Book Review: A Brief Outline Of The History Of Libraries

A Brief Outline Of The History Of Libraries, by Justus Lipsius, translated by John Cotton Dana

This is the sort of book that is likely to appeal to a very small audience of people, namely those who either work for libraries or have their own book collections, but such people are likely to appreciate it greatly. The translator of this book spends a fair amount of time, before getting down to the translation, in seeking to justify why this book and its author deserve to be remembered. Apparently, Justus Lipsius was a 16th century writer who was most famous for his teaching and enjoyment of nice books, had a bit of a difficult style in Latin, and had a tendency to switch religions alarmingly often, starting out as a Jesuit and being a Lutheran and Calvinist and then a Roman Catholic again. I suppose this would be of interest to the few people who are interested in the gossip of 16th century intellectuals, but I am not really such a person myself. Of greater interest is the fact that this particular book has often been plagiarized so often in order to bolster accounts of early libraries.

This book really consists of two sections of unequal length. The first part of the book looks at the records of historical libraries from antiquity, namely those in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The author does his best to scour the texts that were available to him, with some reasonable interpretation of doubtful passages, to show where and how large and how many public libraries there were, and how they were often connected with heathen temples. He makes a plug for scholars to be supported by the government, as they were in Ptolemaic Egypt, which is not too surprising, I would imagine. This section of the book is filled with quotes about libraries by Livy, Plutarch, Martial [1], and many others. The books also discuss one of the alarming patterns of ancient life, and that is the fact that libraries themselves were highly vulnerable to destruction on account of political difficulties and that even when libraries did not burn they were often moved by rulers who wished to steal the credit of previous generations. When you add to this the fragility of the written text, it is not surprising that libraries fared so badly in the ancient world and why so little is known for sure about them now.

The second part of the book talks about the decoration of the book. It is in this section, which is mercifully short, that the author talks about putting the busts of writers in libraries, a practice that strikes at least some readers as a bit idolatrous. My own library, such as it is, would likely have horrified the author with the books inelegantly stacked on the shelves, with few aesthetic touches to make the books beautiful, but with a keen eye towards practicality and organization of materials. In fact, in my larger library in Florida, I made up my own scheme of organizing the books, which is not hard to do if one has enough books to manage, and I do. My collection certainly does not rank along with those discussed in this book, of kings and emperors and generals and even famous philosophers. Yet size alone is not the only quality which makes libraries treasured, but also the quality of the works therein. This book, although short, is a quality volume, if an obscure one.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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