No One Wants to Be a Stereotype


No one wants to be a stereotype. That is, no one purposely seeks to be something of a byword, a parody, or something that others might smile at, amusingly. I would hazard to say that no child has ever said, “I want to be a stereotype when I grow up!” For example, no car mechanic drives his personal car under a shade tree to begin work. And I think it’s safe to say that some preachers don’t really want to sound peachy all the time, and many professors eschew professing in off hours. Okay, two out of three isn’t bad.

But I’m going to risk the stereotype of a librarian by not only writing about a book, but also writing about a book titled The Library: A World History. Honestly, how much more stereotypical can you get? I’m saved in part because my hair is too short for a bun.

This gorgeous book is really library-porn. Or maybe it’s just book-porn for anyone who loves libraries, and that includes many people who are not librarians, and even excludes some who are. (Don’t ask me why, but some librarians bristle at those who automatically think all librarians love books.)

Architectural historian James Campbell and photographer Will Pryce decided a few years back that what the world needed was a glorious picture book about the world’s libraries. Right here, smack dab (as we say in the South, but again, don’t ask me why) waist-deep in our digital age, these two embarked on a photosafari in search of the great libraries of the world, and documented them in print. At the end of their journeys, they ‘bagged’ more than eighty of the most wonderful enchanting, and sacrosanct book repositories from one end of the earth to the other. Theirs isn’t the first such book—others have been done—but theirs may be the most comprehensive and eye-pleasing.

Awash in color photographs, these libraries come alive on the page, from the smallest and most unassuming to the largest and most garish. Campbell sought to document the architectural history, the why and the how libraries developed as they did. His text is as intriguing as the photographs, from his discussion about medieval libraries and their development, to Asia’s fascinating “open air” libraries. It sounds trite to say it, I know, but if you pick this book up, you’ll be hard pressed to put it back down until you have gorged on the gorgeous.

I have seen many of these libraries in person and it was like seeing old friends with whom I have not caught up with in ages. Others I not only had not seen, still others I didn’t even know about. What’s more, the book has something for everyone, whether your tastes run to the traditional, as do mine, or the flamboyantly modern, as do those who should see a physician (but I jest), whatever your tastes, you’ll find something here to feast your eyes upon.

The Strahov Abbey library in Prague is so small and quaint as to be missed by most. When my wife and I visited it one July, the weather was dreadful: driving rains and about 48 degrees. Still, it proved the best day out of thirty we spent in Hungary. Pryce captures it perfectly. The Admont Abbey Library (Admont, Austria), gleams in almost alabaster snow. The perfect rococo design from the gold cornices on columns to the checkerboard floor proves the point Campbell makes: this library was not meant for study but to impress. It does that in spades. Finally, there is the magisterial Escorial Library in Spain. What a delight it is to view this library that became the trendsetter for all that followed after it in 1585: books were used there first to decorate the walls. It doesn’t hurt, either that the ceiling is a piebald of frescoes of saints and personifications of the liberal arts and sciences by Pellegrino Tibaldi. It just has to be seen to be believed. I know it’s theologically insipid, but I like to think that heaven will look something like this, or at least have a library like this!

Of course, the authors could have easily made a digital book. Indeed, many of the libraries are indeed online, and some of them in great detail. But seeing them in color on high quality paper gives them a life that so far anyway cannot be replicated in pixels (and is the reason I didn’t include any links in this post). But I’m glad they didn’t ‘go digital,’ and you will be too when you open the book for the first time.

Maybe I am a stereotype and don’t know it. But this is one time I’m fine with that. If there is a booklover in your life, you must get them this book. Perhaps we are approaching a time when libraries will become obsolete. But seeing these libraries assures me that that isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, or in yours.

And that fact–and this book–makes me want to break out in the Hallelujah chorus!

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