Cover of The Library by Stuart KellsI first heard of this book while listening to an interview with Stuart Kells on Radio National, and I was so excited to see a copy in my local library. When I got it home and started to read it, however, I soon realised that this book was not for me. It’s not so much a “catalogue of wonders” as it is a list of things that happened, some of which took place in libraries.
While there are definitely some interesting library facts in here (the re-evolution of libraries through the ages, for example), it’s primarily a book about bibliophiles (who like libraries), written by a bibliophile (who likes libraries), for other bibliophiles (who like libraries), and I was bored for most of it.
I have three major complaints (right now) about this book:

1. References

Kells references very few sources for his historical claims, and there is no reference list or bibliography. Kells seems to assume that we will just take what he’s saying about various people and places unquestioningly at face value. Sorry, no.

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2. Elitist?

While I’m sure it’s unintentional, there is an air of smug superiority throughout the text. Kells drops names and places and bits of Latin and French, and assumes (again) that we’re all as well-read as he is, that we all get these references and quiet asides. Some people, I have no doubt, will enjoy these immensely, but for the rest of us ignoramuses, the text is largely inaccessible.

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3. Grumpy old man pants: on!

In the opening chapter, Kells marvels at the intangible libraries inherent to the oral histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions (sometimes called songlines). Yet in the final chapter, entitled ‘A love letter: libraries for the future’ he puts his grumpy old man pants on and bemoans the digitisation of the book. Ironically, while this chapter is dedicated to the future of libraries, most of it is spent in the past, pulling out a few examples of where digitisation has failed, or hasn’t worked very well. Among his list of ‘why computers are bad for books’, Kells includes many complaints I’ve heard before: you can’t feel or smell a digital book; you can’t appreciate the workmanship in the cover or the fore-edge or the binding; you can’t browse in the same way and you lose the thrill of discovery. These are not complaints about digital books; they’re complaints about non-physical books, and the same complaints could be levelled at oral traditions from all over the world, from songlines to European folktales to urban legends. Kells’ veneration of oral traditions and opposition to digital books looks hypocritical to me.

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I wanted to love this book – to be convinced to buy a copy for my reference shelf. Instead, I’ll be sighing as I regretfully place it in the return chute at Preston Library next week.

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Book review: The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

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