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Posted on 14 Nov 2017 in Non-Fiction |

STUART KELLS The Library: A catalogue of wonders. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Stuart Kells gives us an entertaining and enlightening history of the pursuit, collection and housing of books.

Kells, a book-trade historian, begins by looking at the songlines and oral traditions that collected myths and legends long before they were written down. The Arrernte people in central Australia were developing a system of gathering tribal knowledge and ethics tens of thousands of years ago. The dreaming tracks have been of scientific interest ever since the 1906 publication of Mythes et legendes d’Australie (by Arnold van Gennep). In 1971 Ted Strehlow published Songs of Central Australia, which attracted the attention of Bruce Chatwin, who in January 1983 retraced Strehlow’s journeys. After a second trip to Australia, Chatwin wrote Songlines, published 30 years ago. Kells also mentions Nomads of the Australian Desert, by anthropologist Charles P Mountford, which is one of the earliest examples of a book being withdrawn from sale because of Indigenous cultural sensitivity.

As with The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu, there is much to commend here for readers in the #GLAM industries (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). The book provides details of many interesting processes of preservation and the pitfalls of collecting and curating manuscripts. It looks at the personalities and motives of the collectors and the desire to accumulate human knowledge. While there are many heroic stories, this is also about the not-so-pure adventurers, speculators and the censorious.

The boys-own-adventure approaches to the tales of acquiring will thrill and amuse general readers who have a fascination for the odd, obscure and mildly revolting facts exemplified by Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

The chapter ‘Library Fauna’ begins by noting that the prevalence of bedbugs in US libraries was of such concern to public health officials that they employed bedbug sniffer dogs to inspect infested libraries. In loving and lurid detail Kells outlines how an ‘animal kingdom of book botherers’  has destroyed valuable collections and books. He details the struggles of monks in the Middle Ages who had to decide which manuscripts to rescue and which to sacrifice in order to defend books in buildings infested with mice. This glorious history of destruction ends with the story of the McArthur River Institute in Borroloola in Australia’s Gulf country and makes connections with Gerald Murnane’s fictional library in The Plains.

The fascinating background politics to the history of movements of libraries and collections is well covered. The travails of the Vatican Library, dated from c385 CE, are detailed. The library moved with the popes of Avignon before returning to Rome, where more venal popes sold off the treasures. In medieval times libraries could be valuable prizes for conquerors or they could be used to light fires. There are sad tales of the burning of books and the ransackings of collections that had been accumulated over centuries. There are many heroic efforts to save manuscripts from marauders and vandals during the Dark Ages, from monks in particular. Kells notes that libraries in the Arab world and Far East thrived in these times.

Peppered throughout are stories of how literary figures responded to libraries. There are anecdotes and references to the works of writers such as Zafon and Canetti, which lead to one of the book’s highlights for me – an examination of the great imaginary libraries of Borges, Eco and Tolkien. The forensic detailing of the history of the libraries in Tolkien’s works is a delight:

… the family seats of all the major Hobbit clans collect the types of shelf-filling volumes that can be found in every second-hand bookshop in Britain: genealogy, local history, poetry, cooking, gardening, sport and true crime. Shire readers especially delight in tales of burglars, heroes and ‘things that are never seen seen or done’. More popular still are books filled with things that Hobbits already know, ‘set out fair and square with no contradictions.

The book details how great libraries have come about from the first great collection at Alexandria through to the Bodleian. Collectors like Bodley and JP Morgan, who established libraries, knew that they would become a magnet for books and collections:

For however many centuries, Alexandria had preserved and promoted the Greek literary heritage. In turn, that tradition passed to the great libraries of Constantinople  – the Imperial, Patriarch and University libraries – which maintained it for another thousand years. Though scholars at those libraries produced little that was new or creative, they edited, annotated and elucidated the standard classical texts, thereby guarding them for the future.

Kells deals swiftly with Andrew Carnegie building public libraries in 19th-century America, and the development of libraries in the 20th century and in the digital crossroads of the 21st century. He notes the rise and fall of technologies and the danger obsolete storage methods present to the preservation of knowledge. The fall of the card catalogue has led us to a world where data rules and knowledge, learning and information can still be contained, despite the open-culture movement and access to Google.

In a book which deals with the founding and loss of manuscripts through politics, war and neglect, Kells warns of the ephemeral nature of some digital storage. The electronic Domesday Book, in which over a million people took part, was recorded onto laser disks. Within 16 years the digital data had virtually disappeared:

Only after a massive recovery effort – that involved painstaking unpicking of hexadecimal data, and resort to the original analogue mastertapes – could the ‘book’ be read. All the while the original, thousand year-old Domesday Book housed in Kew remained entirely readable.

There is much more that is delicious and fascinating in this book. Kells details how men have died in their libraries and looks at librarians, famous and infamous. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s defacing of books at Islington Library is given a loving retelling. For this librarian, who culls his personal library on a constant basis, this one’s a keeper.

Stuart Kells The Library: A catalogue of wonders Text Publishing 2017 PB 288pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at

You can buy The Library from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.