The white and gold hall of the library at Admont Abbey in Austria, designed by the architect Josef Hueber and completed in 1776
The white and gold hall of the library at Admont Abbey in Austria, designed by the architect Josef Hueber and completed in 1776 © Will Pryce

The Library: A World History, by James Campbell, photographs by Will Pryce, Thames & Hudson, RRP£48 / University of Chicago Press, RRP$75, 320 pages

In 1338, the library of the Sorbonne in Paris had 1,728 manuscripts in its register, 300 of them marked lost. In 2013, the British Library has almost 100,000 times as many: around 170m items, with 3m more streaming in every year. The explosion of demands made on libraries is dizzying yet some elements remain constant: acquire good stuff, keep it safe, make it findable, and give readers a pleasant environment in which to consult it. Sounds simple.

James Campbell’s new history of library architecture, with spectacular photographs by Will Pryce, takes us on a global tour of how these requirements have been fulfilled over the years, from the clay tablet storehouses of ancient Mesopotamia and the beautiful repositories of Buddhist sutra blocks and paper prints in Korea and Japan, to the grandiose designs and multimedia extravaganzas of the 21st century. One recent example came too late to make the book: the £189m Library of Birmingham, which opened last month. Designed by the Dutch firm Mecanoo, and featuring an art gallery, cafés, theatre, restaurant, terraces, children’s area, media centre and herb gardens, it stretches the meaning of the word “library” to its limits, although, somewhere inside it, you can find books, too.

The Library: A World History puts such creations into long perspective, showing how book technology, readers’ needs and architectural solutions have co-evolved (or, occasionally, been at loggerheads). In medieval European libraries, for example, bound manuscripts were precious and often unwieldy, so they were chained to desks. If you wanted to read a different book, you moved to the desk that went with it. Such a library survives, with collection intact, in the 1452 Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena in Italy. Opened only for special visitors, it is beautifully photographed here.

With printing, books became smaller and more replaceable, so the chains came off and they began to be stored vertically on shelves. The shelves then moved from reading alcoves on to the walls, sometimes in multiple storeys with galleries. It was now possible to display books spine outward, so collectors added their own uniform bindings, often exquisitely tooled in gilt. Libraries became sleeker and more luxurious.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, having a fabulous library was a status symbol, and baroque and rococo decoration sometimes went berserk. In Austria’s Altenburg Abbey library of 1742, the vast domes, barrel-vaulted ceilings, red and blue marble columns, frescoes, statues and prancing horses make it difficult to spot the puny collection of books cowering below in just nine bookcases. Also in Austria, the 1776 Admont Abbey library filled its white and gold hall with matching pristine white vellum bindings, to magical but slightly chilly effect. Campbell observes that such libraries seemed to want to encompass the whole of knowledge, not only in a single room but “in a single decorative scheme”. Some were too magnificent for this world: Etienne-Louis Boullée’s proposed Bibliothèque du Roi in Paris in 1785 would have been 100 metres long and 30 metres wide, with space for an astonishing 10m books. It was never really meant to be built, and it wasn’t.

In the 19th century, national and university libraries became grander and more high-tech, with iron vaulting, and stack retrieval systems made possible by developments in library science. A new breed appeared: the professional librarian, who increasingly fought for influence over decisions about building design. Battle lines were drawn. In 1878, a certain WH Overall, of the City of London Corporation Library, said “the two greatest enemies to libraries were architects and gas”. The latter caused fires; the former caused flaming rows.

When librarians and architects do manage to use each other’s expertise positively, the result can be an efficient and stylish machine for getting books to readers, such as the 1911 New York Public Library, with its seven levels of underground stacks beneath the reading room. This is currently at the centre of a ferocious debate, as it is due to be ripped out and refitted to a controversial design by Sir Norman Foster, with branch libraries closing to fund it. One of the project’s engineers, Joseph Tortorella, was quoted comparing the logistics of it all to “cutting the legs off a table while dinner is being served” – a not-very-desirable-sounding analogy seized on gleefully by opponents.

Campbell, an architect and architectural historian at Cambridge university, is precise and enlightening in his descriptions but extremely gentle in his judgments. He confines himself to saying, of Mecanoo’s unsympathetic underground Delft University of Technology Library of 1997, that “when such innovative strategies fail they provide ammunition for the opponents of architects being involved in library design”. He also notes of the Brandenburg University of Technology’s 2004 Information, Communications and Media Centre that its name is “a sad reflection of the current lack of confidence in the word ‘library’”.

Indeed it is – which makes it all the more refreshing that the Library of Birmingham has dared to speak its name. Perhaps this is a sign of shifting sensibilities, aided by high-profile campaigns protesting against the closure of many branch libraries, with celebrities recalling positive memories of library-reading in childhood.

The next step should be a reminder that libraries ought to remain lush, strange and slightly irrational in their collections. David Bowie’s fascinating recent list of 100 favourite books makes a good case for this, as several of them are quirky, half-forgotten titles no longer in print, never mind available as ebooks. Copies are probably now being hunted high and low by thousands of fans. Until recently, they would have turned up in odd corners of local libraries but these days many libraries have been relentlessly cleared of anything that isn’t borrowed every week or two. As the visionary librarian Gabriel Naudé wrote in 1627, one should remember the motto: “That there is no Book whatsoever, be it never so bad or decried, but may in time be sought for by some person or other.”

Campbell ends this marvellous book with another good motto: “libraries are places of imagination.” They must be efficient machines but the best ones are a little crazy, too. Long may they stay that way.

Sarah Bakewell is a former curator at the Wellcome Library and author of ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’ (Vintage)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article