts of Africa for example, so you can't say there is one library story. And we do try to incorporate as many perspectives as possible while keeping in mind that much of what is today the modern library world is descended from European developments.” Professor Pettegree added to this. “A lot of non-European cultures had very vivid book culture, but they stayed with a handwritten culture. So, if you’ve got a narrative which reflects the enormous abundance of books in the print era, that is necessarily going to be rather Eurocentric, because that is the centre of the print world”. “This is a book which stretched us a long way. The Bookshop of the World really covers a single century, the seventeenth, whereas this covers two millennium.” The appeal of covering such a long timespan was to do justice to the subject and to appeal to as many people as possible. Professor Pettegree said, “We covered such a long timespan because we could and because no one else had done. There is no book of this sort. I’ve never written a book which didn’t give a perspective which wasn’t substantially new, because there doesn’t seem to be any point. Also, by spreading your wings you learn so much and it is an opportunity to keep learning.” On the so-called crisis of the library, both Professor Pettegree and Dr der Weduwen are optimistic. Professor Pettegree acknowledged the difficulty of council resources in the UK and where funding should go, but said, “I think if you look more globally you see that libraries are actually thriving. Bill and Melinda Gates put billions into providing internet access throughout the world, and this consisted of putting computer sta- tions in local libraries or even creating local libraries. We’re in a period of evolu- tion, but not necessarily one of despair.” “I’m an optimist as the bookmark is so robust. The book is meant to have been dead now for 70 years, yet every year more and more are published. It does seem to me that the e-reader has reached its zenith now. It works on the beach where you can put 15 books on Kindle, but it doesn’t work as an everyday experience.” Dr der Weduwen added, “Libraries are successful when they are not just treated as prestigious institutions but are actively being used. That’s when you can stop the cycle of neglect when a library just becomes a symbol rather than a resource. Aside from that, one of the things I hope will take place is that libraries take advantage of opportunities digitalisation offers, without getting rid of books. I do think you see problems in library story when modernisers throw away the old and embrace the new without stopping and thinking ‘this artefact has been around for centuries because it works, and we value it’. People who read books take the new with the old. There are few people who with e-readers have decided to chuck all their books in the skip. Libraries should think similarly.” “We don’t need to despair. We just need to pay attention.”
When asked what makes a library, both authors emphasised the personal nature of collection. Professor Pettegree said, “I think a library is any collection of books purposefully collected. Eight books in fifteenth century Europe would have taken a lifetime and a lot of money to assemble.”
Dr der Weduwen agreed. “The very origin of the word ‘library’ comes from the Greek term for the Bible, the collection of books that make up the Bible. There are quite a few books that make up the Bible, but it’s certainly not the size of the Bodleian either. It is meant to encapsulate a variety of books that are together in one place for a reason.”
On a final “Desert Island Discs” style question in which both authors were asked which one book they would keep, both took a minute to think.
Professor Pettegree said, “I think I would pick War and Peace because it’s long. I’m going to get a bit of paper, read it, then index it because I feel all books over 300 pages need indexing. Then I will sell it to a publisher, and they can put out the definitive indexed version”.
Dr der Weduwen said, “I think I’ll say The Name of the Rose, by Ubetta Echo. It’s also a long book and is quite complex. It talks about many other books and intellectual movements and interests. When you read it the first time you don’t get everything. So, if I only had one book to read, I could certainly do with a few re-reads of that to make sense of it. But it’s also a fun book so I would enjoy it for that reason.”
The Library: A Fragile History, has been out since 14 October 2021. It is available in hardback for £25.