The Library: A World History Presents a Stunning Visual Survey of The World’s Great Libraries


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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Look Inside Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Per­son­al Library

The Odd Col­lec­tion of Books in the Guan­tanamo Prison Library

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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