The Library by James Campbell book cover
The Library: A World History (2013) by James W. P. Campbell, with photographs from Will Pryce, is an architectural history of library design. From ancient Mesopotamia to the modern world, the book traces the development of libraries through the ages, not only from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but also looking at ways of storing information and creating a space for scholars and readers. With accompanying photography, this is a survey of the big, beautiful libraries designed, as artistic endeavours, to be adored. The high concepts of information storage are all here, wrapped up not in the functional library of daily use, but in delicious, voluminous spaces, intended to make an impression.

From clay tablets and scrolls in the Ancient World to Medieval European libraries where manuscripts were chained to shelving or desks, on to the lavish baroque and rococo design of the 17th and 18th centuries, and, finally, to the modern information space, The Library encompasses the great themes in library design through the ages. The history that spans two millennia is well-organised, and rich in detail. With the splendid photography, it would be easy to see this book, like many of the libraries featured, as purely an aesthetic project, but it is certainly more than this. Campbell’s text, although occasionally tipping into the overly academic, is full of enthusiasm; The Library is a delicate and informative guide to the history of libraries and methods of housing information.

The need for purpose to be balanced with aesthetics is a topic raised in the book, and Campbell acknowledges the tension between architect and librarian, design and functionality. While the libraries featured are sumptuous, there’s something rather unpleasant about treating books as design objects – little in library design sets one on edge as much as seeing bay upon bay of perfectly uniform, specially bound volumes, identical in size, shade, and lack of use. But one has to accept that the libraries featured here are grand libraries; not the sort enjoyed on a daily basis, but the sort one marvels at – pure pornography, really.

Will Pryce’s photography makes the most of this. He captures the outstanding grandiosity of the libraries included brilliantly, and creates a real sense of each space. The images are the perfect complement to the highly informative text, and Pryce’s photographs are reproduced in exquisite detail and laid out to provide a pleasing balance between the text and images. The Library, then, is a large, beautifully designed object, which is a pleasure to peruse.

This is a book for all admirers of libraries; a testament to both the human desire to preserve and cherish knowledge, and to the craft and one-upmanship of the architects who designed these beautiful spaces, not purely as functional repositories but as statements of artistic intent. At a time where libraries are closing at an alarming rate, it is all the more important to celebrate not just the beauty of the few but the spirit of the many. Pondering the future of libraries, and whether they will be a part of our future as well as our past, Campbell says this: “Humankind has created an extraordinary variety of spaces in which to read, to think, to dream and to celebrate knowledge. As long as it continues to value these activities, it will continue to build places to house them. Whether they will involve books or will still be called libraries only time will tell”.

Quite honestly, this is a wonderful book. I know I'm basically the absolute prime target audience for this, but I'm still right: it's super.

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