Book review: A Library Miscellany, by Claire Cock-Starkey
Without hesitation, I can say one of the things I love most is the library. The cover picture on this site is the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, one of my favorite places to be. I’ve been attached to libraries since childhood. I love the potential of finding something new and unexpected, the quiet atmosphere, just the idea of being able to borrow and read as much as you want. They’re such a marvelous thing. This blog couldn’t even exist without libraries. And I know I’m not alone in this deep appreciation.
With this lifelong love, I was very excited for author Claire Cock-Stockey’s A Library Miscellany, a deep-delve, told in small snippets, into the history and trivia of world libraries and the institution of the library itself. It follows on 2017’s The Book Lover’s Miscellany. This little book has such an eclectic mix of facts and stories and bits of history, all centered around things you probably didn’t know about libraries. The research is incredibly thorough, and it covers more library-related topics than I thought possible.
It’s best read in small doses, a few passages here and there, as it is very information-heavy. It’s easier to absorb and appreciate some of the little factoids and statistics this way. It makes for great reading traded off with another title.
Between longer stories on specific topics, it’s punctuated with lots of lists, which I found pretty insightful, like about which books enjoy the most circulation in UK libraries, or banned books in the US and how they’ve changed over time (the more recent ones really surprised me.) Or fun trivia about movie star libraries: the Bodleian Library in Oxford played the library in the Harry Potter movies, and the Huntington Library in California has an appropriately Hollywood career.
There’s data about how libraries are actually used, some of the unique collections around the world, and (a big highlight) fascinating anecdotes about things I either never knew existed, or stories behind things that are very familiar.
A favorite here were anecdotes about the famous lions who guard the entrance to the New York Public Library, whose source marble is the same as that used for Grand Central Station and the Lincoln Memorial. I can’t believe I never knew that!
Or in the former category, how about this image:
Some sixteenth-century engravings have furnished us with images of the innovative book wheel – a large, rotating wooden wheel, rather like a waterwheel in appearance, holding between three and six volumes; the reader sits at the base of the wheel and turns it to access the next book.
In a section titled “Enemies of the Library”, diverse adversaries are detailed: “Ever since libraries have existed wily librarians have needed to protect their collection from a variety of threats, many of which persist to this day.” And here we learn why one library is home to a bat colony.
One of my favorite topics, which reappeared in various guises in several sections, were quotations addressing libraries. Like one from John Lubbock: “We may sit in our library and yet be in all corners of the earth.” Like I said, if you’re in love with the library, just paging through this will make you really happy.
There’s also humor, from the more eyebrow-raising like the Vatican’s disputed pornography collection, referred to as the “Inferno”, to the lighter: the fantastic old questions referred to librarians that the New York Public Library has been sharing in recent years from its archives. Cock-Starkey lists a few gems, including “Is there a law in NYC whereby a child can become unrelated to its parent if they don’t like each other? (February 1961) and Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter? (October 1976).
There are some surprisingly charming stories of the longest overdue library books (George Washington is a very guilty culprit), and I found a section describing the evolution of prison libraries to be fascinating. They began as heavily moralistic and religious in content, but have since, especially according to the UK principles outlined here, been widely expanded and supported in order to encourage educational improvement as part of rehabilitation efforts.
Ministry of Justice guidelines stipulate that the stock of a prison library should be ten times greater than the prison population itself.
But I think my favorite story told here is that of the American Library in Paris:
In an unprepossessing building in the 7th arrondissement of Paris is housed an American library holding 120,000 books – the largest English-language lending library in continental Europe. The not-for-profit library was established in 1920 after World War I from the thousands of books which had been sent to troops in the trenches by the American War Service. After the war ended the books were collected into a library whose motto reflects its origins and ethos: Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux (After the darkness, the light of books). During World War II the library was able to stay open and largely uncensored thanks to the fact that its director’s son was married to the daughter of Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. The library secretly used its position to lend books to Jews who had been banned from other libraries.
It’s a beautifully formatted, charming book. I’m terrible at gifting books, but this informative, creative little celebration of all things library is exactly the one to gift a reader.
A Library Miscellany
by Claire Cock-Starkey
published by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
University of Chicago Press in the US on May 15, 2018
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher and author for unbiased review.
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