From fiction bans to wartime books: The history of libraries and how they’ve shaped us

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • 23 April is World Book and Copyright Day.
  • In The Library: A Fragile History, two academics explore the mixed fortunes of book collections, from the ancient scrolls of Alexandria to the embattled libraries of modern-day England.
  • Here they explain how the purpose of libraries has changed, how libraries fare during wartime, and why fiction was once frowned upon.

It’s unmistakable. The musty, slightly sweet smell of books. Not the new ones of a book shop, but those whose pages have been thumbed by many others before you. This is the scent of the library.

Two academics have been on the trail, to trace the origins of the library from the ancient papyrus scrolls of Alexandria, to the popular modern mobile library of the Orkney Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland.

In The Library: A Fragile History, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen uncover the often brutal fate that has befallen collections of books down the centuries, from accidental mould to purposely lit bonfires.

They introduce a cast of bookworms, antiquarians and library philanthropists, including Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, as they seek to discover how humans have shaped libraries and they in turn have shaped us.

This World Book and Copyright Day, we spoke to the two St Andrews scholars to celebrate the work of libraries around the world.

Image: Twitter/@APettegree

What do we mean when we talk about “the library”?

Arthur der Weduwen (ADW): Any purposefully assembled collection of books, of any quantity. In the 13th century, a handful of exquisite manuscript books would be the absolute pride and joy of a prince or a ruler. But several centuries later, three books doesn’t mean all that much. What is a book itself has also changed over time. So that includes handwritten books, printed books, digital books in our age. Before the emergence of the codex, in the days of the Roman Empire, books would be written in many different ways: on papyrus scrolls, inscribed on tablets. If you look at a global history of knowledge transmission, what we see as the standard form of the book is much more flexible, if you take into account how the indigenous cultures of the Americas, for example, would produce their books. So we tried to be as flexible and as inclusive in our definition as possible.

It all begins in Alexandria in ancient Egypt, which seems to have been the first library. Why was it such an extraordinary place?

Andrew Pettegree (AP): It was an enormous collection of between 200,000 and 500,000 scrolls, mostly inscribed on papyrus, which set considerable problems with storage, filing and organization. But it was also an attempt to create an academic and scholarly academy, gathering together all the scholars in the Greek world in this new town of Alexandria, where they were provided with accommodation, free food and a very generous salary. They managed to recruit some very distinguished librarians who did a lot of work inventing cataloguing systems and storage systems that we see through the centuries. It’s also famous for the mystery of its disappearance. Nothing survives from the Library of Alexandria today. But it doesn’t really need to be a mystery: papyrus is an extremely good surface on which to inscribe text, but it’s also very vulnerable to damp. So every two or three generations, it needs to be recopied to preserve the text, and with a collection of this scale, that was a task beyond anyone. The result was that the papyrus probably just moulded away.

Andrew Carnegie is synonymous with the modern public library movement – how did he manage to establish so many libraries in the UK and US?

ADW: Carnegie was a true visionary and probably had more influence than anyone else on the creation of public libraries. As late as the middle of the 19th century, there were very few public libraries around at all. And even when the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850 in England, which basically allowed communities to introduce a rate for local taxpayers to erect a public library, very few communities took up this initiative. Carnegie’s vision rested on identifying communities that wanted a public library, but didn’t necessarily have the capital. He said, “‘I will give you the capital to have a public library building” – and that was often one of the crucial things that was lacking in library provision – “as long as you commit to providing an annual fund: a tenth of the of the capital that I’m investing.” So he allowed many small communities to make their first step – and this was a massive success, especially in the British Isles, and in the United States, where Carnegie focused most of his philanthropic efforts.

An infographic showing the number of book loans by public libraries per year
Tokyo has over double the book loans by public libraries than London Image: Statista

How has the purpose or the role that libraries played changed over time?

ADW: The idea of libraries as an instrument of social reform or, indeed, control was strong in the early history of the public library. If the government is going to provide libraries to people, they need to have a good purpose, people need to be improved. In some libraries, librarians would often hide improving non-fiction literature among the stacks of slightly more recreational types of books in the hope that if they have a patron browsing, they might also stumble upon a “big book” and take it away with them. Libraries started to play a role in emancipation in some societies where there was segregation or repression. Where marginalized groups were allowed to have a space like a library, it became a focal point for both education and for intellectual movements to gather. You see this in South Africa in the early 20th century, for example. But that’s only those libraries that were funded properly, or were equipped to any decent degree, and that’s not sadly a universal story.

Fiction initially wasn’t seen to be worthy of reading and, in fact, the novel was touted in New York as a cause of insanity. But then it becomes key to the survival of libraries. What happened?

AP: The war on fiction began almost as soon as printing was invented. Some of the first books were romances, Arthurian legends and prose works, which people regarded as particularly unsuitable reading for women. Don Quixote, for example, was banned from being taken to the Spanish-held lands in Central and Southern America. When you come to the public libraries, you have the age-old dilemma of all media. Should they be aiming at instruction and improvement, or entertainment? The whole justification of the Public Libraries Act of 1850 in England was to educate the new industrial classes into their responsibilities as citizens. But if you’ve done a 12-hour day in a factory, you don’t want to come home to read improving books, you want to have some relaxation. So people tended to shy away from the public libraries and go instead to circulating, commercial libraries run by the corner shops. This went on into the 1940s until the coming of the paperback. It dawned on the libraries that because most people could now buy books for themselves, unless they let up a little on things like romance literature, they’d lose their customers altogether, and their justification for existence would disappear. It was really only in the 1950s and 60s that the UK public library accepted its mission as a tool of recreation and entertainment.

