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The Stories our Libraries Tell

A person’s memory may only last a lifetime, but the collective human memory has endured for eons. The stories of those who came before us are told to us through their books, art and language. Though the value of these lasting works is undeniable, their very existence in the present day must lead the inquisitive reader to wonder: “How did this book, so far from its original place of production and reception, reach me in the present?” This is the very question posed by Jennifer Summit in her new book, Memory’s Library, which explores the origins of the modern library.

Although libraries are significant because of the books they hold, Summit, an English professor and chair of the English Department at Stanford University, wants us to see libraries as more than storehouses of recorded knowledge. The library should not be thought of as, in the words of Michael Foucault, “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages.” Instead, these collections of books have been contested spaces, deeply embroiled in the social and political debates of their time.

Memory’s Library focuses on English libraries between 1431 and 1631, a period marked by the far-reaching reverberations of the English Reformation. The history of the modern library begins in the monasteries, where reading was regarded as crucial to the preservation of cultural memory. With the dissolution of the monasteries, England’s largest stores of books fell into the hands of private collectors, a change in ownership that strongly affected the way the books were read. “The same books, but in different places, can mean completely different things,” says Summit. “For example, a monastery classifies a religious vision as a work of history, but in the Parker Library after the Reformation, it’s classified as a work of fiction.”

Summit’s work is as much about the men behind the libraries as it is about the libraries themselves. Memory’s Library explores the motivations of the men who came to preside over England’s literary legacy, influential men such as Thomas More, the first lay chancellor of England, Thomas Bodley, the founder of Oxford’s first library and Sir Francis Bacon, the famed philosopher and scientist. Far from passively preserving the past, the library makers deliberately selected their books in order to advance a specific agenda. Indeed, Sir Robert Cotton would take apart the bindings of his books and rearrange their components into new volumes. These English collectors recognized that “those who made libraries made history.”

In our age of digitization, Summit’s scholarship on libraries takes on an increasingly important role. Since Google made public its plans to scan the collections of five prominent universities, much attention has been paid to the digital library. Often, praise for these electronic collections is accompanied by marked predictions of the end of physical libraries. “In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail,” writes Kevin Kelly in the New York Times Magazine. “On this screen, now visible to one billion people on earthy, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Despite these promises of universal knowledge, Summit maintains that there is still a place for physical libraries: “In an age when information overload threatens to shut down, rather than expand, the capacities of the human mind, the most valuable resource that brick-and-mortar libraries have to offer is librarians, whose informed judgment can guide readers through the overwhelming mass of written information that’s now out there.”

Perhaps the popularization of electronic books will help us appreciate the strengths of brick-and-mortar libraries. Although search technology may allow us to one day explore the entire human record, the most powerful search engine in the world cannot replace the expert librarians who can prove invaluable to the researcher. While the digital library will greatly expand our collective literary horizons, traditional libraries still offer physical spaces where scholars and students can meet and collaborate with their peers. In the end, human memory will endure not because of the bytes or algorithms, but because of the men and women who chose to amass, preserve, and curate our shared history.