Voluminously well-read author and amateur librarian Alberto Manguel opens The Library at Night, a compendious treatise on the role of the library in human culture, with a startlingly bleak question. “Why then do we do it?” He asks, why do we “continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf” when “outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.” Manguel goes on—in beautifully illustrated chapter after themed chapter—to list in fine detail the host of virtues each of his favorite libraries possesses, answering his own question by reference to the beautiful microcosmic orders great libraries manifest.
A new book, The Library: A World History by author James Campbell and photographer Will Pryce, takes a more workmanlike approach to the subject, steering clear of Manguel’s metaphysics. Even so, the book will deeply move lovers of libraries and historians alike, perhaps even to ecstasy. One Amazon reviewer put it simply: “Book Porn at its best.”
Boing Boing calls Pryce’s photographs “the centerpiece of the book,” and you can see why in a couple of selections here. Even without his eyesight, this is a project that would have delighted that rhapsodist of the library, Jorge Luis Borges. At the top, see the Strahov Abbey library in Prague. Halfway across the world, we have the Tripitaka Koreana library in South Korea (above). CNN has a gallery of Pryce’s photographic tributes to the world’s greatest libraries, and find here a critical review of the book by The Guardian’s Tom Lamont, who laments that the book solely “focuses on institutions created for the privileged.”