A Social History of Books and Libraries from Cuneiform to Bytes

by Patrick M. Valentine. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2012. 203 pp. $60.00 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8108-8570-7.

Students of book and library history will find Valentine’s study an indispensible guide that examines how social forces shaped the production and dissemination of written text. Valentine’s undertaking regarding the relationship between books and their social contexts comes at a crucial moment, as further technological innovations and economic uncertainty force readers to consider how the written word and public libraries serve the needs of users in light of recent budget cuts. In “Introduction: Written Information and Beyond,” the author begins with brief quotes from a number of well-known writers, like Francis Bacon and, more recently, Roy Blount, Jr., in order to provide a framework for the trajectory of the chapter. While defining key terms like “data,” “information,” and “knowledge,” Valentine argues that studying the physical book can tell us much about the transmission and preservation of written language. As Valentine further points out, he is concerned about analyzing “histories” of books as well as providing a historical account of libraries, which have not received as much scholarly attention as the interdisciplinary “history of the book” (p. viii). More particularly, Valentine argues that his approach differs from that of Terrance Deacon and Stanislas Dehaene, whose research focuses on mental processes in the development of symbolic language. According to Valentine, his study focuses on what he calls the “externals,” meaning, “the traditional study of reading and writing as typified especially in the medium of the book and its republication of knowledge through the use of libraries” (p. x). Each chapter, focusing on a historical period in the production of books or development of libraries, begins with quoted excerpts from culturally significant figures, which contextualize the importance of the transmission of the written word at that time.

Although brief, students will appreciate the first three chapters of Valentine’s book, which provide a foundational overview of early approaches to writing and preserving written information. In the first chapter, “Early Books,” Valentine discusses the impact of early writing instruments used until the mid-fifteenth century, including clay tablets, papyrus reeds, animal skins and paper, which served as memory devices. By mentioning the historian Harold Adams Innis in assessing how “time-based” and “space-based” surfaces influence the transmission and reception of information (p.2), Valentine argues that the difference between these distinctions have been blurred as a result of digital innovations. Furthermore, the “feedback loop” is an important concept to which Valentine returns in subsequent chapters, in order to talk about how writing instruments served the cultural needs of societies. Notably, in talking about the impact of culture and society on writing, Valentine discusses the absence of written records among the oral cultures of ancient India. He also agrees with Wendy Doniger’s argument that weather conditions and cultural attitudes towards animal skins played a significant role in shaping the oral transmission of information. The second chapter, “Early Libraries,” begins with a consideration of contemporary and traditional definitions of libraries. Valentine, then, briefly discusses the development of ancient libraries under Tiglath-Pilester I, the Assyrian king who ruled more than one thousand years before Christ. The Alexandrian Library in Egypt, founded by Ptolemy I, as well as the Trajan Library in Rome serve as examples of culturally driven efforts to preserve the written word. Equally impressive is the earliest-known catalogue as well as Islamic and Chinese libraries. The third chapter, “Books and Printing,” offers insights on Chinese and Korean innovations in xylography and block printing in the fifteenth century. As Valentine points out, printed books in Western Europe, more so than in Asia or the Middle East, enabled the spread of literacy and the exchange of ideas that further hastened the Reformation.

The second half of Valentine’s study assesses critical moments in the histories of libraries and books. The fourth chapter, “Libraries in the Renaissance and Beyond,” provides a detailed account of the consequences of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation on the print revolution and the distribution of books. Furthermore, Valentine analyzes the role of economics and politics on centers of bookselling and the subsequent development of printing in Holland, which provided a refuge for oppressed religious minorities. Serial publications and what Valentine calls the “multitude of books” presented European librarians like Gabriel Naudé with significant challenges, as scientific societies began publishing records requiring cataloguing and preservation. Valentine further mentions Naudé’s groundbreaking library textbook in 1627, which John Evelyn later translated into English. In mentioning Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Valentine not only traces the influence of printing on the exchange of ideas in the public sphere, but he also notes that printing served elite interests as well. Readers will find the fourth chapter valuable for its treatment of popular public libraries in England and across the European continent. Chapters five and six, “Modern Print and Culture” and “American Libraries” offer similarly informative accounts of the impressive growth of printing in the nineteenth century, with the introduction of the paperback as well as innovations in communication and transportation. Additionally, readers will find Valentine’s historical account of public as well as college and university libraries valuable for what it may tell us about the impact of culture on how information is preserved and accessed. Finally, scholars and students alike not only will benefit greatly from Valentine’s thorough and well-written book, but they will find the extensive bibliography similarly useful for further study.

Cecilia Bonnor

Houston, Texas