Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Library: an Illustrated History by Stuart A. P. Murray

This is a fascinating book incorporating beautiful illustrations and images and insightful quotations and descriptions to take us on an informative journey through the history of our libraries. It is an eloquent account of this indispensable and remarkable institution from its earliest times to the present. "A great library cannot be constructed," the nineteenth-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton reminded us in The Book Hunter, "It is the growth of ages."

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the charismatic mayor of New York City, Fiorello H. La Guardia, took to the airwaves for a series of Sunday night broadcasts in which he would speak directly to his constituents, keeping them appraised of world events, giving them all an encouraging pep talk. At the end of each program, it was his custom to conclude his remarks with the words "patience and fortitude", calm advice that he felt would see everyone safely through the long ordeal that lay ahead. So inspirational was his message of comfort and hope that "Patience and Fortitude" were adopted as the unofficial names of the majestic lions carved from pink Tennessee marble that guard the entryway to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. With concern in some quarters that technology has rendered 21st century libraries quaint and archaic, these names have taken on renewed significance.

In the early months of 2009, when we faced a financial crisis, news reports began to crop up that libraries were busier than ever, a circumstance made especially curious by the fact that so many of them were among the first to suffer severe cutbacks in funding. In New York, attendance for 2008 was up 13 percent over the previous year, circulation reached 21.1 million items, an increase of close to 4 million. Similar patterns were evident from coast to coast, with the ALA reporting more active borrowing cards in use nationally than at any other time in history. Americans visited their libraries some 1.3 billion times in 2008, and checked out more than 2 billion items. "It's a national phenomenon," the ALA's president told NBC News. "Library use is up everywhere." Too bad it takes hard times for some people to appreciate libraries.

This volume speaks to the book lover in all of us, while offering a panoramic view of the history of libraries across the centuries.

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