A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It probably wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that some of the most popular books amongst book bloggers are actually books about books! And to take that a bit further, who would argue that the next best thing to a book about books must surely be a book about libraries? 🙂 Authors like Alberto Manguel and Borges have of course written extensively and lyrically about libraries (real and imagined), and so this small and unassuming, but very pretty, volume might seem to be a more modest addition to the canon of works about libraries. However, what’s that old saying about never judging a book by its cover….?

“A Library Miscellany” has just been issued by Bodleian Library Publishing (who were kind enough to provide a review copy), and this unpretentious book is actually filled with riches on the stories of the libraries we love. “Miscellany” is an apt word here, as the book is arranged in bite-sized chunks covering such fascinating topics as “Lighting a Library” (hint: avoid naked flames…). “Some Fictional Libraries of Note”, Library Philanthropists, cataloguing methods, classification methods, statistics on type of books borrowed, number of books borrowed, largest libraries, oldest libraries, busiest libraries – the list is seemingly endless, and it’s all captivating for anyone who loves books and where they live…

Trinity Library, Dublin

For someone who loves the institutions and thought she knew quite a lot about them, I actually learned a lot from the book! For example, did you know that there was a specific type of handwriting librarians had to learn called ‘Library hand’? And that loose leaf card catalogues were invented in France in the aftermath of the Revolution? Or that the Vatican had a secret library? I could go on and on, as the book is full of wonderful nuggets as well as paragraphs on particular library treasures or library philanthropists or famous librarians (yes, my beloved Larkin gets a mention).

“A Short History of Public Libraries” was revealing; and the fact that philosopher David Hume was once a librarian was news to me too. I was also stunned to read about UNESCO’s World Digital Library, which I have somehow managed to miss and which has turned into a bit of a rabbit-hole I’m struggling to get out of at the moment, as it’s eminently browsable. The book also brought back happy memories of my early library-visiting days; I’m old enough to remember card indexes and cardboard library cards – you were limited when taking books out to the amount of cards you had. Yes, digital systems are so much more convenient, but I can’t help a certain nostalgia for the old analogue ones…

British Museum Reading Room

One of the most striking things the “Miscellany” did for me, however, was to highlight the role of universities in the evolution of libraries and the almost symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. It seems that so many libraries grew out of the university connection and yet the latter cannot function without a very well-stocked version of the former… The quote in the heading of this post is most apposite and I don’t imagine we could have libraries without universities or vice versa.

I’m not backward about coming forward and singing the praises of libraries and how important they still are, and in fact I’ve being made good use of my local one recently and gone on about it a lot here on the Ramblings. The press release for “Miscellany” calls it an “extended love letter to the library” and goes on to say “Their existence means our cultural knowledge, history and literary output is protected, organised and, above all, available to anyone.” I can’t argue with that, and Claire Cock-Starkey has produced an excellent collection of fascinating facts, stories, information, statistics and histories to celebrate one of our favourite institutions.

If I had any gripes, I would say that I would have liked the book to be bigger and longer (!) and perhaps have included some illustrations too. However, that’s a very minor quibble, and “A Library Miscellany” as it is would make the perfect gift for any book-and-library-lover you know (or even for yourself…) If you ever needed to be reminded what a thing of great wonder and beauty a library is, this lovely little book will do just that.

Review copy provided by Bodleian Library Publishing via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!