What role have women had in the development of the modern library?

ADW: Women are often obscured in the historical record behind male family members when it comes to library building. This is often the case in, for example, aristocratic libraries, where it’s quite difficult to see whether the wife or the woman as head of the household was responsible for the acquisition or the growth of the library. I think women played a very important role, especially in the late mediaeval period, when it comes to the creation of the first great royal libraries, because they were really the first patrons of the magnificent manuscript books. But it’s only with the era of mass literacy, and universal improvements in women’s education, that you have the opportunity for many more women to be buying books, to be enjoying them, and to play an active role in the administration of libraries. We really see them come to the fore as librarians with the public library movement, in the United States, and then later, also, in Europe, itself. In general, women tend to read more than men and play an extremely important role in the health of the library.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Book Club?

The World Economic Forum launched its official Book Club on Facebook in April 2018. Readers worldwide are invited to join and discuss a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. It is a private Facebook group dedicated to discussing one book every month.

Each month, we announce a new book on our social media channels. We then publish an extract and begin a chapter-by-chapter discussion with group members. Selected comments and questions are sent to the author, who in return sends us a video response.

Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving you – our global audience with members all around the globe – a chance to directly connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.

We have featured authors such as Steven Pinker, Elif Shafak, Yuval Noah Harari, and Melinda Gates.

You can join the Book Club here.

Follow us on Twitter here.

Follow us on Instagram here.

There’s a whole section of your book called “The War on Books”. What roles do libraries and books play during times of war?

AP: This is a subject which I don’t think has been adequately treated. There’s a lot of stress on tragic destruction and on bombing, as if books are always innocent victims. But books are often also the seeds of the ideologies that lead to war – databanks and knowledge for intelligence and science and technological advance – so they’re actually very active in the process of war-making. This is particularly true of maps. Before the Second World War, professors of geography in German universities were pursuing the idea of “lebensraum” [further German conquest of territory], long before the Nazis come along. And indeed, the Nazis actually tried to suppress certain geographical texts, as they gave away their plans too early. Then there are issues like how authors fare in war. It’s an extremely difficult time for new authors to make their way because of paper shortages. Books in war provide comfort to civilians, and were supplied in many thousands to soldiers and prisoners of war during the world wars. The English prisoners of war in German camps read enormously, not least because the German captors were much keener on reading than tunnelling.

Image: Twitter/@APettegree

You also talk about the need to evacuate books as cultural treasures, and the idea of “libricide” wiping out written records of entire cultures. Why are books and libraries targets of war?

ADW: This is sadly something that’s really ubiquitous throughout human history, and the answer is because they represent both memory and culture. If you are intent on conquering or subjugating another nation, or trying to destroy its heritage, the library is a very good place for that, sadly. And it’s something you see everywhere: we know of 30 examples from the last century and a half or so. The destruction of Aztec literary heritage by the Spanish during the conquest of Mexico is one example. But for every case of libricide or deliberate destruction, there’s also cases of book plunder – the conquerors also wish to preserve the literary heritage by taking it back home, and then either studying it or redistributing it as spoils. In the 17th century, the Swedish Empire gave instructions to its officers, whenever they entered a conquered town, that they were to identify a local official who could point them to any libraries. They shipped books back to Sweden and then neatly divided them between all the university and cathedral libraries where they still remain today.

The COVID pandemic has seen a rise in reading and buying books. You describe libraries as “slow thinking spaces”, and a book as “creating a mindfulness class of one”. How do you think books can help mental health?

ADW: I definitely feel that we’ve seen that return to reading. Book shops have done reasonably well during the pandemic, many public libraries less so, just because of forced closures rather than anything else, but librarians have continued to provide lots of services throughout. Libraries and books are incredibly important to people’s mental health and a lot of that comes from this sense that we have all this information available to us nowadays. Anyone with an internet connection can look up almost anything they want to. But that creates a lot of pressure for people, they sense all this information out there and you have so much thrust upon you. Whereas if you go into a library, you can just browse to your own delight, without any pressure on you. That’s where you come to much slower thought, and also the freedom to go beyond what you would usually choose. In the library, you can ask for recommendations, but you’re at your liberty to choose whatever you want, to take a path and see where it goes. And I think that, combined with a library providing a quiet space of reflection, is paramount for many people’s mental health.

You say that libraries only last as long as people find them useful, and that they need to adapt to survive. What is the fate of the modern-day public library?

AP: I think books actually have a better future, or a safer future, to look forward to than public libraries. In Britain, we do have a crisis of the branch library, that is small branches with a declining and ailing usership where they can’t now hold enough book stock to remain really interesting to anything other than a core usership. For instance, I use our local public library here in St Andrews [Scotland], but it probably only has about 2,000 books on the shelves, whereas our local independent bookseller has 30,000 books. So to some extent, the browsing function you used to enjoy in libraries is being transferred to these splendid independent bookshops. I can see a situation in which branch libraries will either be handed over to the local community to run them as volunteers, or they could easily be replaced by a mobile library – the rebuilding of the mobile library network, as happens very effectively on the island of Orkney, for instance. With an ageing clientele for libraries, or parents and children largely stuck at home, you could see that their interests could be catered for equally well by a revived mobile service.

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