The Meaning of the Library: a Cultural History Edited by Alice Crawford, book review: Why this valuable institution deserves a long shelf life

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Princeton University Press, £24.95. Order for £22.45 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

This book considers aspects of the library from 47 BC to the age of technology. Public, private, personal, subscription libraries, the libraries of antiquity and those of Georgian, Victorian and 20th-century Britain all get a showing. Twelve essays and an introduction run us through continents and centuries, and if quite a lot seems to be omitted – well, that is the nature of the undertaking, whose purpose is to provide an overview. Each of Alice Crawford's contributors takes a cool look at enlightenment principles, literary riches, idiosyncratic collections and so forth, while holding in mind the primary function of the library: to serve the cause of scholarship, and to foster enlargement of outlook along with readers' intellectual well-being and gratification.

Of course, some of these essays are livelier than others. John Sutherland offers a compelling account of developments during the 19th century. He writes about the establishment of the London Library, and includes a quotation from Trollope, who rated his own collection of books above horses and wine. The opening essay, by Edith Hall, is astute on ancient Greece and Rome. Robert Crawford, whose subject is "The Library in Poetry", pays eloquent tribute to female librarians and comes right up to the present with Douglas Dunn's marvellous poem, "Libraries: a Celebration". Poetry, on the whole, fares rather better in The Meaning of the Library than fiction does. Marina Warner's essay on the latter, for all its flair and erudition, never gets to grips with its declared topic. It begins with Gilgamesh and ends with the poet Alice Oswald, excluding altogether such relevant novelists as Elias Canetti, AS Byatt and Philip Roth (say). Of 20th-century authors, only Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges rate a mention in the chapter entitled "The Library in Fiction".

Borges, it's true – along with Alberto Manguel, Philip Larkin and one or two others – is an author whose name is nearly synonymous with literary librarianship and library matters, and he has a part to play in a book such as this. The main drift, though, is general rather than particular – and as a history and an assessment of an inestimable resource and a force for good in the world, The Meaning of the Library is a timely and thought-provoking compilation. It treats the idea of the library throughout its flourishing years, and manages to end on an optimistic note, despite the terrible curtailment of public library services, branch closures etc. Whatever form it may take in the future, the library as an institution is here to stay.

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