The first institution that we might recognize as a library dates back about 5000 years, to a collection of stone tablets inscribed with cuneiform script in the ancient city of Ebla (in what’s now Syria). The desire to curate knowledge so it can be shared feels timeless. This notion of pooling resources inside one ‘house’ where people can gather to learn, to discuss ideas, to swap stories, to find community is one that has survived the ages.
Libraries began, mostly, in religious institutions — like the Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 by a woman. All hail Fatima al-Fihri, who used her inheritance to start a university, mosque, and library still operating today. In the Middle Ages, monks were at the helm of learning, spending years creating illuminated manuscripts that were chained to the shelves to prevent them from wandering away.
But soon, where soon is a few hundred years, the printing press and cheap paper meant that books could be in the hands of just about everyone. Penny dreadfuls and dime novels could be found in the same cities as dignified gilt-edged, Morocco leather volumes, and that mix of high and low is exactly what libraries should be.
The library is a sacred and celebratory place, filled with objects, yes — but inside those objects are imagination and possibility, heartbreak and triumph, silliness and seriousness and the whole range of human emotion and the entire history of science and art and philosophy… so far.
In this episode, we discuss some of the highlights and larger-than-life personalities of library history, then recommend books we love that put the library front and center. We’ve got two wonderfully nerdy nonfiction books that explore bookshelves and archives, a sweeping literary cycle centered around a magical library, a historical novel with dueling timelines, and an exuberant story about a secret library.
Plus, a chat with Frank Collerius, manager of the Jefferson Market Library branch of the New York Public Library and co-host of the podcast The Librarian Is In.
Read the full transcript of Episode 15: The Library.
There was a magic about being in a library the felt private and public which I loved. … I wanted to create a physical environment for people to find magic, to find solace, to find meaning, to find value in their life. That was my focus. — Frank Collerius
Frank Collerius is the manager of the Jefferson Market Branch (JML) of the New York Public Library. Under Frank’s management, the JML has become one of the most creative and proactive libraries in the New York Public Library system. In 2017, he was honored with the 2017 Village Award from the Greenwich Villate Society for Historic Presentation for his kickass work at the Library. He is also the co-host of the podcast, “The Librarian Is In.” He and his co-host Rhonda Evans interview guests from the world of libraries and beyond, discuss the books they’re reading, and recommend their favorite titles with equal parts humor, passion, and knowledge.
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This is a reading room in the oldest library in the world: the Al-Qarawiyyin library in Fez, Morocco. It was founded in 859, a mere 1100 years ago. To give you an idea just how old that is... this library was being built around the same time that algebra—also a Muslim invention, BTW—was making its way to Europe. Wanna get even more excited? The library was founded by a woman! Her name was Fatima al-Fihri, and we can only assume she was often described as 'uppity,' what with her interest in education and all. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she used her inheritance to establish a learning complex that included this library, as well as a university and mosque. In 2012, the Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni (@zizachaouniprojects) was commissioned to rehabilitate the library and to restore its intricate cedar carvings, tile work, marble foundations, and distinctive arches. The restoration also revealed some surprises: secret, hidden rooms behind boarded-up walls and doors. The library houses 4000 rare books, including a 9th century copy of the Qur’an on camel skin, written in Kufic script—the oldest calligraphic form of Arabic. Nicely done, Fatima and Aziza. #morocco #moroccotravel #fez #fezmorocco #qarawiyyin #strongsenseofplace
Medieval Chain Libraries: In the Middle Ages, books were chained to the shelves. This is an excellent piece — with photos! — about one of the last five chained libraries in the world. It dates from 1564 and is located in Zutphen in the eastern part of the Netherlands.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: This private subscription library was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. It’s still operating today as a research library, specializing in materials from the 17th to 19th centuries in the United States. website
The Leeds Library: This is the oldest surviving subscription library of its type in the UK and was founded in 1768 by 21 miners, a minister, and a schoolmaster. website
Morgan Library & Museum: Located in New York City, it was once the private library of J.P. Morgan and is now a museum, research library, music venue, and architectural landmark. website. Our write-up. Online tour of the library.
Folger Shakespeare Library: Home to the world’s most extensive Shakespeare collection, located in Washington, DC. Official site. website.
Huntington Library: A research library, art museum, and botanical garden established by Henry E. Huntington (railroad magnate and book collector), located in San Marino, California. website
The Rosenbach: The Rosenbach in Philadelphia, PA, offers exhibitions, programs, and tours showcasing rare books, manuscripts, and art. The heart of their collection is Bram Stoker’s original handwritten notes for Dracula. website
Mary Kingsbury: The first school librarian in the US. Yes, Mary! Read all about her here.
Belle da Costa Green: She was the librarian for the Morgan Library, beginning in 1905, and she is an amazing woman. Some links to learn more: The New York Times review of her biography; a piece on Medium; her bio on the Morgan website; the biography An Illuminated Life by Heidi Ardizzone.
The Human Library: The Human Library challenges stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. The Human Library is a place where people are books on loan to readers for a conversation about their lives. website
Alaska Taxidermy Library: The Alaska Resources Library and Information Service (ARLIS) allows card holders to check out hundreds of taxidermied animals and bones for study. Smithsonian Magazine has a nice write-up.
The New York Society Library: Founded in 1754, New York City’s oldest library is a membership library and community of readers, writers, and families. website
The Voynich manuscript: The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated 240-page codex hand-written in an unknown language. The first confirmed owner was a 17th-century alchemist in Prague. It passed through Rome, the hands of the Jesuits, and a Polish bookseller before it ended up at Yale’s Beinecke Library. The Wikipedia page has extensive info, and here’s an article about the 2017 premier of the Voynich Symphony David mentioned in the show.
George Washington’s overdue library book: The former president borrowed The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel on 5 October 1789, and 221 years later, the New York library realized he’d never returned it. His fine? $300,000. Read all about it.
The Evolution of the Book: Both of us spoke briefly about the evolution of books. This is a great video on the subject:
Michel Duclos combines high quality curving credibility with a range of items for an impromptu gathering. A mystery bag, upturned wine glasses, a kettle. A mask! A gong? And a bag stored up high. A costume, perhaps. Eyes Wide Shut might break out at any moment. pic.twitter.com/fUIUWo7Nip— Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility) August 19, 2020
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival: Annuaul comics convention held in Toronto, Canada. website
Tillie Walden on Manga: Tille was the guest on our podcast episode Japan: Family Honor and Super-Cute Stuff.
Robin Sloan’s newsletter: The author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore writes an excellent newsletter (here’s the 2019 archive) and is active on Twitter. Both are recommended.
The Library of Alexandria: The Great Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.
Rachel Kadish on the cover of her book: This essay by the author of The Weight of Ink is what drew Melissa to the novel. It’s a fascinating look at the author’s process and the importance of story.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The beloved author of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle can be your tour guide to Barcelona. Here’s his NYTimes piece about five places to visit in his home city. He was also a gifted piano player and composer:
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Top image courtesy of Ryan DeBerardinis.
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