SSoP Podcast Episode 15 — The Library: Endless Books, Reading Nooks, and Lots of Possibility

SSoP Podcast Episode 15 — The Library: Endless Books, Reading Nooks, and Lots of Possibility

Monday, 21 September, 2020

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.

The Weight of Ink

buy | read review

The Book on the Bookshelf

buy | read review

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

buy | read review


buy | read review

The Labyrinth of the Spirits

buy | read review

The Shadow of the Wind

buy | read review

The Angel's Game

buy | read review

The Prisoner of Heaven

buy | read review

other books we mentioned

our charming guest

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.


other cool stuff we talked about

  • Al-Qarawiyyin Library: The oldest continually operating library and university in the world.
  • 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.

black and white photo of mary kingsbury
Mary Kingsbury, awesome librarian
  • 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:

  • 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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